Reality Bites Back: We Can Fight Back

[1] If, as I did, you used to have a subscription to People magazine (before I had children and lost all access to leisure time), and watched Real Housewives of Orange County before it became a franchise, this is the book for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve been living under a rock, don’t turn over the rock. The “real world” of reality television is scary.

[2] While I would not think of myself as having a particularly discriminating palate when it comes to popular entertainment, I would not have the stomach to watch an entire season of a show such as Flavor of Love. I am grateful that Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back, had the intestinal fortitude necessary to subject herself to the marathon of TV viewing required to write this book.

[3] Pozner’s recitation of alarming episodes of America’s Next Top Model is enough to make me thank my lucky stars I don’t have girls who might watch this garbage, in which supermodel Tyra Banks masquerades as an empowering feminist while exerting a terrifying kind of control over the selling of the female body. Banks frequently advises the show’s participants to “take care of yourself,” but it’s a thinly disguised code for “starve yourself,” playing off the insecurities of an already insecure person — the kind of person who would sign up for something like this — to push vulnerable young women to the breaking point. Reading the words from Tyra Banks, who parries press coverage of her weight gain on a regular basis, makes me shake my head in wonder. How can someone who’s already been subjected to her own public humiliation participate in this?

[4] I admit that I loved watching the drama of some of the shows Pozner mentions. Following Real Housewives was like having a really, really trashy neighbor whose behavior I could gossip about, except it was someone I would never meet, and wasn’t even a real person. I quickly realized that even if the shows were “unscripted,” the editing clearly did the job of establishing the hero and the villainess of the season. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that it would be quite easy to follow me with a camera for a month and cobble together 10 minutes of extremely unflattering footage. What separates me from these folks (besides being financially solvent, a size 10 rather than a size 2, less fashionable, and having a true vocation) is that I would never sign up for something like Real Housewives. I would not give someone else control over my identity, having possibly millions of people think they “know” me, and exposing my family to publicity, harassment, and judgment.

[5] If you already know that “reality television” is not “real,” why should you read this book? If you need to know why you should be good and mad, this is the book for you. In some sense, the horror of Reality Bites Back is in the details of what Pozner relates: it’s the humiliation, mostly of women and minorities, the perpetuation of stereotypes, the endorsement of eating disorders. Pozner takes a step back, however, and puts the horror into the context of commercial financial gain. She gives us the reasons that quality TV (remember M*A*S*H*? The Cosby Show?) programming has declined, and it mostly has to do with the cold, hard cash that rolls in to the networks that tie products closely to cheaply produced reality TV programming. Though there are notable exceptions, reality TV is a genre where a few stock stereotypes are reinforced regularly, where the shows do not address social issues constructively, and where there is no sense of artistic ownership or investment. The show exists to promote a product. It seems as if this is the difference — Television shows were always supposed to make money, but it used to be that they drew viewers by artistry, or perhaps shock value. But consumerism makes increasing consumption the end of the show. The means by which consumption is increased don’t matter. Pozner does a good job of building her reader’s wrath, though it seems to me that to make her case really well would require another volume entirely.

[6] What the book does not do is to give a sense of historical context. This is not the first time women have been treated as if they were without intrinsic dignity, as bodies to be bought and sold. One could read the book and almost think racism and sexism are new phenomena. Reality TV is a particularly potent prism of sexism and racism, but sexism and racism have roots embedded in our most fundamental institutions and traditions. In order to understand what (if anything) is truly novel and unique about racism and sexism on reality TV, the reader would need to know more about the history of racism and sexism in popular media. Pozner recommends awareness of the stereotypes being presented as the key to combating racism and sexism, but they do come from somewhere, and they do go somewhere, and they are part of everyday reality.

[7] This was the disappointing part of the book. Pozner comes within whispering distance of a profound conversation about stereotyping and media, but moves away from that conversation in favor of completing the book as an act of advocacy. Does she shy away from further analysis of racism and sexism because she lacks the language, or because she simply decides that advocacy is more urgent than understanding? It’s difficult to tell, but as the editor of a journal of religious ethics, I am accustomed to those kinds of discussions, and disappointed when they don’t happen.

[8] In the back of the book, she offers helpful and concrete suggestions for ways to lobby for change, and the names of organizations, as well as essays by their leaders, with which to connect. I appreciate that to no end, and it is in keeping with the purpose of the book as a writ of activism. Also in keeping with her purpose, Pozner might exaggerate for effect in some cases, such as when she discusses “What Not to Wear.” She zeroes in on one episode where the subject (well, maybe the object) goes shopping in Paris as evidence of the show’s high-end orientation. By and large, however, participants are shown shopping in mid-range department stores, and even low-range stores such as H&M. The thrilling part of “What Not to Wear” is not watching someone being humiliated in a 3-way mirror or going shopping. The thrilling part is the subject/object of the show coming to grips with the bad treatment from the boyfriend, the mastectomy, and finding the ways that she is beautiful. Women of all ages and body types are featured on the show and told that they are attractive. Really, the human drama is the draw, the consumerism the subliminal background. But, given the nature of the book, I accept Pozner’s bringing the background to the foreground and even if she occasionally makes generalizations that don’t hold up, I can tolerate that.

[9] All told, the book is a good conversation starter for people of faith. People of faith, however, have the resources to dig deeper and think harder. The language of faith tells us why sexism and racism are wrong, how they have wound their way into our lives, and how we as people of faith address these social sins. It struck me again as I was editing the papers for this issue. We have the means to address these issues. If only we would as passionately as Jennifer Pozner does.

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.