Behind the scenes of the reality TV show, "My FiOS Home Ultimate Upgrade". (Photo: Sean Ganann / Flickr)
"Reality Bites Back," a new book on the phenomenon of unscripted television programming from feminist media critic Jennifer Pozner, distills into 386 pages an entire decade full of the cheapest, sleaziest TV shows in history. It's also the most popular genre of media the information age has yet produced. But with whom, readers might be asking themselves, is it popular?
Of course, the shows are popular with corporate advertisers, who cannot contain their drool at the thought of a thinly disguised representation of everyday life that they create and control, filling each dramatic scene with soda, hot tubs, clothes, personal hygiene products, entertainment systems, makeup, gym equipment, expensive sports cars and luxury, high thread-count sheets. All brand-name, all readily available, all thoroughly integrated into something we've agreed to call reality TV.
Yet, most of us understand this to be a slightly different thing from reality, which is filled with the common, unfilmed moments of regular, boring, unbranded lives.
The theory that underlies most media criticism around the genre, however - Pozner's book is one of many examples - postulates a degree of viewer confusion on this very matter. Overly simplified, the concern seems to run that unscripted programming establishes a direct messaging pipeline from big-brand advertisers to viewers, who respond to televised versions of themselves with unprecedented consumer support. In other words: that we react to unscripted programming as if it were, to some degree, wholly unmediated.
Now, this isn't true, but it is important. Regardless of whether or not viewers accept reality TV as reality IRL (as in "In Real Life"), the same decade in which the genre's taken over the boob tube has seen an unprecedented rise in for-profit educational environments, heavily branded infotainment, sponsorships, guerrilla marketing and ad-friendly social media. These have all worked to erode any critical capacity we may have been born with, and they've also supplanted any cultural institutions erected to provide same. We're left, not as empty vessels ready to be filled with whatever meaning the products sold on reality TV can provide, but without any facilities to gut check our gag reflex.
Enter "Reality Bites Back." Now, the book doesn't address the potential sociological impacts of unscripted programming. ("I'm not a sociologist," Pozner tells me. "I'm a media critic.") And it doesn't measure profit margins against integrated product appearances, nor the overarching impact of how this particularly regressive genre of entertainment may be impacting public policy. It touches on the deeply disturbing manner in which unscripted programming legally skirts years and years of advancements in the labor, civil and women's rights movements, and notes in occasional asides the disturbing manner in which participants willingly throw away these rights for a shot at televised humiliation and a decent wad of cash. But the purpose of Pozner's book is to provide a very harsh and very thorough content analysis of over a thousand hours of these shows.
In a style called, at turns, "insightful" and "bitter" (she's not; we've known each other for years and Pozner's "bitterness" is all affect, akin to calling Rush Limbaugh "blustering" as opposed to "savvy"), she snarks along to the shows you hate to love. Because it is difficult to find elsewhere in our culture, Pozner provides that nascent voice of criticality. The one that should watch previews of "America's Next Top Model" and think, eat something.
A feminist, book-length "Mystery Science Theater 3000" is not going to change our media landscape, not by a long shot. To do that will require the participation of far more individuals - women, mostly, who are disproportionately maligned on each and every one of these programs - throughout the country, all demanding change, all articulating the ridiculous misrepresentation of reality presented on reality TV.
And that's the role "Reality Bites Back" fills: it articulates the feminist objection to mainstream media's most frequently presented tropes.
The ever-articulate Pozner, executive director of Women in the Media and News, an advocacy and watchdog organization devoted to ensuring female participation in broadcast, print and online news organizations, sat down with me for an interview one Sunday afternoon.
Anne Elizabeth Moore: As you know, I don't own a TV and I don't care what the idealized corporate or mainstream media believes the world should look like. So - even though I already did - why should someone like me read your book?
Jennifer Pozner: I think we all need to have a deeper conversation about how a decade of Reality TV and its embedded sponsors have wanted us to see ourselves. What this genre wants us to believe about ourselves: about women and men, race and class, beauty and sexuality. What these shows and their advertisers want us to believe "our place" is. Even if we individually don't watch Reality TV, the fact is, these shows have been hyping a skewed version of American to millions of people every single night for about ten years, one that pretends the women's rights movement and the civil rights movement never happened.
AEM: But the conversation you're demanding is easy for progressives to ignore, as it's rooted in only one of many consumable entertainment options. Yet, "Reality Bites Back" hinges on the argument that the influence of reality TV is larger than the size of its audience. What is the impact of such programming on, say, public policy?
