A couple times a week I enjoy seeing people demeaned for their personal style and, sometimes, "ethnic" features. I laugh at women portrayed as vapid, man-hungry gold diggers. I watch as "bachelorettes" compete to define their worth through the approval of (often worthless) men. I am entertained by a parade of ugly stereotypes: angry black women, dumb blondes, "spicy" Latinas and dusky, hyper-sexed, buffoonish lotharios. Yes. I watch reality TV.
And the popularity of the genre tells me you just might watch it, too. Admit it. You like a little guilty pleasure: an episode of What Not to Wear to soothe your mind after a hard week; maybe a little Real Housewives of... for a laugh; the sweet, sweet schadenfreude of consuming other folks' poor life choices. Just mindless fun, yes?
In her new book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV [Seal Press, 2010], media literacy advocate Jennifer Pozner highlights the problem with "mindless" reality TV watching and examines how reality programming reinforces stereotypes and negatively impacts women, people of color and future generations.
Back in 2009, on the blog What Tami Said, I wrote about the Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA), the first entry in the ongoing Bravo reality franchise to feature a mostly-black cast and a series on which Pozner says the old Sapphire trope of black women as "rude, loud, malicious, stubborn and overbearing" thrives. I wrote:To be sure, the women on RHOA are no role models. They are alternately bullying, narcissistic, back-stabbing, money-grubbing, cliquey, disloyal, arrogant, self-involved, willfully ignorant, poorly spoken, wasteful and tackily nouveau riche. The show features street fights, wig tugging, name dropping, pole dancing, sugar daddy-funded goodies, "baller" fetishizing, vanity business projects, cattiness, loud arguments in nice restaurants (and nice offices..and nice homes), and whole lot of "flossing" and faux importance. Whether editing or reality is to blame, the women read like gross caricatures of the bourgie set, garnished with a little Jerry Springer. Read more...
We are led to believe that the RHOA cameras are benignly capturing reality. And, if this is so, then perhaps there is some truth to the angry, black woman stereotype. But Reality Bites Back reveals that reality television is specifically cast and edited to court controversy and, thus, ratings. And show creators regularly leverage racist and classist tropes to do so. This presents a problem in an environment where race bias remains prevalent and positive representation of people of color by media is scarce. Reality characters become stand-ins for all people of color, all women.