Rethinking Reality TV

Whenever I think of reality television, I can’t help but laugh at the old Robin Williams line about Fox TV’s Celebrity Boxing show back in 2002: “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there”. Oh, how prescient Mork was a mere dozen years ago. Today’s reality tv programming still has not brought us to the end of the world, but that brink is perilously closer than ever. I cannot fathom any redeeming value in Duck Dynasty, a show which glorifies such down-home “values” as literalist Bible thumping, homophobia, and passing off poorly spoken ignorance as “wisdom”. I have special disdain for Honey Boo Boo, which was a spin-off of a child abusing showcase entitled Toddlers and Tiaras. Survivor is barely a cut above the not long enough ago cancelled Joe Rogan/NBC venture Fear Factor, where contestants would eat live insects for a chance at winning an amount of money insignificant enough to underscore the fact that pride can be bought very cheaply indeed. But I wring my hands in migraine-inducing frustration at any reality show that involves dating, the Beauty Myth, or which plays into the wedding industrial complex. The Bachelor; Bachelorette; Say Yes to the Dress; Real Housewives of (insert city here); The Swan; Dr. 90210; Extreme Makeover; and the rest of their ilk, are not only devoid of any positive values but actually perpetuate dangerous stereotypes about women and relationships. Indoctrination through repetition of these negative representations will make it difficult for children, teens and women (for the ratings show that teens of both genders and women 18 to 49 make up the majority of these shows’ viewership) to be satisfied in real relationships with real people, living real life.

The Hollywood romantic ideal peddled to little girls through Disney fairy tales and as reinforced to those women as they mature through movies such as Bridget Jones, Pretty Woman, Love Actually et al have long fuelled the fantasies of many of their female audience. Fantasies where they will be swept away by the tall, handsome stranger across the room, taken from a working class life into high society, only to be romanced and ravished daily for happily ever after. (I note that the “prince” in these roles is never a short, lean, middle-aged Jewish lawyer. But I digress). The fairy tales and movies are just that. The youngest fans, the least discriminating viewers, and even those of questionable intelligence understand they are watching an artificial creation- that these are stories disseminated in cartoon form or by actors on a screen playing a role. Sadly, the current crop of reality shows- which by all accounts have spectacular ratings- combined with the constant advertising bombardment and in-show product placements, are selling something different. Not fantasy, but a carefully crafted misogynistic and often racist narrative. All women can be happy if only they are young enough, thin enough, pretty enough, white enough, and have a man who will lavish them in designer baubles. Is it really just mere entertainment? The constant message of reality dating and makeover shows is to reinforce the fact that our lives and relationships must always be exciting, perfect, fairytale like. That we must always buy the newest styles in order to be glamorous. Moreover, according to a steady diet of reality dating and marriage shows, why ever settle again? Arguments? Money troubles? Sexual dysfunction? Kids? Parents? In-laws? Mortgages? Careers? Homework? Dance lessons? Hockey practice? No, no, no and nope. Every woman can and should have her Prince Charming, and he will handsome, rich (maybe famous too). She will have lots of immigrant domestic help. Her friends will be lovely and glamorous. No nights at the local pub or watching movies, but a constant schedule of galas, vacations and fancy restaurants. Don’t have that perfect man yet? No problem. The underlying theme is that you shouldn’t settle. Instead, trade in your current shlub for the Prince Charming who is surely is just around the corner.

This is not to mention the subtle and not no subtle forms of racism in these shows. The contestants are almost entirely white. When women (or men) of colour are part of the cast of these shows, they are almost always there as some sort of token. And rest assured their on-camera antics will be manipulated by the producers to slot these token characters into any one of many of (white) society’s most blatantly offensive personifications.

As the father of three children, 2 boys and a girl, I worry about the effects of this media on my kids and their generation. I am concerned with how my daughter will value herself and what she will find important as she grows up. Will she focus only on her natural beauty, which is what everyone compliments her on, and end up basing all her happiness on her partner and her relationships? Or will she use the fact that she does well in school, is smart, curious, much too well traveled for a 9 year old, and has a preternatural ambition, to carve out a life for herself where she finds happiness in her inner self and her achievements, where she will look for a man (or woman) to enhance her already full life?
Even more significantly, I am worried about how these mediated images which portray women as only worthy for their beauty (although even that is held to an unrealistic standard), and who we are constantly told are backstabbing bitches, gossips, and gold-diggers, will impact my sons’ views of the opposite sex. My greatest fear for my boys is that they would grow up to be like the men who appear on the Bachelor or similar shows; men whose ingrained disrespect for women is exceeded only by the shallow veneer of faux chivalry that is trotted out at key turning points in the “plot” of the series.
I worry my children, who are growing up blind to the differences in skin colour and religious belief, will be influenced by the racist archetypes of reality tv producers.

My children see me surrounded by strong women who I respect. They see me surrounded by a group of ethnically and religiously diverse friends and business associates. They see how I treat women and people who may look different than I. I only hope I set the right example by making sure that I behave respectfully toward all of the women I encounter, as well as those whose cultural identity differs from my family’s. I hope they see this not just in terms of my relationships with those who are a regular part of my life, but also in my daily interactions with strangers. As parents, it is important to instill values by leading as opposed to just paying lip service. This is paramount because we all know the damage that can be done to young minds by media images and the influence on kids by friends whose own views are warped by the misogyny of advertising and reality tv.

Notwithstanding my vigilance in this regard, even I fall prey to the insidiousness of the beauty ideal. It has been pointed out to me twice in the last few months that when I talk about my boys, I mention their scholastic and athletic achievements, their genuine maturity, intellect and kindness. Yet when describing my daughter, it appears I often lapse into describing her first and foremost as “gorgeous” or “stunning” (which she is, but she is also brilliant, a competitive dancer, well mannered, excelling in school, kind, compassionate, and way too ambitious for her age).

All of this was recently driven home again as I am reading journalist and feminist Jennifer Pozner’s excellent 2010 polemic Reality Bites Back, a detailed analysis of how reality tv reinforces notions of the Beauty Myth, the subjugation of women, and the impact of how these views shape the expectations of women and men in terms of real relationships with real people.

To those parents, who like me, thought these shows were just harmless, mindless entertainment for our teenagers to chill out to at the end of a long day of studying, extracurriculars and part time jobs, I would implore you to read this book and reconsider. I am not suggesting the shows be banned. Television producers have a right to produce whatever they wish. They are neither educators nor governors- they hold no special place in society that should require them to adhere to any particular feminist or other ideology (as we know too well from history that is a slippery slope). Quite frankly, to expect some sort of communications laws to control the television producers is just an abdication of our parental responsibility. Nor do I suggest we restrict our children from watching a particular show because of our own aversions. But as parents, we owe it to ourselves, our children, and other parents, to be aware of what our kids are watching; to combat the negative effects of those shows with serious discussion; and to live our lives in a way which reinforces the values we want our children to develop. Only by making such a concerted effort will we ensure that these shows are relegated to mere entertainment with no ability to instill a misogynistic, racist, anachronistic value system on the next generation.