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'Reality Bites Back' Explores the Troubling Truth About Reality TV

by Christine Champagne, posted Nov 6th 2010 5:00PM
Reality TVJennifer L. Pozner, the author of 'Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV,' didn't necessarily want to write a book about reality TV, but she felt like it was her duty.

"I wrote the book because I kept waiting for someone else to do it, and nobody was," said Pozner, the founder and executive director of Women In Media & News. "I kept waiting for a really critical conversation about what these shows are telling us, and I wasn't seeing that conversation happening."

TV Squad recently spoke with Pozner about her thought-provoking new book, discussing shows ranging from 'America's Next Top Model' to 'Toddlers & Tiaras.'

To research her book, Pozner immersed herself in the world of reality TV, watching hundreds of hours of programming ranging from 'Joe Millionaire' to 'The Bachelor,' ultimately dissecting and analyzing "TV's twisted fairy tales" in the hopes that her readers will become more conscious of how what seems like mindless entertainment actually affects our beliefs on gender, race, sexuality, class and consumerism.

You devote an entire chapter in your book to Tyra Banks and 'America's Next Top Model.' Can you talk about the issues you have with Banks and her show?

Tyra Banks regularly says she wants to empower young girls, especially girls of color, to feel better about their bodies and to feel beautiful. Tyra really believes she is doing that, and, in many ways, she has helped. But I think she's exploiting girls easily as much -- if not way more -- than she's helping. I don't like to play pop psychologist. I really don't. I resisted talking about Tyra as a person for years, but I finally put it in the book. This is a woman who grew up with her formative influences being the fashion and beauty advertising industry, and I feel like she has Stockholm syndrome.

America's Next Top ModelThe show says it's there to help young girls achieve their dream of being successful as beautiful women and wants to expand our vision of beauty to include women of all races and sizes and blah, blah, blah. Yet it reinforces eating-disordered behavior, reinforces the notion that there is a racial hierarchy of beauty in which women with lighter skin and straighter hair are more beautiful than women with darker skin and kinky hair and that if you are an anorexic teenager who finally starts eating normally, and you gain two or three pounds, somehow you are now letting down all the people who support you, and you're not treating your body like a temple, and you're subjected to days and weeks of on-air harassment [on 'America's Next Top Model.']

It's so problematic, and the thing is, she may not --I believe she doesn't -- understand the implications of what she's doing. But that is not to say I think she is innocent in the production choices. She is the one who decides whether or not we're going to see a story arc in which somebody's eating disorder is misrepresented or glorified. She's the one who does an entire episode in which she teaches the girls how to pose in pain.

Think a 10-minute segment in which she's demonstrating all the different ways in which pain can be gorgeous and sexy. Ow, you've just slammed your head against the wall! Ow, your fingers have been caught in a door! Ow, a man has just choked you! But it's beautiful!

I think the episode that was most disturbing, and it's the one I describe in the violence chapter of the book, is what I call the beautiful corpses episode where she asks all the girls to pose as murder victims, and they are all glamorously, sexily coiffed in lingerie splayed just so in a pool of blood.

You talk a lot in the book about how poorly women are portrayed in reality TV and how we often see cookie-cutter versions of women on shows like 'The Bachelor.' But would you agree that reality TV also offers us a look at women we might not see cast on a scripted sitcom or drama series? For example, look at Amy Roloff from 'Little People, Big World' and Kat Von D. from 'LA Ink.'

I think Kat Von D. definitely has a different look and a different outlook than you'd see on most reality shows and most scripted shows as well. But that's one person among hundreds and hundreds of cookie cutters across the board.

Margaret ChoIt's hard to argue with you regarding all of the dating and competition and plastic surgery shows that really have no value, but there are some worthwhile reality shows such as 'The Amazing Race' and 'Project Runway.' At least, I think they are quality shows. Are there any reality shows that you like and see something good in?
One of the most positive reality shows that I've seen in the last decade is Margaret Cho's show on VH1 ['The Cho Show']. I loved it. It was creative and funny and VH1's answer to the reality TV sitcom, with themes of race and gender and beauty and aging and sexuality and queer issues. They dealt with them. They didn't just use them in an exploitative way like most reality shows do. They built those themes into storylines that were funny and positive.

You look at how reality shows are constructed and produced in 'Reality Bites Back.' What was the scariest or most shocking thing you discovered in doing your research?

I got a contract from a season of 'Flavor of Love,' and I won't say which one because I don't want anybody to figure out who I got it from. But all of the women on 'Flavor of Love' that season had to sign a contract saying they would get an STD test. OK, I can see that. Then it also said: You cannot hold the producers liable if we give you inaccurate results of the STD test, and we're not even responsible for giving you the results at all. We can choose to give you the results or not, and we can screw up, and give you the wrong results, and you can't do anything about that.

