Friday, January 28, 2011

Reality Bites Back

As regular readers of this blog know, I've broken up with Project Runway, but I'm still BFF with Top Chef.

Just to be clear.

While crawling through a depression a couple of years ago, I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I watched hours upon hours of Reality TV (while completely missing Mad Men and 30 Rock, an oversight that's been since remedied). As a writer and lover of fiction, I find it terrifying that so much broadcast (and basic cable) real estate was being taken over by Reality Competition or "unscripted" television. But, documentaries are good, right? And people like watching people, right? And lord knows I need to parse this to separate disdain and snobbery from actual alarm. But no. Most of it is truly awful.

It has recently been estimated that Americans, on average, spend 31 hours per week watching television. That's an astonishingly high number, and maybe, just maybe we should be paying just a tiny bit more attention to what is being shoveled into our fair citizens craniums day after night after day. Which brings me to the point, which is Jennifer L. Pozner's excellent book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. In it, she takes careful stock of the practices, politics, economics and larger cultural implications of Reality TV.

Pozner makes as good an argument as any I've heard for why shows such as The Bachelor are regressive, truly terrible and likely dangerous. I find dating shows to be particularly repugnant. In them, a crowd of seemingly interchangeable hot women are placed in a house to compete for the affections of some dullard they've never met before. Okay. That's completely unfair, I have no idea if the "bachelors" are dullards - they might be interesting and likable in real life. But in "Reality", they are edited to be achingly, painfully dull. But that's just a matter of taste. What isn't, as Pozner points out, is the question of agency.

I cannot watch the Bachelor (and really, Pozner deserves some kind of award for sitting through all of it so you don't have to) because it literally makes no sense to me. A large group of women meet their prospective boyfriend and not one of them says, "You know what? He's not for me. Bye." One might posit that they don't do this because of contractual obligations and whatnot. Which, fine. But that's what we call extratextual - it's outside of the narrative being presented. So what we have a group of marriage mad women, all seemingly enchanted with a stranger, waiting for him to tell them that they are good enough for him. Or not. Ew.

Something Pozner doesn't bring up, but I think is worth stating, is this complete lack of any sort of differentiation between prospective dating partners is a dangerous idea to have pounded into people's heads every week. In rape case after rape case, it is implied that if a woman freely had sex with one man, she is likely to have sex with any man. Otherwise sexual history would be inadmissible (I always wonder why in cases of theft, the defense attorney isn't allowed to ask the victim, "You lent some guy 60 bucks that one time - how do we know you didn't just lend my client (who is a complete stranger, and hit you on the head) money in this instance?"). Women on the Bachelor are edited to be stupid, greedy and backstabbing. Executive Producer Mike Fleiss comes off as a particularly nasty piece of work with quotes like: " It's a lot of fun to watch girls crying. Never underestimate the value of that."

Pozner also spends a lot of pages looking at the really appalling racism of Flavor of Love, and does a nice job of tracing particular racial archetypes all the way back to the minstrel shows of the 19th century. She also spends a great many pages dealing with the muddled brew of race and gender one slurps up while watching America's Next Top Model. Really, someone needs to write an entire book long study on this show as I think after 15 Cycles (as the seasons of Top Model are called) it encapsulates so much that is wrong with America today as it looks to young girls.

The producers of Flavor of Love and The Bachelor are deeply cynical business men, out to make lots and lots of money. Tyra Banks, I think, honestly believes what she is saying about girls and equality and opportunity. She's drunk her own Kool-Ade and to be honest, it's often riveting viewing. She congratulates herself for admitting larger sized (by modeling standards) girls onto the show, and then punishes them for it. She does this again and again. She seems pleased to give a pretty girl who is also a burn victim a shot, or a transgendered person (which was handled surprisingly well), an Orthodox Jew, some truly weird hipsters. But they always wind up being punished by Miss Banks for their differences. Watching her is a little like watching Henry VIII in action: she really thinks everyone should be super grateful for this bounty she is distributing, and when they aren't, she goes completely freaking ape shit. The decisions on ANTM all seem so weirdly... personal.

