Canada is biting back: Reality Bites Back in Elle Canada, Macleans, and The Globe and Mail

Reality Bites Back officially hits bookstores today [!!] and I can’t tell you how excited I am. You know who else is excited about the book? Canadians. To mark the official publication date, let’s take a look at the warm reception Reality Bites Back is getting from the Canadian media.

  • Excerpt: The November issue of Elle Canada magazine includes “The Surreal Life…Reality TV: Harmful fluff or a humorous escape?” (PDF). This three-page feature — teased on the cover — comes complete with photos from Flavor of Love, The Hills, The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Bachelorette, The Newlyweds, and more. The excerpt focuses on reality TV’s tropes about women discussed in chapter three of the book, “Bitches and Morons and Skanks, Oh My! What Reality TV Teaches Us About Women.” (Please send a letter to the editor of Elle Canada thanking them for running this story and asking for more pieces examining women and the media! Email
  • Column: On Saturday, Leah McLaren, columnist for The Globe and Mail, a leading Canadian newspaper, wrote:

“If you want proof of what a long way we haven’t come, just check out an episode of The Bachelor.

Which leads me to Jennifer Pozner, journalist and director of the U.S.-based feminist advocacy group Women in Media & News, and her new book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure


McLaren notes that I describe Tyra Banks, producer and host of America’s Next Top Model, as “’an example of fashion and beauty advertiser Stockholm syndrome,’ i.e., a woman held hostage by the fashion industry until she sympathizes and perpetrates” its aesthetic and ideological attacks on women. She takes a bit of poetic license by saying we “bonded” over “loathing” Tyra (I never said I hate her, I said she’s not intentionally evil the way Fox’s Mike Darnell and ABC’s Mike Fleiss are, but she reinforces way too many of the biases she claims to want to defeat). Still, McLaren discusses reality TV’s role in damaging the body images of female viewers, and picks up on a point in the book that I had hoped would stimulate discussion in the press: the fact that one unintended consequence of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has been the shrinking of women’s bodies in television and in tabloid entertainment. Read more of the The Globe and Mail article here.

  • Q&A: And finally, on Oct. 25, Macleans, Canada’s leading weekly news magazine, ran an insightful and challenging interview between reporter Anne Kingston and myself. In “Jennifer Pozner in conversation: On the fakeness of reality shows, how ‘the dumb bimbo’ is cast, and why actresses are shrinking.” (Also see a PDF of the shorter print magazine piece) This may be the most engaged and in-depth set of questions posed to me of all the interviews I’ve done for the book so far — and perhaps of all the interviews I’ve ever done for a corporate media outlet. And, really, how can you go wrong with a piece that starts out with this as the very first question:
  • Q: And they can also get advertisers to pay big money for stealth product placement.
    People think that product placement is just a Coke can or a Coke cup on the desk at American Idol. But advertisers

    can pay millions of dollars per episode to integrate their products into the casting choices, the plot development, the dialogue, the scenery, the “challenges” of shows. Take The Apprentice, which has gotten upwards of $2 million per episode from a variety of Fortune 500 type companies to integrate into the challenges, so every episode is basically one long infomercial for Sony and Chrysler and candy bars and cars and sneakers. Some seasons The Apprentice has done very well in the ratings, and other seasons it’s done so poorly that NBC cancelled it. But then they hired a new entertainment division president, Ben Silverman, and he happened to be a former reality TV producer. He was one of the people responsible for producing a show called The Restaurant. NBC paid not one dime to create that show, it was created by a reality TV production company that works with advertisers to create content that advertisers want people to see, and then they gave that show, for free, to NBC. So NBC didn’t invest anything; they were just able to sell commercials. So Ben Silverman gets to NBC, realizes that The Apprentice was a cash cow even though the ratings had plummeted, reversed the decision to cancel The Apprentice, and then turned it into The Celebrity Apprentice, sprinkled D-list fairy dust on it and brought it back. Was it because people, the public, really wanted that show? No, it was plummeting in the ratings every single season since it debuted. Now it’s back because Silverman, a reality TV stealth advertising fan, decided that it was too cheap and too lucrative to let go.

    Q: Why do you say it’s “bulls–t” that viewer demand has created the deluge of reality TV?

    A: Michael Hirschorn, the brain trust behind VH1’s Flavor of Love and Flavor of Love: Charm School and basically the guy who is responsible for bringing the modern minstrel show to television, has said in an interview that – this is the quote, “If women don’t want those shows they wouldn’t get made,” That’s what I call bulls–t, because what reality producers and what the entertainment press sells us is this notion that we, the public, have just demanded via massive ratings that they give us this bottom-feeder low-quality reality TV fare, and this is just a big lie. It’s true that some reality shows—American Idol, The Bachelor—have gotten high ratings, but many others languish with paltry ratings and they get to stay [on air] because these shows are really cheap to produce. It can cost about 50 per cent less—sometimes even 75 per cent less—to make a reality show than to make a quality scripted program.

Read the whole Macleans interview, and then please send a letter to the editor thanking the outlet — and Anne Kingston — for devoting critical attention to the political implications of the messages reality TV sends about women and people of color, and to the economic model responsible for this regressive content.

Needless to say, I’m a little in love with Canada right now. Here’s hoping the U.S. press wants to grapple as deeply with the subject of gender and race biases in reality TV — and the economic model that governs this regressive content — as Macleans (and Elle Canada, and The Globe and Mail) did.

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