Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jennifer L Pozner: Reality Bites Back

Before I blog about this awesome book by Jenn Pozner (follow her on twitter- she's awesome, you need to watch this video (H/T to Laughing Squid.) It will get you in the mood, and it's relevant.

You're in the mood to think about advertising and media, right? Jenn Pozner watched approximately 8 bajillion hours of reality TV in order to deconstruct the effects that the genre has on (American) ideas of gender and race (and to a lesser degree, class). Full disclosure: I don't own a TV. I've never seen an episode of "America's Next Top Model" or "American Idol." I had never even heard of "Flavor of Love" till I read this book. I had heard of some of the "Home Makeover" type shows, and "Top Chef," but not only have I not seen them, they don't even interest me. Throughout the book, I kept trying to remember any episode of any reality show that I might have seen- the only one I can think of is the first season of "Survivor"- my dad and sister were really into it, as was most of the country, and I do think I watched a few episodes. One of the reasons I don't have a TV is because I hate the commercials. I hate the idea that someone is selling me something every time I turn on the TV. Well, I hate it even more after reading Pozner's book: you don't have to wait for the commercials to be sold something. Turns out, most of reality TV is an advertisement. Some of the shows are completely paid for by the sponsors. Like the product placements in the videos above, the shows are half hour long advertisements for jewelry companies, cleaning products, makeup companies, etc. Any thoughts I had of experimenting with a new show just went out the window. Yuck. "The genre of reality TV would not exist as we know it today without embedded advertising," she writes. These shows are not about entertainment with some advertising thrown in like the movie clips above, they're about "manufacturing entertainment around sponsors' goods."

Pozner's book is based on the premise that you don't have to take my route out and turn off and tune out. Rather, she encourages readers/reality TV watchers to watch "guilty pleasure" TV as long as they understand what they're seeing; be willing to deconstruct; and hopefully move forward with activism. Reverse the "take no prisoners" attitude of the producers of these shows and fight the bullshit that they are perpetuating. First, it's important to acknowledge that the shows aren't in the business of making good TV (as I said above)- they're in the business of making cheap TV to fill airtime in order to make bank for a few giant media companies. These are the "Big Six": Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, General Electric, Viacom and CBS, which control pretty much everything that we take in on TV. Where TV producers and writers used to have some integrity about product placement and advertisement in general, reality TV (and TV at large) now use some basic strategies to make sure it's all ads, all the time: brand integration in the shows (placing products in visible locations throughout the set), dialogue revolving around products ("Oh, honey, I just NEED that Banana Republic shirt!"), and even in the plot (for the next shoot, we'll see the models skip around Target to make the next ad campaign). Even if you pride yourself, like me, on being semi-advertiser--proof, it's impossible to get around. The ads ARE the show.

Second, it's important to remember that these Big Six are heavily manipulative in the ideas about society they put out there, and hide them under the code word of "reality." If these are Real People doing Real Things, the beliefs about women's roles in society must be true, right? If these are Real People on these shows, they must WANT to be there, right? If these shows are So Popular, it must be because the viewing public wants to see them, right? Not at all, not on any count. The shows, while claiming to be unscripted, are heavily edited to highlight several basic themes that make for "Good TV" (i.e. TV that rakes in the money while costing very little), and aren't really representative of reality at all. While some of the cast may want to be on the shows, producers often use tricks to get them signed up, including making cast members believe they will be on entirely different types of shows entirely. And the viewing public isn't really interested in some of these shows at all- the hype around them is often entirely generated by the companies that make the products that are paying to sponsor the shows and the Big 6 that are putting on the show. The shows exist because they are hyped, and the hype causes people to believe that they are missing something. We are being sold a product that is selling us stuff. (Sidenote: I know this sounds like something I would say, something that I would believe, but I am really truly reviewing Pozner's book here. I love the book, and feel totally vindicated by it, but you don't have to believe me. Like I said, I don't even watch reality TV. Believe Pozner. She watched it all, like a true martyr to the cause.)

