James Worsdale is ready to stop being polite and start getting fired!

At the Worsdale home on a Sunday afternoon, it’s not unusual to walk into a scene where my three sisters and myself are leisurely enjoying an ANTM (America’s Next Top Model) Obsessed Marathon on Oxygen (that’s: television for women, for those of you at home who resist the weapon of mass distraction). Always while watching this show, I cringe and guffaw at the lunacy of the judges panel, the blatancy of the product placement throughout everyday interactions and challenges the contestants go through, and the uncomfortable line it teeters on as existing as harmless fashion camp or feminist backlash and exploitation.

So much of these neuroses and the reasons behind why critical readers of the media experience them while watching reality television programming are thoroughly discussed from a structural standpoint in Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. The book chronicles her analysis of reality television shows from her viewing hours of programming from the years 2000-2010. She comes at most of it from a Marxist-Feminist angle saying that, “reality television is intentionally cast and edited to get us to think less and buy more.”

Pozner’s book begins with the exposure of the fairytale values that drive the genre’s dominant narratives, and how advertisers and television producers manipulate viewers’ emotional attachment and naiveté towards potential truth in those conservative and idealistic tales. This presentation of the fairytale as truth then becomes justified to the producers to present:

The secret to airing a successful reality TV show is create a premise that is ‘steeped in some social belief.’ And, as we’ll soon see, similar stereotypes about race, class, beauty, and sexual orientation are endemic, even necessary, to reality TV—in all its forms.

This inherently manipulative formula by production discounts the theory of the genre’s longevity being based in a closer resemblance to human tendency as proposed by Chuck Klosterman. It is more exploitative of cultural biases and heightened stereotypes than reflective of social truths and cultural accuracy.

Pozner goes on to articulate the disproportionately negative depictions of women, people of color and queer people in the format and talks about the dangers of reality television becoming the bulk of mass media because of mass media’s contemporary existence as “the prime purveyor of cultural hegemony.” She also discusses how the portrayal of these groups aids in the maintenance of the patriarchal structure by turning us against one another.

Much of the fault in this, according to Pozner, lies in advertisers’ deeply embedded interest in this type of programming and presentation. By positing the shows within the perceived realm of “reality,” brand integration feels like a piece of that reality that then drives the necessity to buy products and brands featured on the program to ascertain some semblance of that reality. (Can you wrap your head around THAT Naomi Klein?!). Of course, that reality is always already within the realm of the fairy tale.

So what? Everyone knows it’s fake. Besides, I’m too smart to fall for product placement. Pozner addresses this attitude as well explaining, “Plainly put, advertising doesn’t work despite our belief we are above it—it works precisely because of that belief.” I know what you’re thinking, but Peggy Olson did not ghostwrite this book, I promise you. Pozner also includes a breakdown of the leadership in media and telecom executives, noting that “women are only 3% of top-level decision making” in those companies, which drive programming and advertisers.

I really can’t recommend the book enough, especially for how well it illustrates the genre’s bigoted exterior and gives context to its sinister undertones. Pozner closes with possibilities for action and resistance, including a highly inclusive resource guide in the end. She highlights several reinterpretations of the narratives provided by reality television programming, including the hilarious Queer Housewives of NYC at Pop Culture Pire by Elisa Kreisinger, and encourages projects such as Seattle’s ReelGrrls, both of which I strongly recommend checking out. The need for critical filters is huge, but snarky snickering will only take us so far.

Reading this book as a queer guy, rather than just as a culture critic, was particularly upsetting, especially one who so avidly enjoys television and media and once saw (and maybe still sees a little) potential in the idea of reality television as a mechanism for building empathy and driving social change. I think a lot of what Pozner critiques is how unregulated the infrastructure that creates and maintains so much of the programming has a lot to do with its shortcomings. Few if any of the programs’ writers (and they all have writers) are unionized and, honestly, did you ever think the participants were protected from exploitation in any way? Perhaps with more regulation it could be better, though I have to be honest and say probably not.

To me it’s particularly disappointing in the case of The Real World, the lost child of reality television. Now they provoke and galvanize oftentimes hatefully ignorant sociopaths rather than give a platform to brave individuals seeking a chance to provide a face and a voice against prejudice. Though it is perhaps equally insulting that in Project Runway, a show with a nearly dominant gay fan base, gay men are allowed to be boundlessly talented, excessively flamboyant, tragically and heroically ill, but never romantic.

So if I’ve sufficiently piqued your interest and you need a reason to quit ANTM besides Rich from fourfour no longer posting recaps (and really, without those there is no reason to watch the show), then check out Pozner’s book and you too will understand why the last time I was in DC there was a line around the block to Georgetown Cupcake (spoiler alert: as Joan Rivers quipped, “What’s wrong with this country? The evening news is down to 30 minutes a day but we have 85 reality shows about midgets making cupcakes?”

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