Backlash Bingo: Media Literacy Meets MST3K

I’ve just spent an entire book critiquing the damaging ideological and commercial biases of reality television, so I’ll forgive you if you don’t believe me when I say: I love pop culture. I swear, I do. Especially TV. I was one of those much fretted-about ’80s “latchkey kids” who spent about as much time with Roseanne at dinner as I did with my own mom. Think you can name more characters from A Different World or Murphy Brown than I can? I’ll take that bet.

By the time I got to college, my friends and I had a blast shouting one-liners over intolerably bad B movies during Mystery Science Theater 3000 parties. (If you’ve never seen MST3K, get the DVDs. Really. You’ll thank me.) A ’90s-era Comedy Central-turned-Sci-Fi Channel show, MST3K was 20 percent media criticism, 80 percent lunacy. Mad scientists trap a comedian in space and force him and his robot buddies to watch the most craptacular flicks of all time. Viewers get to listen in as they mercilessly mock the likes of Sampson vs. the Vampire Women and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. The show was pure hilarity, and adding our own jokes to their running commentary made it even more fun. I developed Backlash Bingo to bring the wacky energy of MST3K to the serious business of deconstructing misogyny, racism, and commercial biases in reality television. If you’ve ever complained about how vapid female characters are in chick flicks only to be told, “Oh, relax, it’s just a movie . . . ” or been called a party pooper for not thinking that the racism in a Flavor of Love–style reality show is “hilarious,” then you know what media educators are up against. For many people, resistance is a knee-jerk response when first introduced to media criticism. Fortunately, you already have one of the most important tools you need to break through that reluctance: humor.

I’ve conducted versions of this game in media literacy workshops for high school and college students, and for youth organizations—but it works just as well or better during lively TV and movie nights at home, in dorms, or at family gatherings. Photocopy the blank bingo card on page 305 and use it as a way of spreading the gospel of media literacy among your friends, relatives, classmates, colleagues, and community. Have fun!


A media literacy game from Women In Media & News

Appropriate for all ages.

Does your family watch American Idol or Project Runway together and judge from the couch? Is America’s Next Top Model appointment TV for your sorority sisters? Do you and your friends gather around to laugh at whatever hot mess VH1 is pumping out this season or discuss, Facebook, and Tweet about the latest catfights on The Real Housewives of . . . anywhere? Are you a mom, dad, older sibling, or teacher uncomfortable that kids you care about watch these series uncritically, but you don’t know how to have a productive conversation with them about the messages they’re receiving from their favorite shows?

If you watch reality television with your friends, a rousing game of Backlash Bingo can add some extra fun to your group TV nights. This game can also be an enjoyable and engaging way to get kids identifying and talking about the ideas their favorite shows are selling them. (And, bonus: They won’t look at you like you’re wearing a ratty bathrobe, waving your fist, and shouting “You kids stay away from my flat-screen!”)

Here’s how you play:

STEP 1: On a night when you’d usually get together to watch a particular reality show, have a party at least an hour before airtime. Ask your friends, siblings, classmates, or kids—whoever normally watches TV—to list the reality shows they see regularly. Talk about what usually happens on those shows, especially the one you’re about to watch together.

STEP 2: Ask yourselves questions such as:

  • Who are the stereotypical characters who tend to appear each season? (For example: “The Weeping Woman,” “The Bitch,” “The Skank,” the “Ghetto Girl,” etc.)
  • What specific quotes and phrases pop up repeatedly, even though  the shows are “unscripted”? (For example: “I’m not here to make friends!” or “The claws were bound to come out. . . . ”)
  • W hat kinds of situations regularly occur that wouldn’t usually happen in real life? (For example, everyone seems to think it’s completely normal to sob about how desperately you want to marry someone you’ve only known for twelve days. Or, the only women of color in an entire community are exotic dancers, porn actresses, or violent divas itching for a fight. Or, in the middle of a conversation about something else entirely, one of your friends suddenly holds up or points to a specific eyeliner, cell phone, soda can, or laundry bottle, and starts spouting talking points about how it improves her life.)

STEP 3: Photocopy the blank Backlash Bingo card on page 305, or DIY your own. Have enough cards for everyone in the group. Fill in the bingo squares with your answers to questions such as those above, and any others that come up as you brainstorm together. Write your answers in different squares; no one’s card should be exactly alike.

STEP 4: Game play begins when you flip on the remote and settle in to watch your favorite reality show. As you watch, identify quotes, characters, and scenarios similar to the things you’ve predicted on your bingo card. As soon as you see something on your card, call it out so everyone knows you’ve X’d off a square. You’ll be creating your own MST3K-style commentary, except instead of singling out B-movie plot holes, you’ll be identifying problematic reality TV messages. Every “Single woman called ‘loser’!” or “Model in blackface!” or “Blatant product placement!” that matches your card brings you closer to victory.

STEP 5: The winner is the first person to find enough reality TV tropes to cross off every square on your card. If no one completes the entire card, the victor is the person who IDs the most squares.

The level of discussion is up to your group. You can go deep into subtext, attempting to identify behind-the-scenes manipulations via casting, editing, production tricks, manipulative soundtracks, and the like. Or, you can keep it simple and discuss just what you see on-screen, what aspects of the shows you enjoy, and what, if anything, may make you uncomfortable or annoyed. Adapt the game as you wish, and use it as a jumping-off point for conversations about what we’re getting from media, what we like, and what we’d prefer to see.

Get your own Backlash Bingo card in Reality Bites Back, or schedule a Backlash Bingo workshop with Jennifer L. Pozner today!