The Wednesday 5: Jane Lynch Was a C Student, Parsing the Reality-TV Lawsuit, And What Celeb Interviews Teach

Actor Jane Lynch gave the commencement address last week at Smith College — her alma mater and that of her wife, Dr. Lara Embry.

This week, blogs whispered celebrity skincare tips,  honored women vets as they told Congress some terrible truths, and howled at Jane Lynch’s advice to new Smith College grads.

  • Covering celebrities can have multiple benefits, writes Cindy Pearlman at Style Goes Strong. Working “as a celebrity columnist for the New York Times Syndicate and the Chicago Sun Times, I’ve spoken with Barbara [sic] Streisand, Cher, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Sharon Stone, Alec Baldwin, Jane Fonda, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lopez, Jack Lemmon, Angelina Jolie, John Travolta, and Will Smith to name a few.” This has yielded something beyond bragging rights, Pearlman writes: She also gets real-time beauty tips. For example: “I know that only three things work in skincare: retinol (be careful, check with your derm first), peptides (amazing), and vitamin C. The rest of it, including that $400 cream from yak milk in France, is a rip,” or ” I know that wearing my glasses and actually seeing things at this age is better than being blind and (in my mind) cuter.” Click over for much more, including some delectable photos.
  • As Memorial Day approaches, we wanted to make sure to note Service Women’s Action Network’s recent “Truth and Justice Summit” in D.C. One woman who was there, Marine veteran Sarah Plummer, writes vividly of the day at her blog Semper Sarah, from the day she boarded the plane in Michigan to the long day on Capitol Hill. By the afternoon, “The weather had shifted since the morning, and our pack of swanlings were caught in the rain during our walk from Hotel to Hill, but did not let it deter us from taking a smiling group photo in front of the Capitol building right after which I finally got to meet the amazing Anu Bhagwati in person. [Bhagwati is co-founder and executive director of Service Women’s Action Network]. I introduced myself and she actually said she knew who I was!  I was shocked and honored when, after we embraced and I thanked her for the positive difference she has made and the tireless work she has accomplished, she thanked me. That really made my day to meet such a distinguished woman. I stood anchored to the wet grass for a moment, fully appreciating exactly where I was, before our crowd scattered into mini-groups, organized by state . . .” Click over for more details, including a reminder of the resources available to women who’ve suffered sexual trauma in the military.
  • Interior designer Tamara Mathews-Stephenson’s Nest from Tamara offers a double treat:  Tamara’s signature visual flair paired with a visit to Great Barrington, “into the world of Annie Selke and her three companies.”  She was invigorated by the visit, taken along with a pack of other design bloggers: “At a time and age when women may be struggling to make sense of their lives, and in some industries where they find it harder to sustain careers, Annie Selke is rapidly expanding her company with a philosophy that feels fresh and awe-inspiring.  Come take a look,” Tamara writes. Click over to do just that.
  • When we learned last week about the class-action lawsuit against the producers of The Bachelor,  we couldn’t help but think of our friend Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV; Pozner’s book had long ago noted that just as reality TV perpetuates and thrives on sexist stereotypes, it does the same regarding racial and ethnic diversity. And blogtopia noticed when Pozner herself produced perhaps the most definitive piece on the subject in The Daily Beast, including from the shows’ own fans at  TV Fan Forums:  “Any TV viewer with eyes has noticed The Bachelor‘s and The Bachelorette‘s persistent whiteness,” noted the latter. “Can a class-action lawsuit force the shows to become diverse? Jennifer L. Pozner reports how ‘Skinny, weepy white women + horny, wealthy white men = love.'” Pozner herself explains why the piece might appeal to blogs like Class Action Lawsuit Lawyer: “For a franchise whose casts resemble the segregated 1960s South, it is perhaps fitting that the class action is based on the same legal principles used to desegregate businesses during the modern civil-rights movement.” Click the links to learn more about how legal drama plus tabloid TV might just promote equality; we can’t wait to see how this unfolds.
  • “After my four mostly unfocused years as a ‘C’ student…I sat where you now sit hoping to God my name would be called and I would receive my diploma,” WVFC fave Jane Lynch told Smith College last week, as noted by Laura Donovan at The Jane Dough. Julie Gerstein explains how, at AOL’s The Frisky:  “Smith College turns out tons of smart, plucky, independent and driven women, so it’s no surprise that they chose actress Jane Lynch as their 2012 commencement speaker. Equally not surprising: Lynch gave one hell of a speech, offering up humor, wisdom and some trademark Jane Lynch charm.” Both blogs included video of the speech itself, and we had to do the same. Do you agree with Lynch that “plans are for wusses?”


