Reality Bites Back, Jennifer L. Pozner

In this in-depth look at “the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV,” author Jennifer Pozner uses extensive research, cultural analysis, and ten years of television watching to expose the darker side of reality television. I’ll admit that before opening the book, I was already of the opinion that reality TV is damaging to its viewers. However, Pozner’s methodical and persuasive analysis revealed aspects of the business that I had never even considered. If I began with a vague idea that reality TV was bad, I left with the firmest notion that the underlying messages these shows teach us about gender, race, class, and sexuality are dangerous to our democracy.

This book accomplished two things for me. It 1) revealed how deeply interconnected “unscripted” programming and advertising truly are and 2) discussed the difference between a belief system that acknowledges systemic oppression versus one that focuses exclusively on individual accountability.

I will start with point 1. Pozner successfully and repeatedly demonstrates the connection between marketing/advertising and reality television content. This connection is important because

Advertising is profoundly manipulative at its core. Its imagery strives to deprive us of realistic ideas about love, sex, beauty, health, money, work, and life itself, in an attempt to convince us that only products can bring us true joy” (286).

Pozner explains that advertising is so at the core of reality TV that even when these shows do not have high viewership ratings, they are kept on the air. They are cheap to produce, use non-union actors and writers, and garner millions of dollars from companies like CoverGirl and Amex to incorporate their products into the show’s “plot.” Pozner often refers to reality TV episodes as “hour-long infomercials” to emphasize how corporate-driven every aspect truly is. For me, the sheer extent of advertising’s reign over reality TV content–which Pozner demonstrates effectively–is sufficient to explain the poor quality, absurd product placement, and harmful messages encoded in these shows. When media exists solely to make a profit, millions of viewers are exploited for the benefit of a handful of media magnates.

As for point 2, Pozner shed light on a disparity that I had not previously been able to identify. It is so often difficult to critique reality television because defenders can easily point out that these are “real people” doing “real things” that just happen to be caught on camera. In this vein, if one male cast member hits a female cast member, one can explain it away with “that guy is crazy” or “that girl has issues.” There is no such thing as institutional oppression in the world of reality TV. When poverty is (rarely) tackled in reality TV, it is presented as an individual problem, character flaw, or misfortune. There is no discussion of any larger, systemic injustice. This absence holds true of any overt sexism, racism, homophobia, or transphobia exhibited by a reality TV cast member. Bigotry is depicted as an unfortunate character flaw, rather than a product of  cultural indoctrination. One example Pozner utilizes is violence against women and girls, which reality TV treats as personal failing, or worse, comedic.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as ‘just television,’ just escapist farce; tempting to believe that this sort of storytelling has no impact. But that’s not so easy in a country in which a woman is battered every fifteen seconds, usually by her intimate partner, and an average of three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day…. As harsh as these sorts of statistics are, they only begin to paint the picture of what the reality of violence against women and girls looks like in the United States, the consequences of which never make it into the sanitized, advertiser-defined version of reality promoted by the shows discussed in this book. (225)

Reality TV denies the existence of systemic oppression and thus its cultural counterpart, the justice and equality movements that fight those systems. The distinction between these two belief systems–one of individual issues, one of systemic problems–lies at the heart of nearly every discussion around feminism, racism, classism, and LGBT rights. Crucial to understanding oppression and social justice movements is an ability to locate social and cultural problems at the institutional level. Pozner illustrates how this disconnect is characteristic of reality TV, which reinforces the misleading notion that all problems are individualistic and that oppression does not exist.

The chapter I found most fascinating was Chapter 6, which focuses on the beauty pageant/modeling competition America’s Next Top Model and its host Tyra Banks. In part because this is one of the few shows the book discusses that I’ve actually watched (a lot), Pozner’s argument was extremely potent. Pozner highlights how ANTM and Banks have cast people usually excluded from network reality TV like women of color and transgender individuals. However, Pozner points out that the show goes on to construct any deviation from the heteronormative, white, thin standard of beauty as transgressive and unattractive. She explores how ANTM reinforces racist and sexist imagery while at the same time claiming to reject it. Pozner’s final conclusion on the inner workings of Banks’s pysche is–I think–brilliant and eerily accurate. Having watched many episodes of the show, Tyra Banks’s strange and contradictory performances were always puzzling and uncomfortable. Pozner asserts:

Comics call her crazy, critics dismiss her as an opportunist, and her young fans fiercely defend her as the benevolent granter of young women’s dreams. I have a different theory: I believe she has grown up mentally colonized by fashion and beauty advertisers, leaving her with something akin to Stockholm syndrome. (210)

Thus, while Banks attempts to be inclusive of all different forms and faces–claims to want to expand and redefine “beauty” away from hurtful stereotypes–she in fact only recycles the same values that, although damaging to her, were reinforced her entire modeling career, starting at the tender age of 15.

I genuinely enjoyed reading Pozner’s exposé of reality TV’s damaging cultural messages, the often depressing conclusions balanced by the author’s witty humor. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in what the current feminist, media, racial, and LGBT justice movements look like, in addition to anyone curious about the impact of reality TV. I will end with a quotation that summarizes Pozner’s utopian feminist world–a passage that made me melodramatically sigh with the beauty and rationality of her vision:

They [male media leaders] have never understood the world feminists actually envision, in which women and men share equal educational, economic, and professional opportunities, live free of abuse, can be fully sexual without judgment or coercion, and where girls and boys alike can embrace their authentic selves because no one will be told that strength, tenderness, confidence, empathy, or aggression is ‘inappropriate’ for their gender–a society in which power and dignity are not rationed based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or physical ability. (268)

Jennifer Pozner is executive director of Women in Media & News (WIMN). For ways to combat media injustice, check out her media training workshops here

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About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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