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The downfall of a protagonist is a tale as old as time.

But now, thanks to reality TV, instead of watching fictional characters fall from grace, we’re witnessing real people — people we may care for, or feel we know intimately — be accused of moral transgressions.

Former Navarro cheerleader and star of the Netflix docuseries Cheer, Jerry Harris, is one such figure.

After sharing his harrowing childhood and joyful “mat talk” in season one, Harris became a breakout success. He went on to be The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Oscar correspondent and appeared in an Instagram live chat with then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden in June 2020.

By September, everything changed.

The 22-year-old was arrested in his home by the FBI on a child pornography charge. Several charges have since been added, including sexual exploitation of children, and travelling with the attempt to engage in sexual conduct with a minor.

The fallout, which is documented in Cheer’s second season — released earlier this month — forces co-stars and audiences alike to wrestle with a complex, and increasingly common moral dilemma:

How should we react when someone we admired is charged with heinous crimes? And can we reconcile these allegations with the goodness we saw in them?

Oprah Winfrey and cast of Cheer on a stage, smiling.
Jerry Harris, and other Navarro cheerleaders, joined Oprah Winfrey on stage in February 2020.(Getty images: Suzanne Cordeiro)

Real people vs edited reality

For Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in The University of Melbourne’s school of social and political sciences, it’s important to remember that reality TV is actually an “orchestrated reality”.

She says the genre is driven by personalities rather than plot, so an awful lot of effort goes into casting characters — or in the case of Cheer, choosing which cheerleaders to centre on — and presenting their narrative.

While Cheer isn’t a classic reality TV format — it won the 2020 Emmy for Outstanding Structured Reality Program — it does dive heavily into the backstories of its stars.

Cheerleader Morgan Simianer, for example, reveals she was abandoned by her parents as a kid, teammate La’Darius Marshall shares that he was sexually abused during childhood, and Jerry Harris speaks of losing his mother to cancer during his teenage years.

Dr Rosewarne says that knowing a person’s history may lead us to rationalise why they behave in a certain way.

“We’re getting a very edited, curated version of a person,” she says.

“There’s a kind of built-in pop psychology for audiences, where we start to [ask], ‘Is that based on their, for example, traumatic childhood?'”

The docuseries follows the ups and downs of Navarro College's competitive cheer squad.
La’Darius Marshall, front, opened up on screen about his difficult childhood. (Supplied: Netflix)

Feeling ‘betrayed’ by reality stars

Tamara Cavenett, a clinical psychologist and president of the Australian Psychological Society, says it’s impossible to know a person fully from watching them on TV.

“No matter what information we get, we are always only getting a portion of someone’s world,” she says.

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