State of Reality TV – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Dumpster Divers or Culture Jammers?: TLC’s Extreme Couponers Thu, 05 May 2011 12:30:58 +0000 Extreme Couponing fits squarely within TLC’s lineup of programs, all of which put peoples’ oddities on display for viewers to judge. Like Hoarding: Buried Alive, Quints by Surprise, My Strange Addiction, and Toddlers & Tiaras, Extreme Couponing evokes surprise, and even disgust for the lengths to which people go to accumulate coupons, acquire products, and display their stockpiles. It fails, however, to thoroughly explore people’s motivations for their actions.

Each episode typically tells the stories of two extreme couponers: how they began couponing, what methods they use, and how they store what they have accumulated. With this established, most episodes focus on a major shopping trip in which couponers strategize to bring home “the biggest haul” of their lives. Planning and executing this shopping trip consumes the couponers, who after hours in the checkout line watching every move of the cashier, have to transport the enormous volume of products to their homes. For example, Amanda spends 3 hours in her grocery store to fill 9 carts. The store’s computer crashes during the 2-hour checkout, requiring the cashier to begin again and drawing crowds of gawking shoppers and staff. Throughout the process she worries about whether she planned properly and if she will have a larger bill than she can afford. In the end, she needs two vehicles to transport her haul, but feels victorious: using 1000 coupons, she paid only $51.67 for products with a retail value of $1175.33. She already had 10,000 food, cleaning, and health care items at home, including a 40-year supply of toilet paper.

While the show focuses on these shocking spectacles of consumption, I am more drawn to the brief moments when the couponers offer justifications for their actions. For instance, Jaime describes how couponing was a hobby until her husband lost his job and her daughter was hospitalized. She shares that couponing empowered her to support her family for very little money. Joyce reveals that she has been “on her own” since she was 12 and that she began couponing when she realized that coupons could help her stretch her budget. Thirty years later, she is debt free and teaches couponing in her community. Nathan has been couponing for 4 years, prompted by the realization that he and his wife were “drowning in debt.” He boasts that they are now debt free and believes that the stash of products in his 2-car garage is “every man’s dream.”

These human stories are incredibly compelling, demonstrating a clever way that some Americans make ends meet during a major economic recession. With the 2010 unemployment rate at 9.6%, the 2009 poverty rate at 14.3%, and the 2009 median household income at $49,777, extreme couponing is a clever and fairly subversive way of using manufacturers’ and retailers’ marketing techniques against them. Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “tactics,” extreme couponers combine coupons with store policies to maximize their savings potential, taking home piles of goods for little or no money. Certainly the couponers’ ostentatious collections of methodically organized canned goods, toilet paper, and hand soap do reveal some compulsive tendencies, but the earnestness with which couponers work the system to acquire their stashes provides a peek at the warped economic system that has grown so big that it simultaneously threatens the financial security of working class citizens, provides them with the tools to exploit the big businesses at its core, and displays it on cable television!

In 2010, consumers redeemed more coupons for consumer packaged goods than ever before, saving $3.7 billion. Despite this, they redeemed only 3.1% of the 332 billion coupons available. It is easier for TLC to portray extreme couponers as unstable dumpster divers than as culture jammers—and this certainly fits squarely within the channel’s identity. But certainly viewers frustrated with layoffs, bailouts, and corporate greed can read between the lines to think about how they could get more for less. I, for one, will never experience the grocery store in the same way again.


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Parenting Teenage Style Fri, 29 Apr 2011 05:30:59 +0000 It’s not like me to leave new episodes of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant languishing on my DVR, especially the first two episodes of a new season.  What can I say?  April is the cruelest month.  Viewing the first two episodes of season 3 back-to-back, though, brought into focus the conflicting definitions of home that are central to the show’s portrayal of gendered parenthood.  The show follows teen parents from mid-pregnancy to the early days after their baby’s (or, in the case of the couple expecting twin boys on the April 26 episode, babies’) birth. Without homes of their own to settle into as fledgling family units, the parents sometimes take up residence together in one of their childhood homes.  Sometimes, they take turns living with each other’s own caregivers, and sometimes, they live separately, sharing—or not—parenting duties.  The April 19 season premiere focused on a teen mom, Jordan, struggling to deal with the isolation she felt as her son’s main caregiver.  In contrast, Jennifer appeared on April 26 and worried about negotiating a safe place to take care of her sons.

