Sisterhood Blog

A Close Look at the Bigotries of Reality TV

By Sarah Seltzer

  • Print
  • Share Share

Jennifer Pozner’s new book, “Reality Bites Back,” is out this week. In its pages, she takes our favorite “guilty pleasure” genre of TV to task for racism, sexism and manipulation of its audience. Pozner spoke recently with The Sisterhood. Her satirical book trailer is below, and the interview follows.

Sarah Seltzer: How did your interest in paying close attention to reality TV develop?

Jennifer Pozner: I basically started monitoring reality TV in 2002 when “The Bachelor” began to air. I sensed a new backlash meme was about to start. People were saying “oh, it’s just a fad.” But I knew that wasn’t the case because of media economics. It’s really easy to think shows come and go based on what viewers want to see but that’s not true. It’s more what advertisers want to pay for and what networks want to design for their advertisers. And reality TV is up to 50-75% cheaper than scripted shows, and it nets networks hundreds of thousands of dollars of product placement. So I thought we’d see more of this kind of show. I was hoping I was wrong but unfortunately I wasn’t. And I thought someone had to write this book.

One of the things you do in the book is explain how most reality TV characters can be reduced to basic “types” based on their portrayals. What are some of the most damaging stereotypes of women?

Real people are turned into stock characters across reality TV whether it’s dating, modeling, makeover or lifestyle shows. There’s the bitch, the good girl (who offers sex to prove her love or to keep him interested), and then her opposite the slut who initiates sex because she wants to have sex). There’s the ditzy bimbo. There’s the gold-digger and the desperate crying bachelorette who think she’s going to die alone.

And you do a lot of race-based analysis too. What are some stock types you’ve found, and is there a Jewish stereotype on reality TV?

The bits and pieces of the Jewish stereotype I have seen is the old JAP stereotype. Rich, snobby, prissy, elitist, overly made-up girls. With people of color, the interesting thing is the first five years or so of reality TV, there were very few people of color on these shows. Occasionally you had an ‘“angry black woman” type like Omarosa on “The Apprentice,” or women of color on “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan” changed through surgery to look more Western. But everything changed with “Flavor of Love” in 2006, and its spinoffs — all these shows basically brought back the modern minstrel show to television. Black men and Latinos on cable were mostly being portrayed as thugs and criminals or buffoons and clowns. Women of color were portrayed as hypersexual, promiscuous, ignorant, always ready to fly off the handle, and having no self-respect. And then with shows like “Charm School” and from “Gs to Gents” you have the benevolent rehabilitation of cable television to help them be functional members of society.

So what you have is even worse than the network shows. While “The Bachelor” is framed in all these dated ideas about romance, prince charming, and every girl wants her fairytale on “Flavor of Love,” the women compete to do things like clean up an intentionally disgusting mansion to win a date to go to KFC, which is there because of product placement.

One of your big messages is that people should be highly suspect of any ideas that these shows actually reflect reality or present a “social experiment.”

Yes. Many people buy in to the main conceit of reality TV, which is that it’s real. And while producers say “we can’t put words in people’s mouths,” in fact they can. In my introduction, I quote a lot of producers who’ve talked to the press over the years, and one said, “Basically it’s us being the puppeteers.” They hide the manipulation and the careful crafting of the narrative behind the mirror of authenticity. They thread conversations together in a way that changes the context and the meaning; they keep people away from their families and up late and poke at them emotionally. And then they edit the film to reinforce their narrative agenda. So nothing you see on reality TV can be trusted. And in fact it’s less trustworthy than some fictional dramas like “Mad Men.” Because reality TV is crafting a narrative to reinforce all the same problems “Mad Men” is trying to expose: an outdated atmosphere where women are subservient and passive and want nothing more than to be trophy wives and where it’s still appropriate to consider people of color as hypersexual, clownish, and ignorant.

So you paint a pretty damning picture. What do you recommend we do if we love these shows and need something mindless at the end of the day? I know you don’t think we should just turn off the TV.

Even though the book is an analysis book about gender, race, class and the way these shows present a fake version of reality, I didn’t want to rile people up or depress them. I’m a media critic, not the old guy on the porch saying, “kids get off my lawn.” I’m not saying go to some commune and don’t engage with pop culture. I’m saying we have to be active, critical viewers while we’re engaging. So we put games throughout the book designed to help people watch more critically recognize stereotypes reinforced, product placement and manipulative framing but also have fun doing it. Because as tempting as it is to zone out, that’s when advertisers and bigoted programmers get you. You don’t have to divorce the “Real Housewives” or dump “The Bachelor.” Just watch with your critical faculties turned on.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: TV, Jennifer Pozner, Reality Television

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.