Reality TV (Re)Rewrites Gender Roles

Reality TV (Re)Rewrites Gender Roles

by Jennifer L. Pozner

Step right up, folks, it’s time for everyone’s favorite guessing game, Regress-o-Rama. Who said the following?

“I will make the best wife for Bob because I will be a servant to him. And if he comes home from a long day at the office, I’ll just rub his feet, and have dinner ready for him, and just [giggle] love on him!”

© Deborah Van Auten

Was it:

A. Nicole Kidman as a subservient cyborg in the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives

B. A devout attendee at the Southern Baptists’ 1998 Convention, heeding her clergy’s call for wives to “cheerfully submit” to their husbands

C. A single Mormon woman hoping to join the polygamous family in TLC’s reality series, Sister Wives

D. Christine, a bubbly twenty-four-year-old administrative assistant on ABC’s template-setting dating series The Bachelor, explaining why she should win a marriage proposal from some random dude instead of the 24 other hubby-hunting competitors he’d be making out with.

If you guessed “D,” congratulations — you win! Christine said this during The Bachelor‘s fourth season premier — before she’d ever met the man.

On second thought, we all lose.

I began actively monitoring unscripted programming when The Bachelor debuted in 2002, sensing a new resurgence of a classic antifeminist media meme. Since then, reality television has emerged as America’s most vivid example of pop cultural backlash against women’s rights and social progress. Compare the accomplishments and experiences of American women over the past decade with their depictions through the unscripted looking glass, and a systemic pattern emerges.

The same year Condoleezza Rice became the first African American female national security adviser, in 2000, Fox aired the first major-network reality dating show, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, a Miss America meets mail-order-bride parade based on the premise that women can only achieve success by proxy, as arm candy to rich men. In 2003, as female athletes scored new records in tennis, figure skating, soccer, swimming and pole vaulting, UPN unveiled America’s Next Top Model, teaching young women that their bodies are valuable only as decorative props for advertisers — the skinnier and weaker the better. While military mom Cindy Sheehan was organizing mothers and families against war in 2004, ABC and Fox brought the news media’s trumped up “mommy wars” to the boob tube in the form of Wife Swap and Trading Spouses, generally portraying women as bad wives and mothers if they pursued professional or political interests outside the home (and demonizing dads as wimps or poor role models if they were primary caregivers for their kids). By 2006 and 2007, when for the first time ever, women became Speaker of the House, president of Harvard, and commander of the International Space Station, yet on VH1’s Flavor of Love, women — especially women of color — were depicted as ignorant, violent, gold-digging sluts, and TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress presented thousands of dollars of name-brand beading and tulle as the key to female fulfillment. And in 2008, just as Hillary Clinton was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination and Sarah Palin became the GOP’s first female VP candidate, Bravo’s The Real Housewives franchise showcased women who aspire mostly to lives of leisure.

Nowhere has the backlash been more overt than in the reality relationship genre. American women have made great strides over the last decade in every professional field, and have redefined what love, family and happiness mean in the personal sphere. Yet in the unscripted (but carefully crafted) world of dating, marriage and lifestyle shows, women are not concerned with politics, law, athletics, activism or even careers in general (unless they’re competing for the supermodel/starlet/rock star gigs that populate ten-year-olds’ daydreams, or have schoolteacher/flight attendant/professional cheerleader jobs that were acceptable in the pre-feminist 1950s). Instead, reality TV producers, casting directors, editors and their product placement sponsors have collaborated to paint American women as romantically desperate, matrimonially obsessed and hypertraditionalist in their views about the “proper” role for wives and mothers, husbands and fathers.

© Deborah Van Auten

Women Don’t Lead on Reality TV

VH1 offers Tough Love via matchmaker Steve Ward, who opens every episode saying, “Nobody knows single women like I do. They’re lonely. They’re clueless. They’re needy.” Stylized illustrations of dapper dudes rejecting lovelorn ladies accompany this intro, rendering the Single American Female a symbol of misery. Through insults, paternalism and universal statements about “the male mind,” Ward commands women to follow his “boot camp” rules or be alone forever. If he can’t “train” these “slutty,” “dumb,” “soul-sucking” “losers,” he barks, they’ll never be able to land “Mr. Right.”

Women who’d recoil at their presumed passivity or inferiority either are not cast, are edited to appear ditzy, or find their objections left on the cutting room floor. As a result, the “self-loathing single gal” (classic line: “I don’t want to die alone!!!”) joins the Bitch, the Bimbo, the Slut, and the Gold Digger as a dominant reality TV stock character. “I’m a loser… what is so wrong with me that someone cannot love me for who I am?” wept Heather in 2002 during a tear-stained money shot found in every Bachelor elimination ceremony. In a “where are they now?” series update, she discussed her only ambition: “My goal right now is to get married. You always hear those horror stories. You know, ‘forty and single!’… I’m always nervous that Mr. Right is not going to come along.” Tough Love was still playing by the same script in 2010, with sexy simpleton Liz confessing that when she’s not “thinking about kittens or sunshine or something,” she’s feeling “like a failure” because she’s “not married right now at twenty-four years old… Walking down the aisle would finally make my life complete.”

