Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera: Shameful episodes from the history of trash TV

Wondery

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ABC’s cheesy anachronism The Bachelor returns this week, and it promises to deliver all of the sexist nonsense of previous years. Impossibly vain and fawning types will humiliate themselves to win the grand prize of this year’s self-regarding man-child. In this context, its rather strange to think that it was almost twenty years ago that British TV producers sought to flip the script on such dreadful formats and cookie-cutter contestants by putting a woman in the driving seat and casting young men as her desperate supplicants.

It was all very modern at the time. Very empowering. Except in their haste to produce something supremely edgy that would tip the television ratings-o-meter over with genius level ingenuity and freshness, the producers of There’s Something About Miriam actually created the perfect storm. The result was confusion, dehumanization, and the ridicule of all involved.

You see, the “thing” about Miriam was that she was a trans woman, and the title is an intended bawdy wink to the show’s audiences. A crass reference to Miriam’s genitals and a “roll up, roll up come and take a look at what we have here!” Now Trace Lysette’s podcast looks back — with twenty years of supposed growth under our collective societal belt — to examine what happened, what the intentions were, and how far we have really come since 2003. And it’s an eye-opener.

Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera is meant to challenge all audiences — but particularly cis audiences. Why was the original reality show so compelling to us? Was it really conceived to create public discussion about attraction between straights and trans folk? Or did it really seek to exploit its vulnerable protagonist and create a modern day freak show reality TV fans?

And crucially: was/is it an act of deceit (as was ultimately alleged) for trans men and women to conceal their birth sex to would-be romantic partners?

No awkward questions are swerved by this work, and as listeners we are treated to something depressingly rare in documentary podcasting — a full spectrum of perspectives. And boy does it make a difference.

We hear from the reality show’s producers who, while admitting they wouldn’t make such a clumsy show today, deny any bad intent. We hear from Tom, the winner Miriam ultimately selected, who speaks candidly about the contestants’ feelings of being deceived. And fascinatingly, we hear from a psychologist flown in last minute to evaluate the participants. He describes the deep shame many crew members began to feel in realizing that they were the dastardly puppeteers of this cruel and unscrupulous farce.

There are also cameos from legal experts and those who have studied the (often slow) evolution of trans issues and rights. But most importantly, we get to learn so much more about Miriam, who tragically died in mysterious circumstances in 2019. As a woman, as a dreamer, as a bright light in a world that eyed her rather quizzically — a predominantly straight world that was utterly beguiled by her, somewhat in spite of itself.

Occasionally heartbreaking, but often inspiring, this is an intelligent and non-indulgent piece of work. Despite its reality TV subject matter, it never stoops to the gutter. On the contrary, it holds its head high and dazzles. Just like Miriam.

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