fall 2004
table of contents
Letter from the Editor
Articles Online

Scandal Patrol
Daughters Helping Working Mothers
Republican Women for Choice
Pregnant Women Murdered
San Francisco Women's Building
Sisters Who Sip


Haitians Fight Despair
Matenwa's Artists
Women with AIDS
Spanish Women in Charge
Gandhi Power
Afghan Women's Vote
Networking Corner

Cover Story
It's the Women, Stupid | Ellen Hawkes
Why the Gender Gap Matters | Eleanor Smeal
Fighting Words for a Secular America | Robin Morgan

More Features

The Unreal World | Jennifer Pozner
Virgin Territory | Camille Hahn
A Family Affair | Gillian Kane
Liv Ullmann: A Ms. Conversation | Robert Emmet Long
Liberating Mary | Bob Lamm


Where's That Smoking Gun? Sex discrimination is getting harder to prove | Pamela Haag

The Breast Cancer Divide: Why the disease kills so many African Americans | Michelle L. Smith, M.D.

A Feast of Feminist Art
"The Dinner Party" finds a home in Brooklyn | Carey Lovelace

Jamesey, Jamesey | Ursula Hegi
Intersection | Roxana Robinson

God Says Yes To Me | Kaylin Haught
| Donna Masini

Touching History
Encounters with women of renown: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Hillary Clinton and Mamie "Peanut" Johnson

Book Reviews
Bob Bledsoe on The Finishing School by Murial Sparks; Valerie Miner on The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates; Samantha Dunn on The Doctor's Wife by Elizabeth Brundage; Carey Lovelace on Full Bloom: The
Art and Life of Georgia O'Keefe
by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
; Patricia Cohen on Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill

Plus: Fall Must-Read List

Save the Courts | Donna Brazile

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Send a Letter to the Editor >>
FEATURES | fall 2004

Illustration / Naomi Shea   

Unreal World

Why women on “reality TV” have to be hot, desperate and dumb

In this summer’s defanged revamp of The Stepford Wives, impossibly thin, impeccably dressed and intellectually vapid women exist for no other reason than to cater to their husbands’ every desire, delivering fresh-baked cookies and midday nookie with equal aplomb.

The film banked over $30 million in its first week of release, but if viewers wanted to watch independent women reduced to domestic drones they could have kept their cash and turned on “reality TV.” Nearly every night, on every network, dating, mating and makeover shows routinely glorify the same stereotypes lampooned in Stepford.

Online Chat
Ms. Magazine Online: Jennifer Pozner answers questions about "The Unreal World" and women's roles on television >>

On ABC’s The Bachelor, a husband-hunting harem competes to marry a hunky lunkhead. “Ugly ducklings” risk their health to be surgically altered on Fox’s The Swan and ABC’s Extreme Makeover.

Women of color are ostracized for being “difficult” on UPN’s America’s Next Top Model, while slurs like “bitch” and “beaver” are tossed around freely on NBC’s Average Joe and For Love or Money.

The more profitable so-called unscripted programming grows, the more poisonous its representations of women become. Back in 2000, when Darva Conger wed (and quickly ditched) a purportedly rich stranger on Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, the stunt was roundly criticized as cheap and chauvinistic, and the network promised to stop airing such exploitative fare.

Yet by February 2003, Fox was devoting 41 percent of its “sweeps” offerings to reality shows. Multi-Millionaire producer Mike Darnell was promoted to executive VP of alternative programming, creating Married by America (women get engaged to strangers by slipping their ring fingers through a hole in a wall on a TV soundstage) and Joe Millionaire (a supposedly rich guy turns out to be a financial Average Joe).

Forty million viewers made the latter show’s finale Fox’s highest rated entertainment program ever. It’s easy to understand what network execs see in reality shows — high ratings, low production costs and lucrative product-placement revenues — and why they deny that the shows are meaningful in any other way.

Occasionally, though, someone unwittingly tells the truth, as Darnell did when he informed Entertainment Weekly that the formula for every successful reality show is an easily understandable premise steeped in some social belief that provokes an audience reaction of “Oh, my god! …What’s wrong with you?”

Brainiac in a bikini?

Viewers may be drawn to reality TV by a sort of cinematic schadenfreude, but they continue to tune in because these shows frame their narratives in ways that both reflect and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women, men, love, beauty, class and race. The genre teaches us that women categorically “are” certain things — for example, no matter their age, they’re “hot girls,” not self- aware or intelligent adults.

To prove them desirably dumb, old-time game-show host Wink Martindale conducted a condescending “smarts test” on NBC’s Meet My Folks, scolding female contestants who incorrectly answered questions like “When was the War of 1812?” or “How many days are there in a typical year?”