In its fashioning of teens into parents, 16 and Pregnant tells its stars’ stories along stereotypical gender lines.  Mary Beltrán has blogged about MTV’s spin-off teen-parenting show Teen Mom, writing that the show glosses over important race and class dynamics in its attempts to neatly package teen parenting. This is certainly true of 16 and Pregnant which shows class disparities but does not dwell on them, features a predominately white cast, and delivers its after-school-special style messages about safe sex and dating violence at key moments in its carefully edited, glossy narrative.  In addition, 16 and Pregnant shapes its teen drama into the dad-goes-to-work-and-mom-stays-home story held aloft as symbolic of the American dream.  At the same time, the show’s moms and dads openly question this narrative, making 16 and Pregnant a clear lens through which to view the changing role of fathers in our culture and the emerging ways mothers negotiate choice and childrearing.

Since the 1970s, a particular ideology has governed parenting practices and policies in the U.S.  This ideology can be dubbed “the ideology of intensive mothering,” a term coined by sociologist Sharon Hays in her 1998 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. Intensive mothering argues that the intense, time-consuming, and expensive work of parenting must be valued above the market and performed in the home by a parent (mother).  The unspoken assumption is, of course, that this carework is supported by the paid labor of another parent (father). Jordan cried to the camera after her son came home from the hospital that her boyfriend’s constant fleeing of her grandmother’s home to go to school and work made her feel alone, and her struggle with the isolation of stay-at-home motherhood called into question the principles of this ideology.  Jennifer, by contrast, found a safe haven in her parents’ house.  When she abandoned at-home parenting, she found herself and her sons abandoned roadside, expelled from her boyfriend’s speeding car, rescued by her own mother whose large, red minivan skidding to the highway’s edge became a symbol of Jennifer’s domestic salvation.

Season 3’s first 2 episodes brought up other topics that are sure to appear again as more teens debut: birth control discourse, infant feeding debates, teen sexuality, contested notions of fatherhood, mothers’ freedom to move between home and the outside world. 16 and Pregnant gives us glimpses of teens trying to negotiate parenthood as their very roles are changing, as parenting ideologies unquestioned for decades are renegotiated in larger social conversations, and as our appetite for reality rags-to-riches stories grows sharper with every spin-off.


Watching the World’s Amazing Races Wed, 30 Mar 2011 21:26:03 +0000

I’m teaching Othering right now in my Media and National Identity class, and so once more Amazing Race is in my mind. Functionally, next to no other primetime shows spend as much time outside the United States, thereby making Amazing Race one of the most prominent, widely seen sites on American television for the depiction of foreign countries and peoples. And thus its representation of the world stands to “weigh” a lot more than, for instance, CSI: New York’s depiction of New York City, given the vast number of televisual depictions of the Big Apple.

What I find so frustrating about the show is not simply that it ends up Othering again and again, but that it’s a format that could allow for such interesting challenges to ideas of Othering, and that occasionally does so. It’s like a B student who writes occasionally brilliant sentences, and hence who you know could do better if s/he really applied him/herself, yet who isn’t trying hard enough.

A key problem with televisual representations of other countries and their peoples is precisely that other countries and their people are so actively represented, by which I mean the writers and directors have very certain ideas of who they want on camera. Think of Survivor here, as perhaps the only other show on primetime American television that films overseas. The locals have been evacuated from the filming site, and are only encountered as a “reward,” and as accompaniment to the nice meal that serves as centerpiece for the reward (screaming out for bell hooks’ “Eating the Other”!). They are usually chosen for their stunning primitiveness, grass-skirts, ability to dance with a smile for the cast, and/or perhaps to impart ancient tribal lore.

By contrast, Amazing Race holds great promise as a site for encountering the world. The format sees teams racing through towns, cities, and countryside and encountering random individuals who have not been selected by the directors (cabbie luck in particular playing a key role in who wins or loses). Especially when we’re in cities and places that the crew simply cannot stage manage, we therefore see an eclectic mix of foreigners. Their comments are of course heavily edited, and selectively translated, but they hold more power to speak for themselves, and to represent themselves. This may take place through quotidian acts like giving directions, refusing a team member’s requests to buy something in a challenge, or so forth, but it frees them from the need to appear solely as “reward,” and as dancing, cooking primitives.