And here's the thing that killed me: It also specifically stipulated -- guess who would not be getting an STD test? Flavor Flav.

So you put more than a dozen women in a house with a man, and the goal is to get these women to be as sexual as they possibly can with this man, and you make all the women get tested, but you specifically say he will not.

Toddlers and TiarasIf you had the power, are there reality shows that are currently on that you'd like to take off the air?

As much as I have problems with 'The Bachelor,' I wouldn't call for censorship. But if you gave me a magic wand, and I could just zap off the air any shows that I wanted it would be 'Toddlers & Tiaras' and 'Little Miss Perfect' and that whole genre of baby beauty pageant shows.

And it would also be the 'Jon & Kate Plus 8'-style shows that have kids growing up on camera and flout SAG rules that protect child actors. These kids get exploited psychologically and in terms of labor.

I'd also get rid of shows about plastic surgery that prey on women with body dysmorphia, which is a serious psychological condition, and I would also get rid of shows like 'Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew,' all of the drug addiction shows. 'Celebrity Rehab' put Tom Sizemore and Heidi Fleiss in the same rehab when they had a history of domestic violence between them. Nobody should ever watch 'Celebrity Rehab' and think the goal of that show is getting those celebrities clean. The goal of 'Celebrity Rehab' is the goal of every reality show, which is heightened drama for ratings.

Do you have any theories as to why we watch some of the really awful reality shows?

There's not one answer to that. There are a lot of things going on, and I think for each viewer or each community of viewers it's different. To some degree, there are times when people watch for the schadenfreude, the couch potato equivalent of rubbernecking as you pass an accident on the side of the road.

There are also people who watch because many of these shows are intentionally, and some unintentionally, framed and crafted in ways that play to the inherent humor in mocking people. The main draw of 'Jersey Shore' is people acting ridiculous and how funny it can be to watch people act like drunken fools.

Flavor of LoveCould some viewers be, if not consciously racist or sexist, perhaps harbor unconscious biases that enable them to enjoy seeing people they view as lesser than themselves being exploited and humiliated?

If we're watching 'Flavor of Love,' and we're watching people of color being treated in a way where the men are alternately fools and buffoons or violent thugs, pimps and criminals, and the women are being treated as ignorant, hypersexual, crazy, illiterate bitches, whores and ghetto sluts -- all terms used on those shows -- and we think it's funny, there are sociological and socio-political reasons why that comes off as funny to people and that does have to do with deep-seated social beliefs about race in America.

And if we are regularly able to enjoy a parade of women sobbing about how they feel they're going to die alone and the only possible key to success and happiness for them is to be chosen by some dude they don't even know, and we think that's entertaining or funny or interesting, then there are reasons why we feel that way, and we might not be aware that there are sexist myths and codes about gender coded into our reactions because of years of news media attacks on women, that women can't possibly be happy without husbands, that women are nothing if they're not perfect 10s.

So do you think people shouldn't be watching reality TV, or do you want them to watch these shows with a more critical eye?

I'm absolutely not saying that people shouldn't watch any media that they enjoy. If you enjoy reality television, I'm not here to tell you to dump 'The Bachelor.' It's not about that. It's about learning how to watch with a more critical eye. It's about learning to keep your critical faculties engaged, and that's difficult because we turn on the television seeking entertainment, and we assume that entertainment means we don't have to think.

We come home after a long day, turn on the TV and turn off our brains for a little while and just watch, and that's where the problems come in. When we watch passively, when we don't critically engage with the material, that's when propaganda sets in, whether it's damaging ideas about who we are as people, who has value in the culture based on their appearance, socio-economic background or ethnicity, or manipulation through product placement.

I ended the book with two chapters on media literacy and media activism, and that's because I'm not saying don't watch. I am saying there are 100 different ways in which you can watch TV and still enjoy yourself but be armed against manipulation. There are several drinking games in the book that people can use to have fun with reality TV. It's a way to have fun watching the programs while actively looking to call out stereotypes and recognize product placement when it's happening.

Are you hopeful that the disturbing reality shows will eventually be lesser in numbers, replaced by better-quality reality shows?

I am not hopeful that programming will change unless people get really active and really critical. I fully and truly believe that if we get serious about media and holding media companies accountable to the public in terms of content and diversity and programming choices and behind the scenes in terms of who gets to make programming as well as on the larger issues of media consolidation, if that happens on a major level, then I'm hopeful we can get better, more interesting, more creative, more engaging television, and that's what we all want, right?

