Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV

Reality Bites Back is the new book by media critic Jennifer Pozner.  As someone who watches far too much reality television, (yes I know it rots my brain) I really felt that it was important to have a critical look at the genre that has taken over prime time television.  Pozner is well positioned to offer this analysis having watched 10 years of reality television herself.  

Pozner does a wonderful job of relating little known facts - for example, even though the cameras are 100% of the time less than 1% actually gets aired.  This as you can imagine allows the perfect opportunity to promote "story lines" on so-called reality television. Another trick employed are frankenbites, which involves splicing together words to make it seem like a contestant is saying something specific.

Beyond the gags behind the scenes, Pozner's analysis on race, sexuality, class and gender could not possibly be more spot on.   She points out quite accurately that on most dating reality shows, POC are simply there to give the appearance of an integrated cast, however they are quickly eliminated. Is it really any wonder that a separate romance genre that includes shows like Flava of Love had to be created to fill the void.  Lest you think that an all Black cast means a fair portrayal, think again.  According to Pozner, it quickly descends into a anti-woman carnival with women being called ghetto and made to do demeaning things. Even shows like America's Next Top Model, with Tyra Banks are specifically designed to break women down and has gone as far as to compare one models mouth with that of a monkey. If you were willing to give Banks the benefit of the doubt before, I promise after reading you will agree the woman is without conscience.

I also found it interesting to learn that even shows I found to be relatively harmless like Top Chef have a built in agenda.  While viewers are watching and rooting for their favorite contestant, they are also being encouraged to purchase very specific products.  In fact, product placement proliferates all reality television and because it is done in such an innocuous manner, we often don't realize that we are being sold a product.  Think about how many times we have seen Simon Cowell drink out of a coke cup on American Idol.

Reality Bites Back pulls back the curtain and reveals all of the little tricks that influence our purchasing decisions, as well as our sexist and racist ideals. We are told that they are giving us what the public wants, but as Pozner points out as an agent of socialization, the media is manufacturing this supposed desire. In fact, many of her arguments can be extended to cover a large percentage of the sitcoms we watch every day and this in part is why I believe Pozner's book is not only a good read, but an essential read for anyone seeking to break down the harm that an average night of television viewing causes.

I do however have one proviso to my unabashed support of this book and that is disableism.  Throughout the book, Pozner uses the word lame. There is no analysis on the way that the disabled are constructed in reality television and this invisibility leads one to believe that it is not important when placed against isms like racism.  What does it say that the differently abled are very much invisible on shows like The Bachelor?  What message does it send when challenges are not modified for differently abled contestants on The Amazing Race or Survivor?  The differently abled are often presented saying that they want to prove they can do exactly what the able bodied do and never is there an indicator of the personal cost to them. This is obviously the super crip mythology, yet nowhere is this acknowledged in Pozner's books.  While I appreciate her attempt to write a book using an intersectional approach, the complete erasure of the experience of the differently abled undermines this project greatly. 

Reality Bites Back is a very interesting read and the fact that Pozner attempts to explore the phenomenon of reality television using so many sites of oppression only increases the possibility of the reader recognizing the manipulation that is employed on these shows.  I further appreciate her conversational approach to such a broad topic, thus making difficult concepts easier to understand for those that are unfamiliar with many of the theories that she presents.  For those that are interested in pop culture or the media, Reality Bites Back is a great starting place to learn to critically examine the tropes that are presented to us as fact.  Yes, there is a man behind the curtain pulling the strings.