Yet the Amazing Race still falls back into tired, old set pieces. Phil’s mat serves as an especially contentious site, somewhere for smiling, costumed locals to sit and wait for hours for the pleasure of welcoming Americans to their country. Phil’s allowed to look pissed off at having his time wasted, but they just sit there and smile. Oddly, we don’t even see Phil talk to them (I’m not looking for a Benetton ad, but are they that odious?). And once they’ve said “welcome,” it’s time to shut up and let Phil speak again, as their agency is so severely restricted.

Then there are the tasks, many of which spectacularly reduce a nation to two predominant activities (“Beg or Boogie”!), and that hire a cast of colorful locals to be their very best cover-of-the-tour-book stereotypes. When the race went to Kenya, we had Masai warriors leaping up and down, in Russia it was babushkas planting potatoes (more on them in a second, though), and so forth.

I’m also constantly both fascinated and depressed by the battle of looking, and of the imperial gaze, that goes on in many episodes. On one hand, the show often conforms to a “Heart of Darkness”-esque rendering of foreigners as painted onto a backdrop, mere props to draw the attention back to the American subjects, who constantly speak of and for the locals. See Chinua Achebe’s famous broadside attack on Conrad for more details on how insidious this kind of Othering is. On the other hand, the photographers often treat us to images of the foreigners staring at the American racers, and occasionally offer us delicious soundbytes of them criticizing them (as when, in a recent season, a group of babushkas engaged in wonderfully wry commentary on the racers’ plowing techniques and general physique). We’re also shown egregiously bad behavior from some racers, and the editing usually chastises the offending, offensive team. It might be easy to see this as a reminder that we’re looked at as much as the foreigners are, and at times it encourages us to look with the locals’ eyes, not the racers’. Yet there is no problematization of our own looking and gaze as viewers. The suggestion is a classically white liberal feel-good one that some travelers are bad, but that we’re not – our own motivations for watching, and investment in or at least culpability with the exoticization and spectacularization of difference, are never really questioned.

Despite all my criticism, though, I keep watching. The simple fact is that the show is doing more than most are to at least engage with the world at large. Us non-Americans don’t come out of this process looking all that good, and I’d love to reform the program in many ways (Sorry, Phil, but you’re not needed: let’s replace you with locals who can say more. How about international racing teams? And please, please, let’s do something about the challenges). But there’s potential, which is met at times. There are no tribal elimination scenes and fauxthentic team names. The soundtrack is rarely a lost recording session from Peter Gabriel. Nobody’s in jail at the hands of a brutal foreign government. The countries are more than just an amalgam of their lovely wildlife and pitiable slums. And none of them are being bombed or supposedly plotting the downfall of the USA en masse. In the radically culturally chauvinist landscape of American television, that alone puts Amazing Race in a rare position.


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The State of Reality TV: Producing Reality on Joan & Melissa Wed, 02 Mar 2011 02:10:50 +0000 Remember when “reality TV” was new?  When The Real World actually seemed like an entertaining and legitimate social experiment instead of a weeks-long fraternity-party-gone-bad?  When, if you squinted your eyes just so and silently agreed to suspend a little bit of disbelief, you could convince yourself that what you were seeing was, in fact, some sort of–mediated, yes, but nonetheless somewhat authentic–version of reality?

Those were good days, but I’m afraid they’re gone.  Long gone.  Even my grandmother now knows  that reality starlets often do retakes in order for the “real” action to be suitable for cameras to capture it, cameramen get scrubbed out of the “film”, and something like New York Reality TV School exists to teach reality wannabes how to earn their 15 minutes of “fame”.  Indeed, it’s impossible to write a paragraph about reality TV anymore without putting something in scare quotes–that’s how inauthentic the format has become.

And so it was with both skepticism and delight that I tuned in to WE’s newest series, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? The premise of the show is simple: Joan Rivers moves across the country to be closer to daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper.  Of course, bossy Joan can’t keep her mouth shut, and so family drama (and big jewelry and hilarity…it is Joan Rivers, after all) ensues.  Without a home of her own, Joan has to stay in Melissa’s house (overly full with wacky friends, of course), and the two bicker as Joan goes to a plastic surgeon, the family eats take-out every night, and mother & daughter plot new ways to develop the Rivers family brand.

