The cultural trainwreck that is reality TV began with the tough but thoughtful Real World hitting viewers with the hard issues of racism, sexism, and the rest back when MTV was still primarily showcasing music videos. But within just a few years VH1 was replaying a 1998 Real World clip of a man slapping a woman as one of the “40 Greatest Reality TV moments.” As the so-called “reality” format went mainstream in the ’00s and viewers had begun to be seduced by misogyny-laced fairytale fantasies padded with predictably stereotyped casts, the station had to round up straying eyes for Jersey Shore with a video of a woman getting punched so hard in the face that her head flew back several feet. The assault quickly went viral. The promotional battery of “Snooki” likely saved the series.
But the innate anti-female agenda of reality TV isn’t always so brutally obvious. Jennifer Pozner’s new book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, offers a stern — and sickly hilarious — wakeup call to all “guilty pleasure” viewers and anyone concerned with the brutality of our new TV landscape. She is holding a workshop and a reading in San Antonio this week (see event listings at bottom).
With the inflexible formulas and outright manipulations of reality-styled programming, it’s a given that the genre’s handle is a complete misnomer. It’s likely that the more finely crafted overtly “fictitious” offerings of traditional TV dramas reveal more closely what is real about ourselves than anything found in the Real Housewives of wherever or seasonal offerings of The Bachelor. But the degree that such shows have come to dominate not only the networks but the more niche-orientated cable channels as well suggests our new televised landscape is now dominated by this extraordinarily low-cost, type-based format.
Just as so many television news stations have come to rely on pre-produced advertorials and police video of car-chase sequences, i.e. virtually free content, the major networks learned a decade ago that reality TV provides a way to dramatically cut expenses while still capturing high — if not always mega — ratings. As Pozner writes in her new book, nothing is so cherished in the network board rooms as profit: “Because nothing — not creative quality, not social impact, and certainly not accountability to the public — matters to corporate media companies other than the financial bottom line.”
Since the novel format squeaked open with MTV’s first Real World season in 1992, paeans to cultural understanding — be they contentious conversations about gender roles, class differences, racism, or homophobia — have gone wildly off key. In fact, Reality Bites Back suggests that since the Real World model was rediscovered and retrofitted by the networks, the chorus has been tumbling downhill so fast that it’s as if we’ve collapsed in a muddied heap of white male privilege and raging misogyny before any of us were aware there was a slope threatening. While it can be tempting to blame the state of television partially on the medium itself, this new reality format does one better in offering us a raft of carefully cultivated stereotypes to mock. With degrading, staged competitions offering immediate wedlock-to-wealth opportunity or a chance to mack on Flavor Flav, viewers are encouraged to fully extend our most bitter sensibilities to revel in the humiliation and misery of others. While there is yet to be a study on how such programming affects culture en masse, Pozner’s book suggests in no uncertain terms it’s programming we should be paying much closer attention to. The Current spoke with Pozner this week.
Were you were raised with television?
In certain ways, I was a classic ’80s latchkey kid. My dad hated television and he didn’t want me to watch any of it. His favorite phrase was, “It will rot your brain! The boob tube rots your brain!” That just kind of made me want to watch it more. I would come home from elementary school, and all my other little girlfriends would run home and they would watch General Hospital, and they would watch Days of Our Lives. I would run home and I would watch Phil Donahue. And I would watch Sally Jessy Raphael. I think what it was, I grew up in a troubled house, a troubled family, but I think I was always looking for some sort of external intellectual, political, sociological, psychological explanation of what I was going through and what other people were going through. I didn’t have therapy when I was a kid. I got it sort of by proxy through the panel discussions on Donahue.
It’s almost like those could be considered cultural resources today, and I’m wondering if there’s anything like that out there now.
Donahue, his shows were very often — except for a brief moment when they pushed him to be more like `Jerry` Springer — those early-on shows were very much about women talking about the struggles they were dealing with in their lives. I learned about class issues, all these things I learned about on that show. I think it’s really interesting to call that show a cultural resource. It was at the time. But now you look at 20-years-plus of media consolidation, and what we have now are shows that double-down on stereotypes rather than help people gain strength to overcome bias. You have shows that exist to humiliate people who are troubled, or create fake versions of what trouble they must be in, rather than help people gain the tools to rise above their problematic circumstances. I don’t think we have cultural resources. It’s worse than the absence of that: what it is is this exploitative landscape in which media companies seize upon perceived weakness of people and cast for reality shows people with anger-management problems, and people with emotional instability, and people with drug and alcohol addiction, and then structurally build in techniques to break those people down all for the all-important drama.
