I'm meeting up with journalist, media critic, and activist Jennifer L. Pozner at a chic West Village doughnut café. As Pozner strolls in on a pair of Marc Jacobs platform slingbacks, she casually tosses her Kooba tote over the back of the patio chair. Her floppy- brimmed Prada hat catches a late-summer Manhattan breeze and, fresh from an appointment with celebrity stylist Garren, her perfectly highlighted tresses are smoothed into a simple ponytail. As we sit outside in the city’s finest sunlight, Pozner shares with me her vision for bringing Diet Coke to orphaned children in war-torn countries, and discusses her work with fashion-designer Betsey Johnson to add bold and flirty florals to the U.S. Supreme Court’s tired black robes.
Or, at least, that’s what our interview would have looked like if it were edited for reality tv and filled with strategic product placement. Pozner, the founder and executive director of Women in Media and News (WIMN), has lectured for years at colleges and universities about the hidden agendas and disturbing subtexts of reality shows—their retrograde stereotypes, their faux empowerment, and their perpetuation of cultural myths about race, class, and sexuality. Her new book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, is a comprehensive, fastidiously researched look at how so-called reality programming manipulates real-life events by scripting, molding, and editing these interactions to appeal to advertisers. Along the way, reality shows serve up troubling messages about race, class, sexuality, and gender that infuse the rest of pop culture entertainment. The book aims a penetrating analytical lens at a trend most people dismiss as harmless fluff, and lets us in on some strategies for change. It’s not about turning off our televisions, emphasizes the author, but about understanding how to watch what we watch.
In fact, Pozner and I conducted our interview in a sweltering New York City hotel room strewn with newspapers, carryout soup, and late-summer cherries—and it was just as engaging as any TV show.
Reality Bites Back is one of the first books of its kind. You take on all kinds of reality shows. What are the most alarming shows on your watch list?
No analysis of gender and reality TV can be complete without looking at the evolution of The Bachelor. It’s basically the first major reality-TV relationship show. The Bachelor set the template for how women have come to be treated on reality TV—on relationship shows, and many other shows—as well as how people of color have come to be marginalized on network reality shows. My other most-alarming show is America’s Next Top Model, which has shaped a generation of young women’s ideas about their bodies, about their worth as people, and about their sexuality. As much as the framing of that show is supposed to be about empowerment, it’s an empowerment that you can only find by posing nude with strategically placed diamonds over your nipples.
Speaking of cover-ups, can you describe the relationship between advertising and entertainment on reality television?
Fashion and beauty advertisers have always told women, “These are the products that define your worth.” Now, instead of a static print ad or a 30-second TV commercial, those ideas are being sold to young girls during the hour-long reality show for 13 episodes per season. This is the problem with reality television. Most people don’t understand that product-placement advertisers don’t come in at the end. They sit down with producers and they script and craft these shows from the beginning. Advertisers help producers come up with the concept of the shows. They are influential in terms of which types of people get cast on the shows, what kinds of challenges and contests happen on them, how the story arcs develop, and what the overall frame is going to be. This is all designed to sell advertisers’ products.
I originally thought I was just going to write one chapter about advertising in Reality Bites Back. But I realized I had to talk about advertising in every chapter because it is so key to the reality genre. For instance, I couldn’t describe Top Model without writing about the massive deals this show has with CoverGirl and Walmart. And I couldn’t write about American Idol without talking about the sponsorship by Coke and Ford. There was no way I could talk about the hyperconsumption these shows promote without explaining how they [themselves] are marketing devices. These are stealth advertisers trying to paint a picture of America in which the only thing that matters is how much money you spend on which products and how often you can buy those products. In that America, the women’s rights movement never happened. The civil rights movement never happened. The gay and lesbian rights movement never happened. That isn’t to say there’s no gay sex in reality shows, but in terms of equity? Equality? Not so much.
So it sounds like you’re not antifashion, but your point is that we need to be aware of how particular products, brands, and designers are being sold to us as the way to look beautiful, or the only way to become “empowered.”