When I pitched this post a few weeks ago, I envisioned a snark-filled analysis of the bizarre experience of watching a show that purports to represent “reality” that is produced by and stars two immensely successful media producers–and believe me when I say: it is a bizarre experience.  It’s absolutely impossible to take any aspect of the show seriously, for the most part.  The two women sit in their (joint) confessional and calmly explain to the cameras how important it is to stay in the public eye, to keep the brand growing and fresh…and then kooky Joan just happens to end up as a contestant on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? or spreading a deceased friend’s ashes around Beverly Hills.  This is the precise opposite of “reality,” and its over-the-top, in-your-face artifice makes any suspension of disbelief impossible.  The show itself draws attention to its function as a publicity tool, and each segment seems more contrived than the last–not least because the stars are constantly reminding you of their function as producers.

But just when I was at the height of eye-rolling smugness, something strange caused me to rethink my stance.  The fourth episode of the series, “Family Feud”, moves along its manufactured path as Melissa’s boyfriend Jason suggests that perhaps the family should go through some team-building exercises to help them cope with the stresses of living together.  The plot, obviously another cleverly contrived scheme suitable for functioning as the narrative thread of an episode, carries along as one might expect.  Melissa & Jason interview a string of goofy life coaches, psychiatrists and team-builders, and settle on a New Agey woman whose motto is “Funky to Fabulous.”  They set up Joan, who (purportedly) doesn’t know what’s about to happen, and the life coach makes them don silly hats to “represent their roles in the house” and leads them through some inane exercises.  And, believe it or not, that’s when things get weird, as Melissa, and then Joan, really begin to open up about what’s bugging them, and the whole mess gets very personal, ugly and uncomfortable, as you can see in the clip below.

What’s noteworthy about this episode is its apparent break with the overly manufactured nature of the series.  Viewers get the sense that something went slightly awry, here, and we’re no longer watching a cutesy segment intended to follow the episode’s theme–we’re seeing something “real.”  Despite Joan & Melissa’s position as producers and media moguls, their tears and anguish seem real, and the pain is palpable.  This seems like the kind of arguments we’ve all had–or considered having–with our own mothers or daughters.  In the following episode, “Can We Not Talk?”, the two aren’t speaking when Joan leaves LA for New York in order to put some space between them.  Unlike the episodes that came before, these are awkward, uncomfortable, and filled with tears and tension until the two finally speak at the end of “Can We Not Talk?”, apologizing and promising a reunion in LA.

It’s instances like this one on Joan & Melissa that keep me watching reality TV, that remind me of the Real World promise that reality TV allows us to “See what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”  In this case, of course, it’s that the producers forgot, in the heat of the moment, that they were producing–and they got real, to some degree.  After the initial crisis has blown over, I’ve no doubt the series will attempt to structure itself around recouping some useful themes and jokes out of it, but there were certainly moments of “reality” in there, despite any production intended to smooth it over.  “Reality TV” is a bizarre concept, and Joan & Melissa provides a bizarre incarnation of the format, given the stars’ own institutional histories.  But despite the fact that we’ll never be able to fully believe in the “truth” of reality TV, every once in awhile there’s still something “real” that’s worth watching , if you’re willing to put up with the production that surrounds it.


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Compulsory Masculinity on The Jersey Shore Sat, 26 Feb 2011 16:58:24 +0000 Jersey Shore, but so is the production of male beauty and labor in the domestic sphere. ]]> In order to be cast on the Jersey Shore, both the men and women are expected to conform to the conservative gender roles implied by the controversial label, “guido”: men must be tanned, muscular, sexually voracious, and quick to throw a punch, while women must outfit themselves in signifiers of hyperfeminity like long hair, high heels, and heavy eye make up. Since adherence to these traditional gender roles is central to the identities of the Jersey Shore cast, it is not surprising that the men are dedicated to objectifying and humiliating women. In two different episodes, Mike (aka, “The Situation”) and Pauly D publicly shamed their housemates for their inability to maintain the invisibility of their menstruation. The men also sort the women they meet into one of two categories: as “DTF” (attractive women who are “down to fuck”) or as “grenades” (unattractive women who may or may not be DTF). The Jersey Shore men refer to intercourse as “choking” or “smushing,” terms that posit sexual activity as an act of violence or at the very least, uncomfortable touching. What is fascinating to me, however, is that while the men of the series make the oppression of women a daily activity, they also adopt many of the behaviors and chores that feminists have historically attributed to the oppression of women: they burden themselves with unrealistic beauty standards and are resigned to their own domestic servitude.

