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A Close Look at the Bigotries of Reality TV

Jennifer Pozner’s new book, “Reality Bites Back,” is out this week. In its pages, she takes our favorite “guilty pleasure” genre of TV to task for racism, sexism and manipulation of its audience. Pozner spoke recently with The Sisterhood. Her satirical book trailer is below, and the interview follows.

Sarah Seltzer: How did your interest in paying close attention to reality TV develop?

Jennifer Pozner: I basically started monitoring reality TV in 2002 when “The Bachelor” began to air. I sensed a new backlash meme was about to start. People were saying “oh, it’s just a fad.” But I knew that wasn’t the case because of media economics. It’s really easy to think shows come and go based on what viewers want to see but that’s not true. It’s more what advertisers want to pay for and what networks want to design for their advertisers. And reality TV is up to 50-75% cheaper than scripted shows, and it nets networks hundreds of thousands of dollars of product placement. So I thought we’d see more of this kind of show. I was hoping I was wrong but unfortunately I wasn’t. And I thought someone had to write this book.

One of the things you do in the book is explain how most reality TV characters can be reduced to basic “types” based on their portrayals. What are some of the most damaging stereotypes of women?

Real people are turned into stock characters across reality TV whether it’s dating, modeling, makeover or lifestyle shows. There’s the bitch, the good girl (who offers sex to prove her love or to keep him interested), and then her opposite the slut who initiates sex because she wants to have sex). There’s the ditzy bimbo. There’s the gold-digger and the desperate crying bachelorette who think she’s going to die alone.

And you do a lot of race-based analysis too. What are some stock types you’ve found, and is there a Jewish stereotype on reality TV?

The bits and pieces of the Jewish stereotype I have seen is the old JAP stereotype. Rich, snobby, prissy, elitist, overly made-up girls. With people of color, the interesting thing is the first five years or so of reality TV, there were very few people of color on these shows. Occasionally you had an ‘“angry black woman” type like Omarosa on “The Apprentice,” or women of color on “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan” changed through surgery to look more Western. But everything changed with “Flavor of Love” in 2006, and its spinoffs — all these shows basically brought back the modern minstrel show to television. Black men and Latinos on cable were mostly being portrayed as thugs and criminals or buffoons and clowns. Women of color were portrayed as hypersexual, promiscuous, ignorant, always ready to fly off the handle, and having no self-respect. And then with shows like “Charm School” and from “Gs to Gents” you have the benevolent rehabilitation of cable television to help them be functional members of society.

So what you have is even worse than the network shows. While “The Bachelor” is framed in all these dated ideas about romance, prince charming, and every girl wants her fairytale on “Flavor of Love,” the women compete to do things like clean up an intentionally disgusting mansion to win a date to go to KFC, which is there because of product placement.

One of your big messages is that people should be highly suspect of any ideas that these shows actually reflect reality or present a “social experiment.”

Yes. Many people buy in to the main conceit of reality TV, which is that it’s real. And while producers say “we can’t put words in people’s mouths,” in fact they can. In my introduction, I quote a lot of producers who’ve talked to the press over the years, and one said, “Basically it’s us being the puppeteers.” They hide the manipulation and the careful crafting of the narrative behind the mirror of authenticity. They thread conversations together in a way that changes the context and the meaning; they keep people away from their families and up late and poke at them emotionally. And then they edit the film to reinforce their narrative agenda. So nothing you see on reality TV can be trusted. And in fact it’s less trustworthy than some fictional dramas like “Mad Men.” Because reality TV is crafting a narrative to reinforce all the same problems “Mad Men” is trying to expose: an outdated atmosphere where women are subservient and passive and want nothing more than to be trophy wives and where it’s still appropriate to consider people of color as hypersexual, clownish, and ignorant.

So you paint a pretty damning picture. What do you recommend we do if we love these shows and need something mindless at the end of the day? I know you don’t think we should just turn off the TV.

Even though the book is an analysis book about gender, race, class and the way these shows present a fake version of reality, I didn’t want to rile people up or depress them. I’m a media critic, not the old guy on the porch saying, “kids get off my lawn.” I’m not saying go to some commune and don’t engage with pop culture. I’m saying we have to be active, critical viewers while we’re engaging. So we put games throughout the book designed to help people watch more critically recognize stereotypes reinforced, product placement and manipulative framing but also have fun doing it. Because as tempting as it is to zone out, that’s when advertisers and bigoted programmers get you. You don’t have to divorce the “Real Housewives” or dump “The Bachelor.” Just watch with your critical faculties turned on.


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