Pozner also applauds the stars in the crown of reality TV: Project Runway, Top Chef and The Amazing Race (in the new season the Harlem Globetrotters and the Goths are back!) for showcasing the best in people, celebrating differences and talent, and not approving or rewarding (for the most part) bad behavior. She does call out the two Bravo competition shows for Excessive Capitalistic Tendencies, which: granted. But I see no harm in a sometimes craving for Kobe beef or a ball gown.

What these three shows have in common is that they, by and large, respect the people participating. They don't trade in humiliation or cruelty. Which is what I think is the most damaging part of these shows: that people are rewarded for being cruel assholes. Watching hours and hours of this is good for no one without context, and in most of these shows there is none. The edit is often on the side of the bullies, as this makes "good TV". There's a celebration of brute stupidity and cruelty that I think is potentially culture destroying.

I'm really happy that Pozner called out irony as the corrosive force that it is. Look. I'm as guilty as anybody of ironic distance, but that doesn't make it good. It enables us too look on people crying and being humiliated and making really ugly fools of themselves and call it "entertainment". It's almost terrifying.

All this aside, I found the final chapters in which Pozner carefully breaks down the economics of Reality television to be the most interesting. She carefully lays out how deregulation has made broadcast television a nearly entirely advertising driven product. Most Reality shows are completely paid for by advertisers, and are promoted via the network's other properties (broadcast, radio and print). In other words, they don't cost a dime, so they can keep airing them even in the numbers of viewers are low. The profit margins are wide indeed. It's chilling and depressing reading. But Pozner, rather delightfully, seems to be mostly an optimist at heart, writing passionately for the cause of net neutrality, and calling for people to write and blog and make things that are outside Network hegemony. She also likes Pop Culture, and doesn't advocate throwing your TV out the window, just the making of informed choices and being an engaged and aware viewer.

We all spend a lot of time watching and sneering and ignoring, but I really think this stuff matters. Nothing makes me angrier than people telling me to "Lighten up. It's only a TV show/movie/ whatever". Mainly because it's complete and unadulterated bullshit. This is our culture. This is all we have. This is what separates us from the chimps. It matters. The producers of this garbage know this - that is why it makes so very much money, and it costs so much to make a product placement (apparently, Coca-Cola pays more than 25 million dollars to have those coke cups on the judges table on American Idol). If it was "just" anything, it wouldn't be the case. This is powerful stuff. This is something people in power: Popes, Kings, Premiers, Presidents have always known. People used to be arrested for creating media that the powerful didn't like - in some places they still are. People used to be burnt at the stake for creating media-when media was called "books".

So it matters.

More information about Women in Media and News can be found here. More information about Reality Bites Back can be found here.

1 comment:

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

A lot of what I hate about reality TV is completely outside the text, and almost as prevalent in the nice shows as the bad: the way reality TV claims to be, well, real, when it is so relentlessly fictionalized Yes, of course, any documentary is selected, trimmed, and created, and the smarter docs play with that in interesting ways (far more than any reality show I've ever seen does).

But at least docs usually start with footage that then gets honed, allowing for some discovery. In weekly TV, Because of the relentless time pressures, producers decide who's The Good Girl, The Mean Girl, The Friendly Dude, The Bully, etc. well before the cameras start rolling. So there's no risk of complicated reality intruding on the simple narrative---just a parade of seen-a-hundred-times stock characters. On scripted TV, that's bad enough, though not without its comfort-food satisfations. But reality TV has the insidious effect of making people think that these simplistic archetypes are what people really are. Even at its best, the form works hard to exclude spontaneity, character revelation, surprise (as opposed to mere reversal), or lived-in messiness. It makes me think of all those self-help books advising people to think of themselves as a brand---brrrrrr!