For example, almost every Jersey Shore episode features a scene in which the roommates sit down to an elaborate Sunday night dinner—plates of pasta and sauce, sausage and peppers, garlic bread, etc. This traditional Italian-American meal, usually prepared by the matriarch of the house, is a time to put aside arguments and reconnect with “family” before the start of the workweek. It is significant, however, that the shopping, cooking, and very often the cleaning for this ritual meal is orchestrated by the men of the house. This stands in contrast to the casts’ personal experiences with domestic chores. When, for example, Vinny’s mother visits the house in season one, Pauly D compares her to his own mother, an “old school Italian,” because she cleans the Jersey Shore house after fixing the roommates an extravagant lunch. And Snooki claims that Vinny’s mother reminds her of her grandmother: “That’s like a true Italian woman. You want to please everyone else at the table. And then when everyone’s done eating, you clean up and then you eat by yourself.” However, lacking compliant women to perform these domestic labors, the Jersey Shore men must men cook and clean for themselves.

The men also violate traditional gender expectations in their obsessive grooming habits. Mike codifies his daily toilette with formal titles, like “Gym, Tan, Laundry” and discusses his grooming habits as an imperative, not as a personal choice: “If you don’t go to the gym, you don’t look good. If you don’t tan, you’re pale. If you don’t do laundry, you ain’t got no clothes.” Mike also makes weekly trips to the barbershop for haircuts and eyebrow waxing. Likewise, when preparing for a night on the town, the men don something Mike has termed “the shirt before the shirt,” a preshirt that is worn until moments before heading out the door. Although Mike’s clever reframing of his obsessive compulsive grooming habits as de riguer behavior for any self-respecting guido provides yet another way to cash in on his reality stardom, it also deflects attention away from behaviors that would otherwise be deemed “too feminine.”
The women of Jersey Shore are not burdened with a similar beauty regimen; often, when the men head to the gym, they go shopping or get drunk. And Snooki has been known to go to work wearing the same outfit and make up that she wore the previous evening. While we do see the women in the house prepare for a night at the club with hairspray and push up bras, MTV’s cameras do not devote nearly as much screen time to this process. Instead, Jersey Shore highlights the labor that goes into the production of male beauty within the guido subculture.

Can we read the Jersey Shore men’s singular drive to humiliate, bed, and then dispose of an endless string of women as simply another symptom of the complex gender roles they must inhabit in order to be cast members on the Jersey Shore? If Mike didn’t GTL or smush, would he still be a guido? And if the roommates didn’t eat a traditional Italian meal every Sunday could they still lay claim to their status as authentic Italian Americans? Jersey Shore highlights the conditions under which certain gender roles are performed within ethnic subcultures, specifically, how the presence of reality TV’s cameras enforces a compulsory masculinity on the aspiring Jersey Shore “guido.”


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The State of Reality TV: When Reality Worlds Collide Wed, 16 Feb 2011 13:57:13 +0000 Are DJ Pauly D and Farrah Abraham dating?

Lately, this question has entered my thoughts more than it should. Apart from the confessional impulse that haunts the academic study of popular culture, I “admit” this because it leads me to a more important question: Why do I (and presumably many others) care? Recent gossip and celebrity news reports have been preoccupied with the romantic status of the Jersey Shore (MTV 2009- ) and Teen Mom (MTV 2009- ) “stars.” Radar Online boasts an “EXCLUSIVE” story in which Pauly D “Denies Affair” with Farrah; countless blogs speculate about the evening the two spent together at a Houston nightclub; and Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, US Magazine, and NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate have all reported on the relationship at various times from late January 2010 until the present. Although this story will likely prove short-lived, the intensity with which it is being discussed indicates larger issues raised by the alleged romance. Do we wonder about this relationship because of the speculative fiction this produces? The fabulously tragic possibilities it promises? The hopeful story of slim chances and reformation through true love? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. This romance certainly promises to gratify our investments in generic formulations of “the couple,” but there is more to the story than this, something more specific at stake than these narrative satisfactions. What, then, does this rumored union “mean” to us? And, more to the point of this article, what does it tell us about the state of contemporary reality television?