Yet when women aren’t embarrassingly stupid, they’re condemned for being smart: Just before eliminating medical student Elyse from UPN’s America’s Next Top Model, host Tyra Banks chided, “One thing with [your] intelligence is that it can intimidate people.”

No one wants to see a brainiac in a bikini in reality televsion. In this unreal world, women aren’t just stupid — they’re also catty and bitchy.

“The backstabbing begins!” a Bachelor promo announces. Cats hiss as a Joe Millionaire preview promises, “The claws come out.” “Girls can be conniving, deceiving and vicious,” one harem girl says; “I know better than to trust women,” another echoes.

Extended intros and “stay-tuned” teasers teach us that women are “money-grubbing, gold-digging whores,” as one Bachelor babe was described. If reality TV portrays women as whores, then the networks are their pimps, providing men with sexy singles in hopes they’ll get frisky on cue, as on Fox’s tawdry Temptation Island .

Media profit off of women’s humiliation, as in Married by America’s climactic money shot, where cameras close in on the tear-soaked face of a jilted bride as she stares off into space, glassy-eyed and broken, whispering, “I’m a joke.”

The Bachelor ’s cheerfully cruel teaser, “Who will get sent home brokenhearted? Find out!” is repeated ad nauseum, and in reunion specials, alumnae rejectees are forced to watch mortifying montages of their most pitiful moments (“I’m a loser!”), while the host says in mock concern: “Wow, that must be uncomfortable for you.”

Weepers, Sluts and Divas

The same themes pop up, often verbatim, in nearly every reality series, belying claims of unscripted storytelling. Producers cast for type, choosing contestants they can mold into a predetermined slate of characters.

There’s the Antagonizer, who declares she’s “not here to make friends”; the naive Waif, who’s “searching for my Prince Charming”; the Slut who plots to “take our connection to the next level” in the “fantasy suite”; and the wretched Weeper who wonders, when she’s dumped, “What’s so wrong with me that someone cannot love me?”

These characters behave as crassly as they do in large part because producers of shows such as The Bachelor deprive them of all contact with the outside world (participants are not allowed to read newspapers, watch TV, listen to the radio or make phone calls while filming) and ply them with alcohol, then goad them to unleash their petty grievances in filmed “confessionals.”

Misleading production tricks top off the editorial sleight of hand. According to the Bravo exposé The Reality of Reality, when Joe Millionaire ditched the cameras to sneak off into the woods with one woman, producers threw the words “ummm,” “slurp” and “gulp” on-screen, along with “chikachika- pow-wow” music and dialogue recorded on another day, all to (falsely) imply that his date performed oral sex to get her hands on his, er, cash.

Not only are the women cast on these shows supposed to be hot, dumb and licentious, but they’re also, for the most part, white. Producers manufacture a fractured reality that looks nothing like America.

Women of color are tokenized and often eliminated shortly after each series debut. Non-Western features are reprimanded, then “corrected”: A black woman’s lips were reduced on Extreme Makeover, The Swan “softened” an Asian woman’s eyes, and American Idol judge Simon Cowell repeatedly asserted that African American singer Kimberly Locke didn’t have the right “image” to become a pop star — until Idol stylists relaxed her kinky hair.

“Ever since you got rid of that weird hair, you got better. You look cute now!” Cowell crowed.

When included in any prolonged way, women of color are used to stroke classic racial stereotypes. On Profiles From the Front Line, a show that followed U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the only black woman featured was portrayed as the military’s mammy — a cook who described herself as “a bitch in the kitchen” who enjoys keeping soldier boys “happy and fed.”

More common is the hypersensitive “sista with attitude” whom everyone hates, such as Apprentice villain Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth and Top Model diva Camille McDonald.

Ethnicity isn’t the only cultural indicator whitewashed on reality TV, where modern fairy tales marinate in socioeconomic anxiety. On NBC’s Meet My Folks, parents choose their sons’ dates from among a gaggle of girlie girls who sleep in the “folks’” lavish homes, languish by their pools and make out in their hot tubs.

The catch? The mini-mansions do not belong to “the folks,” whom producers relocate so as to erase any trace of an ordinary, middle-class lifestyle.

But that’s not surprising, since love and finance are inextricably linked in these shows. A bevy of gorgeous “girls” is invariably matched with one “rich, successful” bachelor (or a penniless poser). During their “romantic journeys,” hopeful brides are decked out in expensive gowns, ferried about in horse-drawn carriages and festooned with Harry Winston diamonds.

The call of these luxury contrivances is powerful — and infantilizing. There’s something ridiculous about watching grown women masquerading as would-be Cinderellas hoping to snag some suburban Prince Charming.

