Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L. Pozner

Title: Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV
Author: Jennifer L. Pozner
Publisher: Seal Press
Release Date: October 19, 2010
Pages: 392 pages (paperback)
How I Got the Book: Bought it.
Purchase/Pre-order: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository
Promotional Materials and More: book website

Reality TV is intentionally cast and edited to get us to think less and buy more. In Reality Bites Back, journalist Jennifer L. Pozner takes a funny yet unflinching look at ho our favorite shows reinforce stereotypes and force-feed us messages about who we're supposed to be and what we're supposed to want. For most of us, reality TV is a guilty pleasure we indulge in and give little thought to, but Pozner exposes the commercial and political agendas behind this influential genre, revealing how our favorite shows negatively impact women, people of color, and future generations.


I fancy myself a media critic, though I'm not always a good one. My focus is YA novels and though I can certainly sort out good subtext from bad and call out seriously problematic elements with ease, I'm nowhere near as sharp when it comes to movies and television. The premise of Pozner's book interested me after I finished another nonfiction novel last year, so I put this on my to-read list and finally jumped for it a few months ago. Wow. Just wow. I did not expect this book to open my eyes like this.

Though Pozner's book focuses on reality television, the criticism she makes of overall devices and character/casting choices can be made of all media, including my beloved YA novels. Where a woman might be cast specifically to play The Bitch on a reality show, writers create a character whose specific purpose is to be The Bitch. Someone who shouldn't be cast as a romantic interest in a reality show (like Rick Rockwell of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, who had a history of abusing women before he was cast) is somehow cast; in YA novels, a guy who shouldn't be a viable romantic interest because he's a terrible person or a rapist somehow is.

Most significantly, she makes a point that all media must have social responsibility for the messages it sends through the magic of editing and backstage trickery (like tricking a contestant into saying something off-camera and then splicing that bit in as a voiceover). This is what I beg for YA to have because it can push some very negative messages on people who are susceptible to them.

Reality television (and most media, incidentally, including YA novels) rarely want to take responsibility for themselves and the messages they send. It's all in the name of "giving people what they want" (aka "what's most outrageous and/or will make us the most money"), "mindless entertainment" that is anything but mindless, and "reality" that is carefully scripted and edited. Heck, calling it reality is problematic in itself because people will think this kind of crock heavily edited for dramatic impact and full of anti-women, anti-POC, anti-LGBT messages is "reality." Its subtextual messages about what makes men and women worthy, their roles in relationships and in society, and how they should act are close to insidious.

Pozner never acts like people are mindless sheep who will be brainwashed by whatever they watch and I don't believe they are either. I can watch The Bachelor or Say Yes to the Dress without coming to think being desperate for a husband and a fairytale wedding day is what I should do because it's "normal" in even the smallest of ways. Her point is that while some people can let the subtext in reality TV shows slide right off them, some people are affected by them--like teenage girls who aspire to be on America's Next Top Model (arguably one of the most toxic of reality shows), diet for that purpose, and see nothing wrong with the show.

Not even its use of blackface multiple times, internalized racism by its producer Tyra Banks, romanticism of violence against women, and how it tears women apart, criticizing them for everything sounding too smart when they speak to looking too ethnic, are wrong in their eyes. Nope, nothing wrong there except everything.

Though Reality Bites Back is a little lacking in its discussion of LGBT people on reality televison, there is good reason for that: it's pretty hard to find any LGBT people on reality television. Why that is and the way reality TV seems to define "men" (hot, rich, white, straight) and "women" (skinny, insecure, white, straight, desperate, inept, evil... I really could go on; reality television by and large hates women) so narrowly is something she takes the time to discuss multiple times. The few significant LGBT people that made it onto reality television are examined very well.

Eventually, Pozner expands her point to include all media because the minds behind the reality shows have a hand in all our media. Disney, the owner of ABC, used its news programs and a special called Profiles from the Front Line to support going to war in Iraq and feed people's fears as it supported their agenda. On an episode of Wife Swap, a pro-war, pro-Bush mom was touted as pro-American; the peace activist mother she switched with was decried as un-American (and falsely labeled an atheist; she was actually a Quaker). Shows like Say Yes to the Dress are series-long product placements. "Mindless entertainment" is anything but; through subtext and product placement both subtle and blatant, they are influencing how we think, feel, buy, and live.

While I was in the middle of reading this book, I saw Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with my two best friends and I found my attention more easily drawn to how it portrayed women and people of color. I couldn't help but notice that all women of note were villains, victims, or love interests; late in the movie, the love interest and a large group of predominately black and female house servants are referred to by the title character as his "contingency plan." That spells it out that they're not characters; they're a collective plot device used to make sure Lincoln's plan doesn't fail. That this movie takes place in an alternate history where vampires are real and Lincoln hunted them does not excuse lacking characterization for anyone that isn't white and male.

The above paragraph makes me feel incredibly proud of myself because before this book, I wouldn't have made that kind of criticism of a movie, I don't think. I wasn't even done with the book and I paid that much attention to those elements! If anyone desires to become a discerning media critic/activist and they haven't already read this book, they need to. I thought I knew a lot, but Reality Bites Back taught me even more.

5 stars!

What am I reading next?: Smart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah Strohmeyer

1 comment:

  1. Sounds awesome, but Im already so hm, disillusioned with society, that Im afraid that if I do read this, I will get grumpy and angry with the world even more that I often do.
    Hell, Im such a feminist girl that 70% of what comes out of the mouth of my friends and family in general annoys me to no end. I cant almost never find a book that is not full of machist shit that seems to bother only me.
    Well, all in all, nice review.


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