So what is the bullshit that Reality TV is selling us (besides jewelry, cars, soap, etc)? Basically, Pozner demonstrates, if you had no idea that this is the year 2011, and just watched a whole lot of Reality TV to develop a mindset on where women stand in society and how America views people of color, you'd probably think we were somewhere between the 50s and the 70s. It's that bad. Women's agency is stripped, almost from the get-go of the majority of reality TV shows ("ANTM," "The Swan," "The Bachelor," etc.): life is a fairytale, but only if the fairytale is "done to a woman rather than achieved by one." Women are princesses, and they need their men to come get them ASAP. Not only that, they WANT their men to come get them, ASAP, no matter what. The individual man doesn't matter, the cost of finding this man doesn't matter- hell, it's a man and every (real, remember?) Woman Needs a Man. The premise of the "Bachelor" type-shows is that women are fighting for the right to marry a man. "A Man," as in, generic. They don't even know the man they are fighting to marry, but without him, they're not Good, Complete, Happy, Healthy, Women. The fairytale is complete when one ones. Who cares if the man has a history of domestic violence, or is a total douche, or in the case where women are competing for a man because he is rich, isn't rich at all. He is a Man, and in the fairytale, the girly princess Gets The Man.

The white girly princess, who doesn't work, loves wearing dresses, wants kids, and loves serving a man. Women of color don't get the man, of course. Women of color are portrayed by their stereotypes: skanks, hos, exotic, etc. Smart women are eliminated- agency doesn't sell stuff, subservience does. Tears REALLY sell stuff. And the next thing to remember is that although viewers are led to believe that these Real Women are mimicking societal views, they are actually creating them: "In the reality TV universe, human beings are not a product of their environments and of cultural conditioning- they are simply acting out the roles preset for them by their DNA or their deity." So TV presents the princess and the gold diggers as preordained and as real, and we viewers accept them as real because a) they're presented that way by convincing TV producers and b) they're REAL dammit, not actors/actresses. So the hegemonic and sadistic and old-fashioned ideas are reproduced and passed on to TV viewers. (While selling us crap. Remind me again why I don't have a TV?) In Pozner's words, "reality TV producers codify, rather than reflect, viewers' prejudices." Further, because we're conditioned to believe that we are represented by reality TV, rather conditioned by it, producers of the shows can feed us lines racist TV and then convince us that "it's not racist if people enjoy it." We wouldn't watch TV shows if they weren't socially acceptable, right? And the shows wouldn't be on if Real People didn't believe this stuff, right? And women really want the Princess Life, right? And black people really are violent gold diggers, right? No.

I'm not going to go into each myth that reality TV would have us believe. There are tons, and they're not new ones. Thin is good, stuff makes you happy, white is right, etc. Reality TV is a new, sophisticated means to pass on these tropes (one of my favorite words that Pozner uses to its fullest). And lest you think that these are harmless and passe societal cliches, apparently there are reality beauty shows that are about 5-7 year old beauty pageants. Your young child can be a beauty queen, too, if only she is cute enough, made up enough, and yes, sexy enough. Onward and upward with the sexist, racist value system! Sing it, small children! Pozner gives us the tools to unpack reality TV, and the myths it promulgates. If you watch reality TV or any TV at all, you need to read this book. If you're like me, and watch very little TV (I have my shows that I follow, but none of them claim to be remotely real), you need to read this book. If you live anywhere outside of a bubble, and you do if you're reading this, you need to read this book. Check the website, too, for a lot of cool links and useful information, as well as WIMN, Women in Media and News, one of Pozner's projects. Unlike me in most of my book reviews, Pozner goes a step further: not only does she tell us the sad state of television, she gives ideas on how to move forward. Thank goodness. And we better use these, too, because as it stands now, the media has a whole lot more power than any one of us readers and fighters. It's time to get up off our couches and fight for the right to be REAL!


susan said...

So glad someone finally wrote this all down. Thanks for the review. It's interesting (and sad) to me how this sort of "business model" has made it's way through a number of professions like some socio-cultural disease.