JP: Let's take an issue like sexual harassment policy, for one. On season after season of "The Apprentice," for example, male competitors are attractive and odd looking, but all the female competitors basically have to look like Corporate Barbie to be cast. Women are edited and framed far too often as intellectually and professionally inferior to their male challengers and it is implicitly and sometimes explicitly implied that women cannot succeed in sales challenges unless they use their sexuality, flash their legs, drop their skirts, or tease men (and are usually rewarded when they do so). Male cast members are allowed to scream gendered, sexualized slurs at women, call them whores and bitches and sluts, while on the "job," usually with no repercussions. And the whole show is not only a series-long infomercial for Trump Industries, but also a parade of hour-long commercials for a different Fortune 500 sponsor each week, to the tune of a reported $2 million per episode - basically approving behavior that would easily be grounds for sexual harassment lawsuits.
It took decades of political organizing to result in changes to legal and corporate policies to put sexual harassment laws on the books and to - as one example - get to the point where Wal-Mart's institutional discrimination against women and people of color in hiring and promotion were considered illegal. Reality shows advance an ideology that not only erases the need for such policies, but makes those policies themselves seem wrong.
AEM: Yet, laws prohibiting sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination do exist. How does that go so thoroughly unacknowledged in unscripted programming?
JP: It could very well be that some of the contestants react critically to those situations on the shows, but if they do, such discussions, outrage, or political or legal questions would undoubtedly be left on the cutting-room floor.
As for why contestants don't sue, the key is: a show like "The Apprentice" pretends to be a season-long "job interview." That's the framing. But it's not a job, it's a TV show. And it's a TV show that has made each contestant sign draconian contracts wherein they basically sign away all their rights. They are told that the producers can edit them into complete fictions and that they can't sue even if the shows cause injury - or even death. Contracts often include clauses that allow producers to sue participants to hell and back if they say anything publicly that would "damage the franchise." So people sign away their rights as part of their agreement to be on the show in the first place.
AEM: So, people are compelled through framing to consider the show an opportunity for advancement, but then sign away rights - in some cases, as you write, even to their own representation in other media arenas.
JP: Yes. Absolutely.
AEM: What about other, more drastic moments when reality TV bleeds into reality: I'm thinking of the pure, unfiltered propaganda of "Profiles From the Front Lines" - a marriage between our government and the media we rely on for raw information about our government.
JP: What a masterful piece of Reality TV propaganda by Jerry Bruckheimer. The Pentagon approved cameras to follow Our Brave Boys In Uniform (and their pretty blond medic women who took care of their medical needs and the African American cooks who made sure they were "fed and happy") as they supposedly rooted out "evil" in Afghanistan. Of course, the Pentagon approved, because everything that show did reinforced the post-9/11 narrative the Bush administration concocted and the corporate press repeated, about why we invaded not only Afghanistan, but also why the US was about to invade Iraq.
AEM: It strikes me as the most damning case against unscripted programming, one that goes far beyond content analysis and representational theory. Can you address what's wrong with the "Profiles" model, in terms of both media policy in the US and the larger project of democracy?
JP: I noted in the book that "Profiles" contributed to viewers' confusion about the differences between Afghanistan, where the "show" was set and Iraq. This confusion was already instigated by op-ed writers, broadcast news anchors, pundits and policy wonks who falsely claimed that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction, supported Al Qaeda and was responsible for 9/11. The more TV news Americans watched, the more likely they were to incorrectly believe such inaccuracies, according to a 2003 study from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). Holding such misperceptions was directly correlated to a person's likelihood to support the war, meaning, of course, that corporate media bears major responsibility for US involvement in Iraq. Most of that was news media, but for the viewers that watched "Profiles," one must assume that the show contributed to and produced that same kind of intentional miseducation, with the same propagandistic results. The reason I say "assume" rather than "definitely did" is because no one has studied the viewers of "Profiles."
Now, what's wrong with that? News media, which are supposed to be about reality, functioned after 9/11 and for much of the decade as little more than soapboxes for Bush administration talking points and a rotating rolodex of pundits, op-ed writers and news analysts who currently or formerly worked for the military, for the White House, or for private companies that profit during wartime. They gave us our "facts" about two wars.
And then we have a highly manipulated, carefully crafted and thoroughly propagandistic form of entertainment pretending to be "reality," via "Profiles," which ran on ABC. In this same category, on another ABC Reality TV show, "Wife Swap," we had a mom from a military family described as "pro-Bush, pro-war, pro-USA," while a peace activist mom who opposed the Iraq invasion was called "anti-military, anti-Bush, anti-war" by the narrator. So pro-war equals "pro-USA," while peace activists are, by default, anti-American. "Wife Swap" producers also lied about the antiwar family's religion, calling them atheists in an attempt to demonize them in comparison with the Christian "pro-military," "pro-America" family. And just as "Profiles" (like ABC News) attempted to confuse viewers into erroneously believing that Iraq was responsible for the September 11 attacks, so did "Wife Swap." At a peace vigil the recently swapped mom organized for her new conservative family, her new neighbors supported the Iraq war by asking her, "Do you think it was right for those people to come over and blow up the World Trade Center?" and saying, "9/11 scared the hell out of me. If we have to go to war to get rid of people like Saddam Hussein, then by God, let's go!" "Wife Swap" producers hid from viewers the participation of anti-war group Veterans for Peace, who would have interrupted "Wife Swap's" preferred narrative, that of a misguided idealist working against America's best interests.
