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.

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  • Anti-Intellect November 5, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    I found this interview to be very insightful and I appreciated the thoughtful questions as well as the thoughtful responses given by Jennifer Pozner. I love cultural criticism especially when it pertains to pop culture which is such a influence on our lives. Shows like Flavor of Love, Survivor, and many others are always on my mind because I know that they are not just entertainment but also indoctrination. I particularly appreciated the point about how advertising has moved from commercials and into shows. It reminds me of Oprah’s Favorite Things. Of course one can argue that Oprah has found a way to be more progressive in her shilling of consumerism, but she also falls into the category of “You need this, and you need that” culture.

    Great interview and I look forward to the book. <3