Power imbalances in heterosexual relationships are codified in relationship shows. Tough Love gives women ideological makeovers with advice ripped from 1950s finishing school manuals: “Act interested even though you’re not.” Laugh at men’s jokes even if they’re not funny. Don’t be opinionated, do be “uncomplicated.” On Bravo, The Millionaire Matchmaker‘s Patti Stanger spells out gendered prescriptions point-blank: “It is so important for women to be women and men to be men, and to keep those roles intact. It’s worked for millions of years.” But what does that mean after 40 years of feminism? Simple, Stanger instructs: When you’re on a date, “You listen. You’re not the leader in this situation. You let the man lead… You gotta, like, be the actress in the movie, not the director.” Dating show hotties read from this script. “You can lead,” a doe-eyed divorcée whispered while dancing with a Bachelor. “You can lead me in life. And that’s what I want.”

But what of men who want partners, not servants? The Millionaire Matchmaker shows them the error of their ways. When ex-NFL star Matt “Hatch” Hatchett said that he wanted a relationship with an “ambitious” “career woman,” Stanger flipped out. Hatch “needs to shut his mouth,” she told the cameras. “He wants it to be equal society here… I’m really getting sick of this!” Far more typical was Jason, an overweight, seemingly stoned heir to the 20th Century Fox fortune, who wanted The Millionaire Matchmaker to locate his dream woman: “I want hot blond, big tits. Definitely funny. Kind of like a Stepford Wife.” Potential Stepford wives are plentiful in the reality universe, so Stanger set him up with a girl who giggled when he “joked” that “You’re the woman, you’re supposed to serve.”

Real Progress, Reality TV Backlash

Between 2000 and 2010, while reality producers focused on a narrow, regressive interpretation of marriage in which all single women are pathetic, all couples are straight, parenting and housecleaning are women’s work, families can survive on only the income of a Strong Male Provider, and “love” is the sole domain of skinny white women and rich white men (not one person of color has headlined any of the 14 seasons of The Bachelor or six seasons of The Bachelorette), actual American couples were redefining relationships in countless ways. Women postponed marriage longer than ever before. More stay-at-home dads took primary responsibility for childcare. Lesbian and gay couples fought for –and increasingly won — the right to legally marry. Low-income women were working multiple jobs to keep food on their tables, feminists were advocating family leave and childcare policies, and middle- and upper-middle-class women were breaking barriers in business and government. The babes of “reality” TV? They just dreamed of cheerful, suburban dependence.

Reality television
shows pop culture’s
backlash against

Mike Darnell, president of alternative entertainment at Fox, says his most successful reality shows are “steeped in some social belief.” He’s right. All this compulsory domesticity, this negating of individuality and will, rests on the underlying notion that women should think like ’50s TV mom June Cleaver, screw like porn star Jenna Jameson, and look like Miss USA. It’s a Donna Reed-meets-Pamela Anderson mashup, and ain’t pretty. Despite how frivolous reality TV may seem or how much producers say it’s all in good fun, the genre’s psychological browbeating has political ramifications. These shows reinforce insecurities bred into women by decades of factually inaccurate news media reports of supposed “man shortages” and broken-down biological clocks, such as that infamous, landscape-shaping — and completely inaccurate — 1986 Newsweek story that claimed that single women had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married after 40. Reality TV’s wedding-industrial-complex shows insist we’re doomed to unhappiness unless we rid ourselves of all traces of independence, ambition or — heaven forbid — feminist thought.

Darnell has said that he and other reality programmers just “give people what they want, pushing the envelope to match tastes.” In fact, they’re trying to alter our tastes, to convince us that 21st century Americans do not see women and men — or our society in general — much differently than we did before the women’s rights and civil rights movements. Reality TV producers, embedded advertisers and media owners have done what the most ardent fundamentalists have never been able to achieve: They’ve created a universe in which women not only have no real choices — but don’t even want any.

But what if you do want better choices — in life, and in the media landscape? That’s where media literacy education and media justice activism come in. More than a dozen activists and independent media producers in the conclusion of my new book Reality Bites Back offer you great places to start, from lobbying for media literacy curricula in K-12 schools, to challenging media consolidation, to working with coalitions such as MAG-Net (the Media Action Grassroots Network) to advocate a healthier, more independent and diverse media climate. If you don’t appreciate this pop cultural backlash — then it’s time to bite back.

Jennifer L. Pozner is founder and Executive Director of Women In Media & News and editor of WIMN’s Voices, the group blog on women and the media. Her first book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, was just published by Seal Press.

Also see Media Literacy: Piercing Content and Who Controls It by Jennifer L. Pozner in the Spring 2010 edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Icons, Superheroes and Fantasies a Feminist Can Love? by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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