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Did I read that right? Drinking games? Any points she made were invalidated when she said she had drinking games in the book.
This woman writes an entire book about how reality TV promotes bad body image ideals, unhealthy behaviors & stereotypes & implies that these shows glorify & reward bad behavior. She put her foot in her mouth by promoting drinking in her book, never mind that we've seen the destruction, humiliation, & loss that alcohol can cause on the very shows she claims should be taken off TV. Celebrity Rehab & other addiction shows may be about ratings but they DO serve as a lesson to show us where drugs & alcohol can lead...can that be a bad thing? And isn't her point a bit silly? Aren't ALL TV shows about ratings?
She says the problems come in because we aren't engaged. So her answer is to play a drinking game? Great idea! A bottle of vodka ALWAYS keeps me thinking & engaged.
She also states, "I believe that if we get serious about holding media companies accountable to the public in terms of content and diversity and programming choices...and in terms of who gets to make programming...then I'm hopeful we can get better, more interesting, more creative, more engaging television, and that's what we all want, right?"
I'm not sure where this woman has been, but TV is more diverse than ever. It used to be that blacks on TV really had to be white (Huxtables anyone?), there were NO latinos or Asians on TV & homosexuality was forbidden. Now reality & scripted shows cross all borders of diversity. Shows like Lost and Glee feature casts of all ages, races, religions & Nationalities, Mixed race couples, disabled, single mothers, and people of all body types and sizes.
There's something for everyone, no matter what you're into, what color, age, size, or sexual orientation you are. Viewers aren't dummies. We know a lot of reality TV is partially scripted & heavily edited but we don't care. It gives us a chance to live vicariously through regular people much like ourselves living out their dreams.
There's one simple reason these shows keep cropping up: ratings. The fact is we ARE watching whether we admit it or not!

November 13 2010 at 11:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As disturbing as it is, Hoarders keeps me on my toes and makes me get rid of things that are not in use or needed.

November 13 2010 at 6:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The dumbing down of America is in overdrive, at least those who believe in and value "reality" TV.

November 11 2010 at 12:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is what a person turns into when you share your whole life with the world http://bit­.ly/b1j9Tw

November 10 2010 at 5:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

All reality shows are phony to the max........All........ignorant to the max, and sickening that people watch that crap..........nothing reality about them........who the hell is trailor trash from Alaska, the unwed teenager of white trash Palin, famous for what???/ getting pregant ? Wake up idiots..........

November 09 2010 at 5:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks, but play what off? I think you have to stop for a moment and try to understand what you read. This is what I wrote: "I read somewhere that humans use about 5-8% of the brain's intellectual capacity." This doesn't mean nor implies that I agree with this statement, much less believe in it; and to be quite frank, I think it (10% of human brain's capacity) doesn't make much sense. Anyway, I'm glad you don't watch reality tv. That makes two of us.

November 09 2010 at 4:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to George's comment

This is what you wrote (in essence): "I personally have no idea, but I will pass along something I read somewhere without further investigation to support my comments--like most myths get passed along..."

You didn't write that in any "realty show" context, hence the reply to "play it off" with that explanation. Just sayin'. It's not a big deal. I just pointed it out so the chain of misinformation would stop in this small spot of the internet. Usually a "my bad" would suffice.

November 09 2010 at 6:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

reality shows, stinks. It makes us Americans real stupid people, I don't care how people live and how much money they have. Lets educate our future generation to love books and how to live happy, healthy and normal lives, these people aren't normal.

November 09 2010 at 4:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
meg hegarty

When intelligent thoughtful people turn away from pop culture or any other genre that is manipulating and shaping the worldview of other people all around us, they are choosing ignorance. We must take a cold hard look at our own culture and then discuss how it works and why in order not to be passive consumers of material that effects ALL of us, whether we watch TV or not. Ignorance is a greater threat than knowledge we don't like.

November 09 2010 at 2:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just responding to the not enough jobs for actor comment...I have seen way too many untalented actors on TV, and with cable and channels beyond the original *Big Three*, I have seen so many actors who do need to quit their day job and do something else{and leave the jobs available to other actors}...And scripted TV can be trashy, too. I've got to the point that I rarely if ever watch American sit-coms anymore because of all the crudeness and sexual suggestiveness/comments. The British still have the best comedies, a few are not my cup of tea, but overall, the Brit-coms hve the Amercan trashy coms beat by a long shot. Dramas on the other hand, are fairly good.
Are there trashy ones, too? Of course, but they usually die out, with some sad exceptions. There is no allowing for tastes sometime...Still, I'm glad to see some good programming still available.
And for the record, there are still some good shows that are reality TV on the family friendly channels....Sometimes it just takes time to discover them.

November 09 2010 at 2:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Most of the reality shows are crap. There are a few that I think areinteresting & funny. Most of them are the family shows that show a celebrity family in a light you don't expect to see them. I liked the Osbournes expecially the one where Sharon and her son are talking about what a wonderful neighbor Pat Boone was. I also like to watch Gene Simmons Family Jewels on occasion.

I liked little People in a Big World. However those are the exceptions.

As far as I am concerned reality shows are contrived. I wish they would take them off the air and replace them with more interesting TV.

November 09 2010 at 2:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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