January 2011

Koa Beck


Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner

Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV is the debut book by Women in Media & News founder and feminist journalist Jennifer L. Pozner. An established media critic and leader of media literacy workshops, Pozner has compiled nearly ten years of analysis and research of recent reality shows such as The Millionaire Matchmaker, America’s Next Top Model, and The Real Housewives series, all the way back to Survivor and The Bachelor. Pozner unpacks these guilty pleasure shows with an eye for sexism, racism, misrepresentations of LGBTQ individuals, and canned messages about romantic relationships and gender dynamics.

Pozner opens Reality Bites Back with an introduction into the reality TV industry, identifying common strategies, and formulas that often birth a new reality TV venture. Although profit is the main, if not only, objective for executives, Pozner pulls a particularly startling quote from Mike Darnell, a Fox executive, with which to establish the tone of her book:“The reality business is a delicate science… you need a premise that is easy to understand, that’s steeped in some social belief.”

From there, Pozner lays out powerful, permeating, and detrimental tropes about women as relating to trustworthiness, intelligence, and commitment to their families and work. Through The Flavor of Love, The Hills, and Joe Millionaire, Pozner identifies repeated evidence of negative stereotypes -- manipulated and scripted to fit the narrative of each show.

Although most women in reality TV are reduced to gender essentialist depictions, Pozner maintains that even in spaces in which tradition is fiercely guarded, women are still represented as incompetent. She cites examples of sobbing single women on The Bachelor, distressed at the thought of being single, the horrendous brides of Bridezilla, basket cases as they are about to wed, The Real Housewives, more invested in their physical appearance than their children, along with many others.  

Pozner writes:

Women, the genre suggests ad naseam, should be confined to their rightful realms of hearth and home (and, of course, hot tubs and strip clubs). But a funny thing happened on the way to prime time. Even when we’ve shed any last indicators of pesky ambition for the confinement of reality TV approved domesticity, we still can’t perform our "natural" roles with any efficacy… As a whole, the reality TV landscape paints us as failures in the domestic domain that we’re supposed to believe is our sole responsibility.

Pozner also exposes reality TV as, essentially, the sweatshop of modern day television. Although producing a reality TV show costs a mere fraction of a standard television series, executives rarely do much to reward participants for their time on television, often conning winners out of their prizes or refusing to pay them. Participants of America’s Next Top Model compare the working conditions of the show to a women’s penitentiary, asserting that they were underfed, overworked, with little access to loved ones and family. Irritable moods caused by such constraints are often edited together to create drama when there isn’t any as editors freely admit to using the art of “Frankenbiting” -- editing material that was shot days apart to create fictitious confessions. Pozner uncovers incidents in which producers often barter with cast members to procure vindictive monologues about other cast members.

Pozner’s writing is quick and accessible, coupling unrelenting feminist analysis with humor -- an accomplishment worth noting. Her authoritative voice is not compromised by her own personal reactions to reality TV and media, often manifesting as cheeky comments or rhetorical questions.

Her narrative scales a wall-to-wall anticipation for reality TV justification, delving right into the illusion of public demand for this type of entertainment and the reasoning that it’s both frivolous and harmless. In a preempted strike, Pozner writes:

Though no single episode of those or their copycats can do widespread damage, the potential effects of this type of media are disturbing when taken as a whole. From multiple channels, with varied commercial constructed products pumping similar messages through sheer repetition for years, this form of media has the power to influence our notions of normalcy versus difference, convince us that certain behaviors are "innate" for different groups of people, and present culturally constructed norms of gender, race, class, and sexuality, as "natural," rather than performances we’ve learned to adopt through societal education and expectation.

Reality Bites Back is a call to arms as Pozner incites a demand for higher quality television through activism, consistent analysis, and resistance. Despite the many shortcomings of reality TV, Pozner does not demand that her readers disengage with it completely. She addresses reality TV enthusiasts with loving arms but asks them to simply watch their beloved shows more critically, mindful of the sexist narratives, racist tropes, and heterosexist discourse.

Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner
Seal Press
ISBN: 1580052657
392 Pages