AEM: So, in this example, we can start to spot correlative behavior in other news media, all of which we can imagine contributed to the erosion of war resistance, a reasonably healthy enlistment rate (although one propped up by economic policies that left few other job options for some) and a shift in public dialogue about the necessity of war. In general, then, what sort of speculation can be done about the impact of reality TV on the wider public?
JP: What I believe is that Reality TV is probably more dangerous than traditional advertising or traditional scripted entertainment. Why? Because Reality TV producers collaborate with product placement advertisers from the get-go, deciding which shows will be greenlit, who will be cast and who excluded, how people will be framed, how story arcs will be crafted and which ideas will be normalized. Which is why we see so many of the same toxic ideas in shows like "The Bachelor," "Toddlers and Tiaras," "Flavor of Love" and "America's Next Top Model" that we've always seen in, say, the ads within an average issue of Vogue, or the commercials that run during the Superbowl. The glamorization of violence against women. The minstrel show tropes about people of color. The sickeningly limited range of bodies that have value and the invisibility (or mockery) of women who don't fit an "ideal." The hyping of overconsumption and the invisibility of institutional causes of poverty. The portrayal of single straight women as desperate losers who can never be happy or successful without husbands, the demonization of female ambition and the near-invisibility of lesbians, bisexuals and transgender women. All of these are normalized on "reality" television because of the economic model that governs the genre and because producers and product placement advertisers have worked together over the last decade to sell us a false vision of America that even the most ardent fundamentalists have never been able to achieve: an America in which women not only have no real choices - we don't even want any.
AEM: How does unscripted TV play out in our new/social media environment?
JP: Reality TV is using social media as an extension of traditional "word of mouth" marketing, where network and show reps and "reality" show stars (and sometimes random PR people hired to ghost-tweet or Facebook post in the name of said stars) go online to build relationships - or flimsy facsimiles - with viewers. And there's the way that advertisers and networks collaborate to ensure that entire shows are built to be consumer franchises from the moment they're greenlit with embedded marketing dollars, to the lines of CoverGirl ad copy ANTM ["America's Next Top Model"] contestants might repeat over and over inside, say, a Wal-Mart during a makeup and fashion challenge, to the collateral marketing materials on Wal-Mart's and CoverGirl's websites with pictures of ANTM challenge winners, selling not only the specific CoverGirl products worn by the girls on that particular episode, but also the ANTM-branded clothing and accessories line sold at Wal-Mart.
AEM: Social media plays echo chamber to the integrated ad messages of supposedly unscripted programming.
JP: Exactly. Reality TV shows are shill-fests through and through, at every stage, from conception to storycrafting to social media promotion, to ABC's "Live with Regis & Kelly" or "20/20" interviewing participants of ABC's "The Bachelor" and CBS's "Early Show" interviewing contestants on "Big Brother."
Listen, the only reason reality shows exist is because they are so damn cheap to produce and come with unlimited opportunities for embedded marketing revenue. When networks and producers lie to us and say "We're only giving the public what they want," what they're hiding is the fact that it can cost up to 50 to 75% less to produce a reality show than a scripted program and that doesn't even factor in the massive product placement income stream before a traditional commercial is ever sold. So while some reality shows are wildly popular, like "American Idol," or very well-received by critics and viewers alike, like "Project Runway" and "The Amazing Race," the truth is that most reality shows do not get super-high ratings. Many get moderate to low ratings, but get to stay on air sometimes for multiple seasons, while similarly or sometimes slightly higher rated scripted shows with loyal fans get yanked off the air right quick. So if people do watch - and I'm not saying they shouldn't, if they enjoy it - but if they do watch, they really need to watch with their critical faculties engaged at every stage. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to serious commercial and ideological indoctrination. That's why I created a ton of fun games and activities in the "Fun With Media Literacy" chapter of the book: because with Reality TV drinking games or Backlash Bingo, you can still have fun watching these shows, while also watching actively and critically, identifying the stereotypes and commercial plugs rather than letting them wash over you passively.
AEM: Lots of symbiotic technologies all forwarding remarkably similar messages of consumption - during, as you note repeatedly in the book, a massive recession.