It sounds like a really natural progression from, one the one hand, finding information that enabled you to deal with growing up … to this other phenomena.
I actually wouldn’t say it was a natural progression from that. … In 2000, when Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire started to change the TV landscape, I realized I really had to start to take notice of it. I didn’t think I was going to be the person to write this book. I didn’t want to write this book. I didn’t want to focus entirely on reality TV, but I kept waiting for other people to look at how this genre was functioning as backlash against women in the same way I was seeing the attacks on women in news media over 30, 40 years. I was seeing those same memes play out in reality TV and no one was paying attention.
The first Real World was in the early ’90s, and so this must have been gathering quite a bit of steam before then.
Not really. The first Real World, it was a one-off show that wasn’t given a lot of attention. Because it wasn’t the genre yet, it was just a show, a single show. They actually dealt with race and gender and sexuality and religion and geographic differences with a level of concern and sensitivity. They had really impassioned and culture-shifting storylines about people with HIV on that show. When they had bigotry shown on the show it wasn’t because they were specifically casting for bigots so that they could play to that, as they have in more recent years. It was done in a way that tried to make it seem like, “Hey, here’s this problem. Let’s learn from it.” As opposed to `announcer voice`, “You can’t believe the kind of racism we got on our series this year! Tune in!” It was only in 2000 or so, when Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire burst on the scene with the premise that all women are shallow, catty, gold diggers who can never possibly be happy or successful except as arm candy to rich husbands. A few months after that, Survivor burst on the scene with the notion that you should lie, cheat, humiliate, and deceive in order to win, and that winning was the most important thing. It was a year after that that the co-producer of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire repackaged all the misogyny of Millionaire into The Bachelor and sold it to ABC as an “earnest quest for real love.” Now the ideology of advertisers, the long-standing sexism and racism that has been used to sell everything from shoes and cars and clothes to cosmetics and diet plans for decades, is moving from static print ads and TV commercials to actual content on these shows that are all about product placement. They’re packaging themselves as reality even though they are highly manipulated behind the scenes and highly edited to reinforce master narratives these advertisers want us to buy into.
Do you feel like that’s all manufactured or is there something that we’re still culturally stuck in, what you call the thrall of this Cinderella story?
It is undeniable that these shows play to, but also reinforce, deeply engrained cultural stereotypes about what we’re supposed to think of ourselves, what we’re supposed to want, what we’re supposed to consider our place in society. Usually reality producers will deny their shows have any kind of meaning and, “They’re just entertainment.” And, “You’re thinking too much. Get over it.” But when they don’t think anyone’s really paying attention, when they’re talking to each other in the industry press they’ll say things where if you read between the lines are really telling. So, he `Mike Darnell, president of Alternative Entertainment for FOX` told Variety that the biggest reality shows he’s ever done at Fox were built around social ideas. He also told Entertainment Weekly that the secret to his success, the key to making a successful reality show, is that you have to have a premise that’s easy to understand, that earns the reaction of “Oh, my God. What’s wrong with you?”, and that is steeped in some social belief. Nobody ever asks him what he means by that. My book explains what he means by that. What these reality producers do, whether consciously or not consciously, is attempt to resurrect some of our earliest childhood education about gender, race, class, and sexuality in ways that are often really regressive that we have gotten past as a culture. That’s what all this fairytale narrative stuff is: it’s all about provoking this regression to childhood, where girls are told that their role in life is to be beautiful and saved, and men’s role in life is to be wealthy and daring. It’s not that we are stuck culturally as a people in this fairytale moment, it’s that reality TV producers and networks, and especially advertisers, have a vested interest in regressing us.
So, what? We’re more needy consumers in that state of mind?