“Reality Bites Back:” 10 Questions for Jennifer Pozner (VIDEO)

November 4, 2010 by  
Filed under Books, Media, Television

Some of us first met Jennifer Pozner in the 1990s, when she was monitoring media sexism for Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting. Now, WVFC talks to Pozner, founder of Women in Media and News,  about  her new Seal Press book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.

Tell us about the new book and how you came to write it.

When I started Women in Media and News in 2001, I knew that it couldn’t just be about more women in media. We needed to analyze representations of women in media, and call out the worst offenders. And by then, this then-new form called “reality TV” was already worth watching. Mike Darnell, the Fox exec who first put together Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire, had already boasted that “we knew the National Organization for Women would hate this.”

But I really got a sense of what was going on when The Bachelor premiered. I saw  all these women lining up, competing to be the prettiest, skinniest white girl, chosen by a guy they just met. I saw that the classic templates of backlash against feminism — dividing women against each other, getting women to devalue themselves — were being played out for fun and profit. He alsoThe show’s  executive producer, Mike Fleiss,   laughed that “it’s always fun to watch girls crying.”

So I started tracking exactly what was going on with these shows.  By now, I know I’ve transcribed hundreds of hours of these shows — including three seasons of Flavor of Love, 14 of America’s Next Top Model.

Did you ever think the industry would grow the way it has?  Is it worse now?

Whenever I heard people say that these shows wouldn’t last, that they would be a passing fad, I thought: They don’t get the economics of this. Anything that is so cheap to produce and comes with the prospect of millions of dollars worth of product placement advertising per episode — they weren’t going to give that up. They don’t even need to get high ratings — they just need enough people to see the shows that would also be exposed to the embedded advertising

Those first five years were when the templates were created: the dating show, the career challenge, the fashion shows, the makeup shows, the shelter and leisure shows. Since then there’s just been a massive expansion, to include all sorts of niche markets. For example, VH-1 in 2006 gave us Flavor of Love [starring rap star Flavor-Flav], and now we have dozens of shows featuring people of color of both sexes. That gave the producers tons more stereotypes to play with, from classic “exoticization” of women of color to multiple preconceptions about men, Asians, and bisexuals (for instance, Tia Tequila).

Now, what we’re seeing is a fusing of some of the most successful — and sexist — shows. For example, E! network is about to debut a show called Bridalplasty, where women compete for the plastic surgery of their choice before the wedding. That’s four shows put together: Extreme Makeover, The Swan, Say Yes to the Dress and Platinum Weddings.

But haven’t we gotten more savvy about recognizing what’s “real” and what isn’t?

If you ask most people if they think reality TV is real, they’ll say no. But people don’t realize the kind of stagecraft that goes into those shows.  They don’t know about frankenbite editing — a widespread practice, where they splice together pieces of what someone said. Maybe a woman said, in answer to a question, “I really don’t want to get married before I graduate college, but he is good looking” and what we hear is “I really want to be married. He’s so good looking.” The main conceit of the whole thing is  that these are real people, but producers can and regularly do take something black and make it white. If you’re hearing something in voice-over, that’s your first clue that it could be manufactured, or taken completely out of context.

Your book makes the case that these shows, shaped around messages that demean women, have real-life effects on women’s actual power.

I don’t think it’s a one-to-one impact — you know, watch The Bachelor, your salary goes down. But I do think that these are divide-and-conquer tactics. If we’re exposed, even half-jokingly, to weeks and months of women as catty gold-digers, domineering moms, desperate pathetic losers — how can it not affect our willingness to trust other women? It can affect our social and  sexual lives if we lose our ability to rely on other women for support, for organizing a union, for help if we’re being abused or defrauded.

Any hope for shows that focus on actual skills, like Project Runway or So You Think You Can Dance?

