Denver Post: Reality Bites Back is “an entertaining and sharp-eyed takedown”

In a review today titled “Reality TV’s messages get a smackdown from feminist critic’s book,” the Denver Post’s Joanne Ostrow calls Reality Bites Back “an entertaining and sharp-eyed takedown” of reality television that “unpacks the political and commercial agendas behind the genre.” In this, the first review in a major U.S. newspaper, Ostrow writes, “Pozner has delivered a savvy, not-too-academic analysis of a form that’s not a just fad — and one that’s eating up more and more of the TV schedule”:

What do you see when women volunteer to be made over, dressed, styled or surgically enhanced to be “hot” on TV?

What do you see when a bevy of single women fight over a bachelor they’ve never met, competing in front of multiple cameras for a ring from the handsome prince?

When Jennifer Pozner eyes reality TV, she doesn’t see simple time-wasters or guilty pleasures. She sees a retrograde political force, “a pop-cultural backlash against women’s rights and social progress.”

Pozner, a feminist media critic and founder/director of Women in Media and News, has written an entertaining and sharp-eyed takedown of the form, titled “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV” (Seal Press, $16.95).

With extensive examples from the big reality shows of the 2000s, she unpacks the political and commercial agendas behind the genre.

Clearly, Pozner understands the commercial drive behind the “unscripted” shows. She notes the importance of product placement or embedded advertising to networks desperate to find new revenue streams as ratings decline.

She gets the value to networks of cheaper programming in a cost-cutting era and the financial reasons network executives are more likely to let a low-rated reality show stay on the air while canceling a low-rated but intelligent drama.

She knows these shows are intentionally cast with an eye toward explosive bad behaviors. She knows producers regularly incite arguments and keep the participants liquored up and away from family to yield a combustible mix. And she is familiar with the poetic license applied in the editing room, where quotes are rearranged and timelines manipulated. While acknowledging the basics of the business, her interest is the serious and repressive messages inherent in the supposedly lightweight shows. She defines them this way:

• Women are catty, manipulative and not to be trusted, especially by other women, as depicted by “Joe Millionaire,” “Top Model,” “The Bachelor” and the “Real Housewives” franchises.

• Women are intellectually inferior, incompetent at work and at home.

• And women are gold diggers. She points to “For Love or Money,” “Flavor of Love,” “The Simple Life” and “What Not to Wear” portraying women as calculating dimwits.

Such spectacles could never draw millions of fans and enjoy lucrative runs if there weren’t an established, abiding prejudice in our culture, Pozner concludes.

“These shows frame their narratives in ways that both play to and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women and men, love and beauty, race and class, consumption and happiness in America,” she writes.

What can we do about the perpetuation of these “gendered myths”? Pozner offers tips on media literacy.

Heads up, college media students! She’s even concocted drinking games: Take a sip when fights seem rehearsed on “The Kardashians.” Take sip when a thin girl calls herself fat or ugly on “America’s Next Top Model.” Take a sip during “The Bachelor” when a voice-over narrator promises “the claws will come out” or “hearts will be broken.” And take a shot during “Real Housewives” when a woman is especially clueless about money.

Ostrow ably synthesizes many of Reality Bites Back’s arguments about gender and media commercialism, and I was pleased that she positively noted the book’s humor and referenced the drinking games (find those and other interactive activities in the Fun with Media Literacy section of the book’s website).

Still, I have to correct one inaccurate aspect of this review. She writes: “Pozner’s view doesn’t allow much differentiation between the trashiest reality-TV dating shows and the more high-minded contests that emphasize talent and ingenuity.” Thing is, I completely agree with Ostrow that “There’s a huge difference between a cooking, singing or fashion-design contest and the obnoxious living-in-a-house-bickering-and-boozing spectacles. It’s unfair to lump together the contrived and insidious ‘Top Model’/’Bachelor’ beauty/dating shows with actual talent contests like ‘Project Runway’ and ‘Top Chef.'”

That’s why I do draw just such distinctions in the book, as when I write:

“Some reality shows can even be edifying, offering insights into diverse communities and customs through travel and cultural exchange (The Amazing Race, Meet the Natives: USA), or focusing on talent and ingenuity (Project Runway, Top Chef).”

And in chapter four (“This Is Not My Beautiful House: Class Anxiety, Hyperconsumerism, and Mockery of the Poor”), when I note that:

“When compared with the heavy-handed chauvinism of Joe Millionaire, the vicious cruelty of The Swan, or the blatant racism of Flavor of Love, watching programs like Project Runway and Top Design can be a pleasure. In contrast to the typical format of preying on participants’ shaky mental health or liquoring them up to stoke petty dramas, Bravo’s competition shows prioritize something else: talent. We’re blown away when Project Runway’s gifted cast produces stunning garments armed only with vegetables, flowers, duct tape, and their own imaginations. We’re inspired to modify Top Design contestants’ inventive ideas to beautify our own homes. We make New Year’s resolutions to cook at home more often with recipes we saw on Top Chef (that is, when we’re not encouraged to drop a few hundred per plate at five-star restaurants where meals are garnished with avocado foam and truffles)…

…I would watch a show like Project Runway even if I didn’t have to. Differences among participants’ identities, whether in sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender, are not only “tolerated,” they’re actually respected and appreciated. Challenges celebrate contestants’ artistry rather than reveling in their weakness. Competitors create something fabulous under tight deadlines, using weird materials. It’s like MacGyver meets Milan (You’ve got ten hours to make a runway-ready outfit out of coffee filters from Gristedes, silver foil wrappers from Hershey’s, and as many Saturn seatbelts as you want. Make it work!). Sure, small dramas are stirred up to fill time, but Project Runway is innovative, engaging, and accessible.”

I then go on to warn that it’s a mistake to ignore the dangerous cultural implications of shows (like Bravo’s many lifestyle and competition series aimed at an audience of “The Affluencers”–see p. 143-144) that posit hyperconsumption as the key component to being a happy, successful, responsible citizen–especially during an age of deep economic crisis. Of course, this is a very different point than saying that all reality shows are equally and interchangeably sexist. They aren’t.

Thanks to the Denver Post for discussing the regressive gendered messages within the reality TV genre, for concluding that Reality Bites Back displays “obvious intelligence and humor,” and for encouraging college students (and, I’d extend, everyone who watches TV) to find fun ways to engage with media content.

Want to thank the Denver Post for opening up an important discussion about sexism in the media? Or, want to explain that “feminist” doesn’t equal “bitter” (see review for a comment about my “traces of bitterness“)? Email a letter to the editor of up to 150 words to — and please BCC or forward a copy of your letter to WIMN at info[at]wimnonline[dot]org.

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