I think we are, yes. And advertisers have always profited from keeping us in this notion that women’s place is to be pretty and passive, that men are supposed to be providers. It you look at any issue of Cosmo over the last 30 years, whatever the articles say, the advertisements are always … women should be perfect 10’s, by any means necessary. And you always have images of violence against women that are glamorous and sexual. Those things have always been the case, no matter what year it is. The year that America’s Next Top Model debuted women were breaking so many world records for a huge number of sports, and on TV women `were` being told their bodies are only existing to be decorative props for advertisers. No matter what we’re achieving, the images in reality TV tell us that this sort of regressive version of reality in which the women’s rights movement never happened, the Civil Rights movement never happened, is supposedly real.
If viewers understand, “Hey, this stuff is staged,” they know we’re being manipulated — our baser natures, our prejudices — what’s the problem with the programming?
Depending on which communities you’re talking to, some really do think it’s real. Most people will say, “Yeah, I know it’s not real. I know it’s fake.” Then as soon as you ask them anything else, it’s like, “Oh, but that bitch needed to be eliminated from such-and-such show,” or, “That guy’s such an idiot.” Well, if you think you know anything about anyone you’ve seen on reality TV you don’t know it’s not real. People don’t know what a frankenbite is. They don’t know there’s an industry term for editing in such a way as to totally change the in tact, and the content, and the meaning of what somebody said by taking certain words out and cobbling together different pieces of conversations from a Monday and a Wednesday and a Sunday to make it seem like seven conversations were actually one. They don’t know that. They also don’t know that people are not given enough food, they’re given excessive alcohol, they’re kept totally sleep deprived, they’re then surveilled 24/7. They’re not allowed to read newspapers, TV, internet. So basically these are psyops techniques, right? So people don’t know this is what’s prompting the crazy behavior they see.
How much of this stuff have you actually had to watch?
More than 1,000 hours over 10 years. (Laughs.) Yeah.
How do you think that’s changed you?
That’s an interesting question. (Pause.) It hasn’t changed me, because I watched it all with a critical eye — ’cause I watched it to do this work. If I was watching this uncritically, I think it would have made me a very depressed person, honestly. (Pause.) Maybe I spoke too soon. I don’t think it’s changed me, but even watching it with a critical eye, watching as much of it over the course of 10 years, there definitely have been a bit of… Let me say this: it’s hard sometimes to watch the glorification of violence on a show like America’s Next Top Model, where you see girls lowered into coffins in open graves being told by photographers and judges that they look beautiful dead. It’s hard to watch Toddlers & Tiaras with little kids being sexualized before they can consent in ways that give me… There’s a Yiddish word, Tsuris, it’s like “problems,” “heartache,” like your mom would say if you’re dating somebody she doesn’t like, ‘Why are you giving me such tsuris?’ There’s only so much racism you can watch in Flavor of Love before you get this sort of dismay at the level of insanity, madness.
For myself, I just can’t watch it at all. This is our culture, seemingly, and it’s depressing.
The reason I end the book with a media literacy chapter and a media activism chapter is because I don’t want people to be frustrated. I don’t want people to feel like this is as it always was and as it always will be. If people are frustrated by the content they’re receiving in media, they need to understand that the media companies will say regularly, “Oh, this is just what the public wants. That’s why all these reality shows exist.” Not because they’re 50- to 75-percent cheaper to make. Not because they come with hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars of embedded advertising revenue inside the content before they ever sell a single commercial. That’s the real reason these shows exist. It has nothing to do with what the public wants. These things didn’t always exist; they don’t have to always exist. The first step in making change is becoming engaged, active, conscious, media-literate consumers.
Learn how at realitybitesbackbook.com.
“Media Literacy, Media Outreach: Unpacking and Changing Stories About Our Lives.” At this two-part, hands-on workshop, Jennifer Pozner will help participants identify, deconstruct, and challenge gender, race, and class biases in news and entertainment media. A media training session will help you learn how to work with journalists to improve media coverage of the issues and people you care about. $10, 6:30pm Wed, Feb 9, C4 Workspace, 108 King William St. Limited to 50 participants, purchase tickets in advance at mediajusticeleague.org.
“Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.” In this lively multimedia presentation and Q&A, Pozner will discuss sexism, racism, and commercial biases in reality television. Book signing will follow. Free, 5-7pm Thu, Feb 10, The Twig Book Shop, 200 E. Grayson, Ste. 124, (210) 826-6411, thetwig.indiebound.com.