I like Runway too, but did you ever notice that one of the highest compliments they can give is “It looks expensive?” These shows are built around hyperconsumption. The only way to be happy is to shop, and — as What Not to Wear emphasizes — consumption of the advertisers’ products. It’s no accident that Bravo’s explicit pitch to companies is about the Bravo viewer as “affluencers,” people with money who get their peers to spend it. And it escalates in times of anxiety. In 2007, just as the housing bubble popped, the Rachel Zoe Project was all about how we shouldn’t be saving for a rainy day, and NYC Prep followed a bunch of rich kids described as being in “the top 1% of the elite.”

Let’s talk about the audiences for these shows. Are Women’s Voices for Change readers — typically, women over 40 — a big part of the audience?

In general, most of what you see on reality TV is a result of media companies targeting their programming younger and younger — and mostly white. Except for the beauty shows, though there women of color often find that ethnic features are considered a liability, with black women’s lips being reduced and Asian women’s eyes being changed on cosmetic surgery shows, black and Latina women and girls having their natural hair straightened or shaved off on modeling shows, and so on.

And when you get to so-called “older” women, they use all the old stereotypes. There’s that show Who Wants to Marry My Dad? where this forty-something man was considered a real “catch” but the women competing to date him were much younger. Yet when a cable reality show finally debuted with an “older woman” who was all of 40 — horrors! — what was the show named? “The Cougar.” And it was billed sort of as a joke. Just as that scripted show Cougar Town pretends Courtney Cox is anything but a stone fox.

Could you talk a little about the way “reality TV” is permeating our culture? What do you see happening?

Most of what I have comes as responses to the work I do, and it’s very anecdotal. We will not really know what it is until we have serious studies, like the ones that have been done about fictional shows or Barbie dolls. But I can tell you that the way women perceive these shows has shifted as these shows became more pervasive.  When started doing multimedia lectures with students in 2002, the women were very critical: “What would motivate a producer to do this? Do they think we’re stupid?” When I make the same presentation now, eight years later, I’m talking to the generation grew up with these shows. And now the kind of question I get is: ” If I dieted, you think I could get on Top Model?” These are college students. But these shows have now, for a decade, told us how to give up our intellect and just make sure we’re pretty.

In the book, you  look at the way the “reality TV” industry works to make  violence against women–both real and implied–seem like the normal order of things.

I got a lot of questions about Ryan Jenkins, a semifinalist in Megan Wants to Marry a Millionaire, when the supermodel he married turned up dead — so much so, that the only way she could be identified was by her breast implants. Reporters asked, “Is reality TV creating murderers?” But Jenkins had a history of domestic violence when he was cast — and we know that wasn’t unusual! We’ve seen men with restraining orders, even a history of jail time, packaged as “Prince Charming” by reality producers simply for their money and their handsome appearances. That doesn’t even count the verbal/emotional abuse of women on most of these dating shows. These shows insist it’s more important to find a man than have dignity or be treated with any sort of respect.

You also write about the product placement. How does that link to sexism?

It’s important for people to realize that this programming isn’t created for audiences. It’s for  advertisers, who influence casting, characters, and the kinds of challenges you see in shows like Survivor or The Apprentice.  That’s why even though Tyra Banks says she wants to empower women of color, all her nonwhite models are straightening their hair, treating it, adding extensions…. Or the shampoo-branded hair salons on Runway.

Advertisers don’t have to squeeze their regressive ideology or their shilling/persuasion into commercials in between your favorite shows anymore. Instead, they can collaborate with producers to turn entire reality series into commercial for their products, rolling out all their messages over a season.  And so many of their messages are gendered — whether it’s ‘You need to get a bigger house and clean it’ to the assumptions on the plastic-surgery shows.

What can we, as self-aware women with a stake in this society, do to counteract these trends?

I’m so glad you asked.  To educate our peers, the Reality Bites Back website has a Fun With Media section including Reality TV Bingo, drinking games, Mad Libs and my own satirical video webisode series, “Reality Rehab with Dr. Jenn.

To me what’s most important for us as women is to become media-literate ourselves, and to get involved in changing the media landscape in some way. There are more than a dozen examples of ways you can make structural change or create indy media alternatives in the book, and that’s just for starters. You don’t have to do everything, but we should all do something. A resource guide on the Reality Bites Back website that will point you to organizations that can help you get involved. Choose a strategy that energizes you, and work to transform the media. We need to join together to beat Goliath. And we can.