Let me begin with a confession: I, passionate feminist Ella Dawson, love reality television. My best friends and I often find ourselves transfixed by Toddlers & Tiaras, a disturbingly entertaining pseudo-documentary series about child beauty pageants that has sparked several spin-off shows for its pint-sized divas. “Are you watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo tonight?” my friend asked me yesterday, also an ardent feminist. Yes, yes I was.
But I must also confess: it’s hard to love reality television without also loathing it. My family has been known to gather in the living room to stare in horror at the antics of Snooki and Mike "the Situation" on Jersey Shore.
We each sit down on a sofa one by one over the course of the hour, drifting in like ashamed spectators drawn to a train wreck. By the end of the show we are disgusted, feeling both sick and smug at the same time. “I don’t know how you watch this trash,” my father says from behind his copy of The Economist, pretending to read while half-chuckling and half-wincing at Deena’s drunken stumbling around the streets of Florence.
But that is why most of us watch reality television in the first place: to be shocked by the appalling behavior and lifestyle choices of others and to be reassured that we are somehow better than the personalities shown on screen. We assume that we are above the media, that we are only watching My Super Sweet Sixteen and The Bachelor Pad ironically. And it is this irony that makes reality television so dangerous. And so profitable for media owners and advertisers.
According to cultural critic Susan J. Douglas, “Irony offers the following fantasy of power: the people on the screen may be rich, spoiled, or beautiful, but you, O superior viewer, get to judge and mock them, and thus are above them… you can look as if you are absolutely not seduced by the mass media, while then being seduced by the media, while wearing a knowing smirk.”
In her book Enlightened Sexism, Douglas posits that reality television feeds into sexism woven through media today, as this sense of irony allows reality television producers to show deeply sexist depictions of women as attractive, vapid, and often desperate bimbos. Even the smartest of us buy into it, laughing it off as just reality television. We feel entitled to harshly judge the women on screen, whether they are competing to be a high fashion runway model or chivying their two-year-old to practice her beauty pageant routine. We eagerly anticipate these women getting their comeuppance, rolling our eyes as Snooki gets arrested on the boardwalk for public intoxication and rooting for a foolish woman on Bachelor Pad to get her heart broken.
Reality television makes us mean. It may be enjoyable, but it makes us mean.
Yes, reality television also encourages us to judge its men, but considering the fact that men still own and run the majority of media corporations in this country, I’m not so worried about harmful gender stereotyping of males.
Far more dangerous is teaching tweens and teenage girls the notion that their beauty is the only power they have, and that if they don’t look like the women on television, they are unworthy. Setting up teenage girls and young women to see other women as competition or ‘slutty bitches’ is deeply unhealthy for all of us; viewers and participants, men and women alike.