Where women are valued as “perfect 10s” simply for being pretty, passive and intellectually unthreatening, reality TV tells us that all men need is wealth — their own, or an illusion borrowed from producers — to be Mr. Right. Sometimes they literally ride in on a white horse, other times in a pricey sports car.

Forget about decency, honesty or intelligence — the primary criteria to qualify as a reality- TV Prince is a firm ass and a firmer financial portfolio. This standard not only demeans women, but thoroughly underestimates men’s inherent worth as people.

Further, reality-TV “studs” are praised when they’re downright degrading to their female pursuers. Joe Millionaire made his dates shovel horse shit in their fancy clothing, while one of NBC’s Average Joes called the woman he was wooing a “beaver” behind her back (“It’s a slang term meaning a very beautiful, hot, sexy girl,” he insisted).

Most egregious was For Love or Money’s Rob Campos, who got drunk and made a woman bend over and remove his boots while he kicked her in the ass. Producers might have predicted such behavior if they’d done a background check: Campos was booted out of the Marines for groping a female officer while intoxicated.

Flaw Finders

Dangerous beauty myths are fundamental to the reality universe, where women are unworthy of love and happiness if they’re not stereotypical hot babes. This was confirmed on Married by America when cameras followed a couple into their bedroom and spied the woman begging her withholding “fiancé” for sex.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered to him, her insecurities amplified in subtitles. “I’m successful. I have a good personality. Or, do you want me to wear sexier clothes and lose 30 pounds, too?”

Women’s reality-TV worth is literally weighed and measured, as when judges on ABC’s short-lived Are You Hot?: The Search for America’s Sexiest People aimed a laser “flaw finder” at the bodies of scantily clad women to determine who scored a 9.9 for “face, body and sex appeal,” and who rated only a lowly 5.3.

On America’s Next Top Model, frighteningly underweight girls were praised for their gangly physiques, while standard-sized contestants were derided as “plus-sized” at 5 foot 8 and 130 pounds.

The Swan — which shows women going under the knife for an absurd number of potentially dangerous plastic surgery procedures — institutionalizes eating disorders by forcing women who are barely overweight to exercise excessively and go on 1,300-calorie-a-day diets.

When one contestant protests because “I think I look really damn good,” her coach — series creator Nely Galan — angrily labels her self-acceptance as laziness.

More disturbingly, The Swan promises to transform emotionally at-risk women “from the inside out” by sending them to a therapist — who actually who got her Ph.D. from an unaccredited “diploma mill.”

Perhaps that’s why “counseling” sessions seemed more like harassment (“Stick to the program!” “Stop complaining!”), and why this “doctor” endorsed liposuction as a way to help a former battered woman “break the cycle of violence.”

New-Millennium Backlash

Frivolous as reality TV may seem, the psychological browbeating these shows engage in has political ramifications. They reinforce insecurities bred into women by decades of inaccurate media reports of “man shortages” and brokendown biological clocks.

“You always hear those horror stories: 40 and single! I don’t want that!” said one booted bachelorette. The genre’s scare message to self-sufficient women is that they need to make themselves as attractive and nonthreatening as possible, or else Mr. Right will be snatched up by one of 24 cuter and more compliant chicks, and they will be left alone and miserable.

Welcome to the backlash, new-millennium style.

Underneath their pretty promises of “true love” and “fairytale” transformations, producers construct these shows to drive home the notion that no emotional, professional or political accomplishment can possibly compare with the twin vocations of beauty and marriage.

They want women to think like June Cleaver, look like Miss America and — in a nod to modernity — have sex like Madonna. Hello, Stepford.

Apologists claim reality TV isn’t sexist because no one forces women to appear on these shows. But the impact on the shows’ participants is almost beside the point: The real concern is the millions of viewers, scores of whom are young girls, who take in these misogynistic spectacles uncritically, learning that only the most stereotypically beautiful, least independent women with the lowest-carb diets will be rewarded with love, financial security and the ultimate prize of male validation.

Perhaps saddest of all, real love is almost wholly absent from these artificial mating dances. What little girl dreams of being whisked away by a callous, egotistical dimwit who sticks his tongue down 15 other women’s throats before he reluctantly settles for her?

After all the happily-ever-after buildup, every bachelor has dumped his “chosen girl” shortly after their series wrapped production. That’s the thing about fairy tales … they’re not real.

In the end, these programs present a trivial and depressing depiction of the concept of love itself. The equation Fat Wallet + Skinny Chick = Love robs us all of our humanity, and erases the possibility of true emotional connection.


Jennifer L. Pozner is executive director of Women In Media & News and conducts presentations on reality TV and gender.

The latest reality TV news, including links to articles and media criticism. can be found at Reality Blurred.
Ms.' weblog, ms.musings, lists a number of arts and culture writers (under "mass media"), many of whom critique television from a feminist perspective.

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