Hard as it to believe, the paradoxically named genre of reality TV has actually been a force on prime time television for a decade now. Because these are really nothing more than game shows on steroids, it is the competitive element that is the locus of the worst elements of stereotyping. Whether the ultimate prize is a recording contract or a multimillionaire husband, the contestants on these shows are contributing to an ideology that already values competition over cooperation in the labor force. By creating a sense of drama in the form of competitive confrontation, reality TV shows reproduce the traditional madonna/whore duality by daring female contestants to put their dignity on the line by engaging in the worst of kind of stereotypical female behavior. Even just a cursory viewing of many reality TV shows reveal a pattern of gender stereotyping that serves to further inculcate an ideology in which human beings are reduced to commodities to be bought and sold.
Producers exert every possible effort to reinforce the belief that what is being viewed are situations in which real emotions are being expressed and not acted. But in order to achieve the ultimate goal of any television show-high ratings to increase advertising revenue-producers know they have to create drama and give viewers someone to root for…and against. Nothing creates drama better confrontation, so producers routinely choose contestants who exhibit slightly exaggerated stereotypical behavior and personality quirks.
It is the fact that the stereotypes are presented with just enough of a patina of normality that is the real problem. Because these shows are designed and produced in such a way that they are effectively carbon copies of the structure of fictional episodic television they lend themselves to caricature and stereotype. This is facilitated by the fact that even though the contestants are not necessarily reading a script, they are still placed into situations in which they must “act” but since most are not trained actors there must necessarily be a reduction in the depth of characterization. The result is that these untrained non-professionals are assigned a categorical imperative that is, perhaps or perhaps not, a reflection of their most obvious personality trait. That is why it seems that every reality show, regardless of the theme or structure, contains such instantly recognizable gender and racial stereotypes as “the Bitch”, “the Playah”, “the Rebel”, and “the Big Funny Sistah” among a multitude of other generic categories.
Likewise, shows stereotype male contestants who are intelligent as “Nerds.” The more profound effects of this branding as types is that it serves to reduce the complexity of the human race. Even the least attractive female contestant is likely to be judged in terms of her attractiveness rather than her intelligence or even personality. By reducing the complexity of “real” people down to some basic character trait, these shows further inculcate the ideology of simplicity that ultimately results in warped thinking that can eventually transform into racism or homophobia.
Of course, it doesn’t matter whether the women are smart or stupid, one thing that can be relied upon is that they will all be lacking in loyalty or trust. Reality TV’s most dangerous message is that in the world of business or pleasure or love or sex competition is everything and trust is a luxury one cannot afford. It has become a mainstay of this kind of programming that they be manipulated in such a way as to create an atmosphere where trust and loyalty are exchanged at the outset for set of knives to be shoved into the spine of anyone who presents an obstacle toward success. The most demeaning reality shows, the ones in which the prize is an actual human being such as The Bachelor or Joe Millionaire, routinely strive to further deepen the misogynist view that women are not only catty and bitchy, but really little more than whores willing to sell their dignity if not necessarily their bodies in exchange for the lure of love; or, in the case of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, security.
The flip side of this affront is the portrayal of male contestants. What kind of message is sent out to impressionable young males when they watch a show in which some lucky stud gets to have twenty or so women fighting over him? The answer is not just one that happens to be recognized by producers and networks, but is one that is integral the ideological design of these shows. By turning women into a commodity that can be browsed, purchased and discarded in favor of another, the effect of reality shows is intensely aligned with the capitalist system that has allowed them to flourish. Without a steady stream of new products for consumers to purchase, the American economy would collapse. Over the past few decades as American industry has been outsourced overseas the result has been that the shift from a producer economy to a consumer economy and in turn everything has transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold.
It is this obsession with competition to the exclusion of cooperation that can be pointed to as the beginning of one’s failure to adequately nurture their growing sense of compassion and understanding and the reproduction of traditional gender and racial stereotypes subtly contribute to not only that lack of compassion, but the lack of a desire to understand the complexity of another person. The unwillingness to try to understand complex origins leads to the faulty execution of fixing problems that aren’t adequately apprehended, such invading a sovereign country that posed not imminent security threat in order to correct a perceived threat that is related to cultural ideology. In a way, the whole invasion of Iraq has played out like a sad, sick reality game. Images on television are shockingly bloodless leading to a natural distance and alienation of its realness; it has become a simulated war that contains all the elements of a reality TV show. It has been and continued to be sold as a competition that must be won; it is populated by non-professional actors who nonetheless act to keep the illusion of the reality they wish the audience to accept, and it has served to reinforce dangerous gender and racial stereotypes, especially in the way the incessant call to “support the troops” carries with it the implicit acceptance of everything they do from Abu Ghraib to the Haditha massacre.
The war has even produced two specific gender stereotypes for women: the Pure Heroine in the form of Jessica Lynch, and the Dominatrix Torturer in the form of Lynndie England. It is interesting that the two most famous female soldiers to rise out of the current Iraq war so easily slipped into the age-old duality of the female stereotype, the madonna and the whore. Even the images of Lynch and England released to the public seem like something out of a reality show. Photos of Lynch making her appear as though they were almost recreated by the Pentagon for the benefit of the media; while the photos of England, though obviously “posed” seeming to somehow more real by virtue of the Pentagon struggling dynamically to keep them hidden. In fact, some reports have concluded that the ambush that resulted in Lynch’s injuries and alleged heroism, but was actually almost as staged as any competition ever seen on Survivor.
The question of whether Jessica Lynch is really a hero who should be admired or is Lynndie England the animal she appears to be in the infamous photos of Abu Ghraib may seem to have an unlikely connection to the issues of how gender ideologies related to reality TV. But when you choose to refer to something specifically as “real” when it is not and further confuse the issue by strengthening and reproducing old stereotypes, there is bound to be a point at which authentic reality and staged reality collide. Unfortunately, the rise of reality TV has coincided with journalistic reporting of a bloody, controversial war where the images are being manipulated not by the media, but the government. To compare the coverage of this war to a reality TV show is not being hyperbolic.
Everything about it has been staged from the beginning by the government and millions of viewers have unquestioningly accept it as containing at least as much authenticity as a reality TV show. And from those pre-invasion beginnings, gender and racial stereotypes have been manipulated. Pres. Bush sends a black man to the United Stations to offer evidence for a war that he knows will require the sacrifice of thousands of young black men. A black woman is waltzed out to provide evidence of the administration’s commitment to multicultural cooperation. Ultimately, however, Colin Powell doesn’t appear to be an actual spokesman for his heritage, he became another stereotype: the Black Man Whites Can Trust. And Condi Rice doesn’t appear to be an example of multicultural cooperation, she seems to have been cast as the Smart Black Woman. Both Powell and Rice, unfortunately, both appear at this stage to just as much a construction of reality show stereotype as Lynch and England. Although initially held up as exemplars of how far they have risen from the tragic history of their heritage, as they have both played out their roles it becomes more and more apparent that they were merely players in an ideology designed to dehumanize them and further inculcate them into their roles as commodities to be bought and sold by the prevailing white, male power structure that seeks every opportunity to use the easily identifiable gender and racial stereotypes to their advantage.