JP: Yes. Reality TV itself morphed from a random, long-running show on "MTV" ("The Real World," since the early '90s) into the genre it became starting in 2000 specifically as a response to new technologies like TIVO and DVRs that allowed viewers to skip past commercials, as well as the increased audience fragmentation from cable channel proliferation. And then as new information and communication technologies sprang up, Reality TV and the corporate network and cable companies that pump out these shows have been there at every stage to figure out how to use them as yet more ways to hawk their products and the damaging ideas they use to sell us those products. So now you can see on Twitter, or on Bravo's fan sites, people engaging with the content believing they really want to do so, just like millions of people felt like they had to tune in to" Survivor's" first-ever episode in 2000 because they'd been convinced by a cacophony of CBS/Infinity/Viacom-owned radio shows, TV news shows, infotainment shows and billboards on the side of the road that "everyone" was talking about this program that hadn't even aired yet and if they didn't watch, they'd be the only ones who would be left out of this supposedly massive, spontaneous collective interest in "Survivor."
AEM: Given the massive scale of modern media, though, how can we work toward a shift in the media landscape that accurately reflects both who we are as people and what we actually want, without being filtered through brand names?
JP: That question is exactly why I threw open the conclusion chapter of "Reality Bites Back" to more than a dozen media justice activists, independent media producers and scholars, each of whom offers a quick, basic set of tips about ways concerned readers can begin to transform the media landscape.* I start the chapter out talking about ways to get involved with efforts to regulate product placement and deceptive advertising. There's a step-by-step guide to advocating for media literacy programs in local K-12 schools by Andrea Quijada of the Media Literacy Project. Betty Yu, now with the Center for Media Justice and MAG-Net, the Media Action Grassroots Network, writes about cable access and localism. Tracy Van Slyke of The Media Consortium talks about building and supporting independent media. Jonathan Lawson of Reclaim the Media weighs in on activism to achieve healthier media policy. Elisa Kreiseinger offers a quick-tips guide to creating your own political remix videos. Julia Serano gives media-makers advice on how to improve representations of transgender people. Maile Martinez uses the Reel Grrls media training program as a case study for how to empower youth to make media. Cynthia Lopez talks about how documentary films can be used as tools for social change. And so on. Some readers may not understand why I end a book that is primarily about analyzing the content and messages of pop culture with a chapter that includes as seemingly disparate elements as microradio stations, public movie discussion nights and the role academic researchers can play in the media justice movement. It's simple: Reality TV doesn't exist in a bubble. It's just one particularly virulent, regressive product of a mega-merged media climate that allows five to six companies to control the vast majority of everything we are given to watch, hear, read, see and play in TV, music, newspapers, magazines, video games and outdoor advertising billboards. So to challenge the negative portrayals of women, people of color and the poor within Reality TV, we have to attack the root cause of this problematic messaging. And that's the main way we can get to a place where we actually have the ability to know what we really want as individuals, rather than as overly-marketed-to consumers.
AEM: What front-line strategies should we adopt to re-establish a feminist consciousness in a generation of young people who idolize Tyra Banks? Like, say I'm a 12-year-old girl. I'm white, I'm hot and I'm blond. I'm upper-middle class and grossly underweight and popular with boys, but not popular enough in my mind, and I'm going to hole up this weekend and watch a full season of "America's Next Top Model." So, break it down for me in a sentence and keep it really simple, because, to make matters worse, I might have a drinking problem.
JP: First, I'll name your drunk 12-year-old persona Lexie. Because her wealthy gated-community parents named her after the Lexus.
JP: So, I see your drunk 12-year-old "hottie"-and kudos for making me feel gross writing the phrase "drunk, 12-year-old hottie" - and I raise you an equally ludicrous/gross corporate-sponsored name.
Then, if I only had one sentence for her - wait, what kind of situation is it that I'd meet Lexie and only be able to communicate with her in one sentence?
AEM: Maybe she only stopped by the family shindig to say "Hi" to her Auntie Jenn.
JP: OK. If I had one sentence to tell Lexie before she sped off in her inappropriately older boyfriend's sports car, I'd probably say, "Lexie, you're my niece and I am only saying this because I love you: people may think you look hot because you've been stunting your development by not eating much, but you actually look unhealthy ... so please let your aunt get you some counseling, some consultations with a nutritionist and a subscription to Bitch magazine. Oh and Tyra Banks does not care about you.
That was two sentences. I'm her aunt. I'm allowed.
* Full disclosure: Jenn did ask me to contribute to this section, but because I had already written an entire book for young people on media literacy and marketing (2004's "Hey Kidz! Buy This Book") I provided instead a short statement about independent publishing to a different section.