Love it or hate it, reality television is here to stay. Though there's the good -- like Bravo's Project Runway and Top Chef -- and the bad -- like VH1's Flavor of Love and ABC's Extreme Makeover -- the rise of unscripted television is certainly problematic in a lot of ways. Jenn Pozner, founder of Women In Media & News, delved into some of the common myths and criticisms of reality television with her recently released book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.
TAP spoke with Pozner about which shows are the worst offenders when it comes to racism and sexism, what's wrong even with the best shows, and whether anyone can actually enjoy reality television after seeing its seedy dark side.
I really loved how you refuted one of the long-standing arguments about why reality TV is so prevalent: high demand. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
One of the things that I think is core to understanding reality TV is debunking the big lie that these shows exist simply because the public demands them. The reality is that this genre exists because it's extremely cheap to produce.
For every one mega hit like American Idol, there are dozens of reality shows that just founder in terms of viewer numbers. Even when those shows don't do very well, they're allowed to languish on the dial because the networks don't have to invest much to put them on. In some cases, [networks] don't have to pay anything to produce the shows. So, for example, The Restaurant was produced by an advertising and stealth-marketing firm that works to put their advertising clients into entertainment programs and then The Restaurant was given to NBC to air for free.
In the book, you talk about how reality TV reinvented the minstrel show and has other racist elements. Could you call out the worst offenders?
Before Flavor of Love came on the scene, people of color were pretty much invisible in network reality shows except for a few casting choices. Then Flavor of Love comes on the scene, and all of a sudden, we have people of color all over the place on cable reality shows. But the problem is that with the increased visibility came increased exploitation. Black men are portrayed as thugs, as buffoons, as fools, as criminals, as pimps; and black women and Latina women, and sometimes Asian women, are portrayed as hypersexual, ignorant, violent, classic sort of Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes, always as bitchy and angry. Very often words like "ghetto" and "ho" are used to describe them. I don't throw the word[s] minstrel show around very superficially. I think it really maps directly to all of the stereotypes that we used to see in minstrelsy.
Which are the worst offenders when it comes to sexism?
It's a toss-up -- is it better or worse when shows package themselves as sincere or when the sexism is totally overt? A show like The Bachelor is the longest-running dating show. We've had 20 seasons of the franchise, 14 bachelors and six bachelorettes. The packaging is all about this earnest quest for true love, where every girl wants to be a princess and every boy is Prince Charming, you know, as long as he's wealthy and has a firm ass. The only way to be successful, the only way to be happy, the only way to be financially or personally fulfilled or secure is by glomming on to any guy that will have you. The framing, though, is this mock earnestness.
Compare that with something like Joe Millionaire on Fox or Flavor of Love on VH1, where the premise itself is done with sort of a wink and a nod to viewers. We're supposed to, on the surface, understand that the women are gold diggers, or that the women are stupid and bimbos, and we're supposed to laugh at them. But because it's done with a wink and a nod, there's also a chance that people might not be taking it as seriously as people take a show like The Bachelor. They play out in different ways, the level of sexism.
Throughout the book, you hint that some reality shows are worse than others, but that even the good ones are problematic. Could you talk about why even "good" shows like Project Runway aren't the best portrayals?
Everywhere I go, people who tell me that otherwise they usually hate reality TV shows will say, oh, but I love Project Runway. I understand that. I actually really enjoy Project Runway, and I say that in the book. I would've watched that show even if I wasn't working on this project. It's based on creativity and talent instead of humiliation and angst. But here's where the problem exists: The sort of tip-off to the fact that Project Runway isn't necessarily all good is the fact that the single most important compliment that the judges can give to a Project Runway contestant is that "it looks expensive."
There have obviously been new reality shows announced since you completed your book. Are there any new ones out there that are particularly offensive?
I think the one that I'm most wary of is about to come out in November. It's called Bridalplasty. It combines all of the emotional insecurity and body dysmorphia of The Swan or Extreme Makeover with the wedding industrial complex [in] shows like My Fair Wedding with David Tutera or Say Yes to the Dress on TLC. A bunch of brides compete in wedding-planning challenges, and each person who wins these mini challenges -- writing vows or choosing the right calligraphy for invitations, et cetera -- whoever wins a particular challenge gets to choose a plastic surgery procedure off of her plastic surgery wish list. At the end, the whole thing culminates with one "lucky bride" getting not only a dream wedding but also a full extreme makeover in which her fiancé will not get to see her in her new physical form until he lifts the veil off at the actual wedding and sees who he's about to marry.
Do you think anyone can like watching reality television after reading your book?
The problem is where we come home and we're tired and we're stressed out and we just want to watch TV with our brains turned off. We're not thinking about what it is we're watching, and we're taking in messages that are really potentially very damaging.
Learning to think critically as we're watching -- and hopefully doing so in a fun way -- will allow us to continue to enjoy whatever media gives us pleasure but to do so in a way that will arm us against becoming these advertiser-induced drones that they want us to be. This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.