Oh, absolutely! The book is not at all about being antifashion. But in the reality-TV version of the world that network producers and advertisers want us to believe in, in order to succeed we can’t simply wear clothes, we have to wear couture. If we have a personal style that involves a reuse-recycle ethic, that means we’re “disgusting.” That’s a direct quote from What Not to Wear. In reality TV, the twisted message is that if we value the earth or creativity, we supposedly don’t value ourselves—and, on top of it, we’re bad role models for our kids.
I got a lot of quotes from key advertising directors who talk to each other in Advertising Age and at advertising conferences, who say very frankly that it’s the job of advertisers to create insecurities that they can pretend to alleviate with their products and the idea of consumption [in general]. Reality TV is a genre dedicated to stealth marketing. But it’s not just about fashion. According to reality TV, we can’t just cook food on a stove, we have to have a $9,000 Viking Range or whatever else the sponsor is selling.
Break it down for us: Just how unrealistic is reality television when it comes to the recession and current economic conditions?
When the economy started to melt down, networks like Bravo and TLC were still expecting us to tune in and root for real-estate flippers. So networks pushed shows like Flip That House and Million Dollar Listing at the same time when a lot of us wondered if we were going to be able to remain in our homes or if we were going to be on the street.
I write in Reality Bites Back that “the misrepresentation of affluence in reality television plays a dangerous game with our expectations, our desires, our spending patterns.” By no means am I suggesting that reality TV caused the housing crisis or the recession. What I am saying is that for many reasons—advertising and media imagery being major underlying factors—we’re becoming increasingly motivated by immediate gratification. Reality television overemphasizes the short-term pleasures of having nice things and hides the long-term economic consequences of our nation’s overconsumption.
Stereotypes about people of color are so common in main-stream media. Which reality show stands out to you the most in this regard?
The most alarming and noteworthy reality show where race is concerned was Flavor of Love. It entirely shifted the representation of people of color in the reality landscape. Before Flavor of Love premiered on VH1 in 2006, people of color were rarely present on network television. When they were, representation was marked by invisibility, marginalization, typecasting, and stereotypes. For instance, there was the Angry Black Woman stereotype who was sort of born on America’s Next Top Model and then really had her heyday on The Apprentice with the contestant Omarosa. Ever since then, you’ve seen that template repeated for the relatively few black women who appear on network shows.
The only real exceptions [have been] on beauty, modeling, and makeover shows. And there it’s like racial or ethnic cleansing: On shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan you had black women’s lips being reduced, Asian women’s eyes being “fixed.” So even those shows came with a price.
But then Flavor of Love hits the scene and all of a sudden you have full casts of African-American women and Latina women. A lot of people wanted to support Flavor of Love because it was the only reality show that you saw black people on. But that visibility in an entirely contentious, misogynist, racist setting is not a blessing. Flavor of Love increased the quantity of people of color on reality tv, but it did so by reviving the minstrel show for modern-day media culture.
You’ve described reality TV as a stealth genre. I know you’re not suggesting that we never watch TV again. But what are your suggestions for pushback or critical viewing?
On the Reality Bites Back website there are Reality TV Mad Libs that are designed to increase media literacy. There is also a “Deconstruction Guide” with questions that people should keep in mind when they’re watching reality shows—or when they’re engaging with any other kind of media. There are tips for parents about how you can talk with your children about media literacy and how to let the kids guide that discussion. There are a lot of how-tos that make it fun to explore media literacy, so it’s not just medicine that you take.
Reality Bites Back doesn’t demand that readers agree with you. The bottom line is that you’re really asking people to think for themselves.
I’m really glad that’s what you got from the book, because that’s what I want people to take away. I want Reality Bites Back to be accessible for gender studies students, pop culture critics, reality fans. This is a book for everyone.
Visit realitybitesbackbook.com for more. Shira Tarrant is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach. She is the author of Men and Feminism (Seal Press) and Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power (Routledge).
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