Challenge cast member on its “toxic,” sexist, “dangerous,” abusive environment

Road Rules turned serial Challenge cast member Susie Meister has a long essay in Salon today about her MTV reality show experiences, which she compares to an abusive relationship. Highlights of the information and insight from her piece:

  • Despite being critical of the show and its production, Susie writes, “I have to acknowledge my role in the perpetuation of this culture. I’ve often described my relationship with the show as an abusive one in that after each season I swear I’ll never do another one, but time passes and they call, pay me a compliment, and I sign on the dotted line.”
  • She discusses “sanctioned violence and produced sexuality,” and says “during my seven seasons, I saw numerous gruesome physical altercations, outrageous verbal outbursts, and bullying among cast members.”
  • Susie says she “saw firsthand how hostile the atmosphere could be for women,” and details an incident where a male cast member tried to get on her bed, “behavior was still aggressive and unwelcome.” Because he wouldn’t stop, she punched him and he fell off the ladder to her bed, but producers were supportive and didn’t send her home; she’s not sure if that’s just because there was no footage of the incident.
  • Susie expresses some doubt over Tonya Cooley’s claim she was raped with a toothbrush, starting by calling the men involved “two of my best friends.” Susie writes that Tonya “claimed to know details about the incident despite being, by her own admission, unconscious. She said someone on the cast told her it happened. Despite being in the room during the time frame of the alleged incident, I did not see or hear an attack of any kind, nor would I, needless to say, have tolerated such behavior.” (The lawsuit was settled out of court.)
  • Despite the skepticism over that incident, Susie writes, “During my time on the shows I have seen the cast exhibit a mob mentality where individuals are singled out and bullied for being different, slutty, prudish, fat, skinny, or having any number of perceived oddities or weaknesses. The allegations made by Cooley inspired great introspection on my part about just how dangerous the environment was.”
  • She discusses how the structure of the game leads to additional tension that fuels sexism: “Since the teams are coed, at times the women do not meet the athletic expectations of their male teammates, and are therefore seen as a nuisance or worse, exacerbating existing gender tensions.”
  • And just in case there was any doubt, Susie writes, “production provides the cast with an abundance of alcohol.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.