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Thoughts on ‘Reality Bites Back’

I love reality TV. I guess that means I’m feeding the machine that continues to create these shows, which I’ve written about before here. I can’t get enough of shows like Braxton Family Values, Real Housewives of Atlanta, NYC and Beverly Hills, Basketball Wives and even Bad Girls Club. Blame it on the 90s. I grew up watching Real World from its first season that debuted in 1992. Real World continued being my favorite show until Las Vegas season 12 in 2002. I caught a few seasons after, but it was no longer a must see. RW started out, well, real. It dealt with actual issues. Remember Tami Roman having an abortion on camera? Pedro Zamora dealt with living his life HIV positive. And Kevin Powell was one militant brother whose castmates did not appreciate his militancy. But eventually the network traded in the realness and began typecasting. Every season had the same characters– the token black, homosexual, bisexual, the “Angry Black Woman,” the drunk white boy and the violent cast member. That’s when they lost me as a viewer. Same thing happened with America’s Next Top Model. I was a diehard fan of that show until cycle 10.

My love for reality TV does not suggest that I am oblivious to the damaging images they portray. Perhaps even as a feminist who despises how these shows portray members of the LGBTQ community, minorities, women and men, I shouldn’t tune in. One of the biggest forms of activism is hurting corporations with your pockets. Here, TV ratings equals dollars. Hopefully one day I’ll give up reality TV altogether. Until then I do what I couldn’t at the age of eight when I began watching reality TV. I view it with a very critical eye.

A couple of days ago I finally finished Jennifer L. Pozner’s Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. Pozner is the founder/executive director of Women In Media & News. She is a journalist, media critic and activist. Oh, and she’s a feminist. In Reality Bites Back she deconstructs the myth that reality TV is just harmless entertainment. She analyzes how reality TV programming has become a prominent form of media that reinforces classism, sexism and racism.

For 10 years (from 2000-2010) Pozner spent over 1,000 hours monitoring unscripted television. In addition, she spoke with high school and college students across the country, dug up various interviews where network executives babbled about creating shows people want and she included countless sources from journals, books, magazine and newspaper articles and television segments on the topic. It is an understatement to say Pozner’s book is thoroughly researched.

I loved the book. I don’t have any critiques of it either (which if you’ve been reading my work for a while you know that is unlikely). I was definitely impressed with the two chapters she devoted to black reality TV shows, which she refers to as “modern day minstrel shows,” as well as her attention and advocacy throughout the book calling out the racism imbedded into these unscripted shows. Although the core of her book covers how reality TV’s depiction of women reinforces stereotypes that the Women’s Movement and feminism have fought against, Pozner covers every aspect of the truth about reality TV. From how it is produced and edited to create specific narratives to advertisers role in creating shows to women’s bodies to the promotion of consumerism to race to violence against women. Not one surface goes untouched. Pozner focuses on a number of shows in her analysis, but there was no way she could dissect every single reality show ever made. I particularly loved how candid she was. She called executives out by name. And I love how she went in on America’s Next Top Model. Her critique of how Tyra (and the show) reinforce racial stereotypes, unhealthy body images, eating disorders, etc. was nothing less than amazing. Reality Bites Back should be required reading beginning in high school. It is essential for the public, scholars and those of us who work within the media to understand the anti-feminism of reality TV programming (which all executives will deny) and how they continue to shape the public’s ideas about women, race, class, sexuality and love.

In opposed to writing a traditional review I’m going to include a few gems from the book.

Even as I write this, I can hear predictable responses: It’s the public’s fault! I’ve heard that song before. Whenever they’re criticized for airing emotionally exploitative or politically incendiary reality shows, networks parrot Mike Darnell’s claim: “We’re giving people what they want, pushing the envelope to match tastes.” I call bullshit…These shows exist for only one reason: They’re dirt cheap.

On a more subconscious level, we continue to watch because these shows frame their narratives in ways that both play to and reinforce deeply ingrained social biases about women and men, love and beauty, race and class, consumption and happiness in America.

The central conceit–that participants are “real people” experiencing “real emotions”–is used to hide the storytelling work of casting directors, writers, editors, videographers, and production teams, as well as advertisers who contribute to visuals, dialogue, and plot development.

In today’s society, mass media is our prime purveyor of that cultural hegemony–by which I mean that media is largely responsible for how we know what we know. In other words, media shape what we think of as “the truth” about “the way things are.” In that context, reality television is as much a dissemination mechanism for ideological persuasion as it is a means of entertainment.

Reality television makes stars out of certain kinds of young women (for example, those who don’t even know what automakers are, much less understand the complicated economic issues involved with a recession-era governmental bailout), while leaving female scholars, business leaders, community advocates, and other high achievers off the dial.

Flavor of Love’s large African American audience complicates viewership reception and impact, but doesn’t change the fact that Cronin and Abrego intended (consciously or not) to make racism fun again in the minds of millions of viewers–just as White and Black minstrel show producers did a century ago.

Producers centered race as the unspoken cause for their “low-class,” “ghetto” behavior. The old minstrel “dandy” in a newly gendered context, RHOA implied that all the money in the world couldn’t make rich black women civilized. And when season 1 castmate Deshawn Snow couldn’t be shoehorned as a dandy or an Angry Black Woman, she was promptly fired.

Pozner on Tyra’s attitude toward YaYa Decosta on ANTM:

Through the magic of editing, Yaya’s education and elegance became pretentiousness; her eloquence was characterized as showing off…YaYa was represented as an arrogant, Blacker-than-thou snob.

Pozner on advertising:

Advertisers–especially those who target women–intentionally undermine our self-esteem to position their brands as the solution to the insecurities they’ve piqued.

Reality TV’s racial typecasting, infantilizing fairytales, and hyperconsumerism–indeed, all the issues explored in Reality Bites Back–are a testament to what happens when advertisers expand the stories they tell from static print ads and thirty-second commercial breaks to feature-length programming. Using real people as their props, marketers have worked with producers to cultivate entire faux worlds based on sexist, racist ideologies. Worse, they have pretended the results are just reflecting–rather than attempting to shape–American life.

 

 

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