Pauly D and Farrah’s “affair” reveals the tensions of reality television’s current state of ideological and economic affairs: necessarily divided, but paradoxically and intimately connected. In part, the romantic rumors about the two engage public curiosity because of the incongruity of the two televisual worlds they occupy and the almost-certain disastrous consequences should these two worlds meet. (My immediate response to the news was to hope that Farrah has learned about effective birth control methods and/or that Pauly D is well-versed in pregnancy prevention—hopefully true, given what seems to be his non-reproductive track record in light of prodigious sexual activity—to prevent a recurring spot on Teen Mom for Farrah). Each person/ality occupies a reality TV series that trades on the dramatic possibilities of young adults’ sexual activity. What is clearly different in each case, however, is the presence/absence of consequences for this sexual activity. While the Jersey Shore cast engages in seemingly endless sex with strangers, friends, and romantic partners, the consequences of these actions are non-existent or rendered humorous. In contrast, Teen Mom foregrounds the material and emotional consequences of sexual activity via unplanned pregnancies.

These sexual worlds are bifurcated along gender lines. Jersey Shore’s sexual activity is defined as masculine, primarily reserved for men (while the show’s female talent clearly initiate and engage in sex with multiple partners, they do so in fairly “masculine” ways and are alternatively praised for their abilities to function “like men” and criticized when they behave too promiscuously). Jersey Shore does not reflect upon the emotional, social, economic, or physical outcomes of sexual behaviors. Instead, sexual partners are (quite literally) escorted from the scene after the primary goal of sexual conquest has been achieved. This pattern of finding, acquiring, then ridding oneself of a sexual partner is repeated the next evening, in the next club scene. Unlike the cyclical narrative of club-going, drinking, and hooking up, which Jersey Shore repeats with little variation or consequence, Teen Mom roots us firmly in a cause-and-effect narrative, in which young women centrally occupy, in intensive ways, the consequences of sex. Clearly pregnancy itself constitutes the primary dramatic conflict of the series, and stands as evidence of teen sex, but the aftermath of sex sets into motion a series of other effects (conflicts with parents and with the father of the baby, physical stress and transformation, flagging grades and failure to graduate high school, social isolation, and economic troubles). The female-centered narrative of the teen pregnancy series is deeply rooted in consequences, with an ever-widening circle of effects that the pivotal moment of reproductive sexual activity has set into motion. When oppositional worlds of gendered sexuality meet—as in the case of Pauly/Jersey Shore-Farrah/Teen Mom—it is compelling and/or anxiety-provoking, especially when the viewing audience of either show clearly has not been conditioned, asked, or led to understand these worlds as linked.

This meeting also brings into relief the increasingly conflictual terms of reality television. On one hand, there is a crucial ideological segregation of similarly themed programming. The romantic fantasy of The Bachelor (ABC 2002- ) works only if see it apart from the frightful pressures placed on brides in Bridalplasty (E! 2010- ). The accumulation of goods safeguards American cultural history in American Pickers (History 2010- ), but only if we do not interpret it within the context of Hoarders (A&E 2009- ). Man v. Food (Travel Channel 2009- ) is a narrative of a masculine triumph of the will over food-as-obstacle, but not if seen alongside Heavy (A&E 2011- ) or The Biggest Loser (NBC 2004- ). On the other hand, there is an economic imperative for reality TV of interconnectedness, whether implicit or explicit, through formula, repetition, and relationships among texts. MTV continues to fill its programming needs through a Snooki and JWoww spinoff. The Real Housewives (Bravo 2006- ) franchise continues to expand, return season after season, and provide guests for Watch What Happens Live (Bravo 2010- ). Strictly Come Dancing (BBC 2004- ) begets Dancing with the Stars (ABC 2005- ) and over 35 other global variations on the format begets Skating with the Stars (ABC 2010- ) and so on and so on.

To avoid exposing the ideological contradictions of its reality TV universe and for each individual series to “work,” MTV relies upon a Jersey Shore “Guido” and a Teen Mom to occupy separate worlds. Given, however, the current industrial model of reality TV programming that rewards proximity, repetition, and convergence, their relationship is always an intimate one. Pauly D/Jersey Shore and Farrah/Teen Mom: An ill-fated union? Probably. An inevitable one? Most certainly.


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The State of Reality TV: How Joel McHale and Chelsea Handler Saved My Life Thu, 10 Feb 2011 13:56:00 +0000 First, a caveat: I have nothing against the genre of reality TV. Really. I followed American Idol through last season, chatting about it incessantly via email with two friends. I’ve watched my share of The Amazing Race and even The Girls Next Door. I’ll even venture to say that some of the “unscripted” series out there are better than some of the scripted fare.

But (yes—you knew that was coming)…there is simply too much reality TV to keep up with as a TV scholar; and there are too many relevant reality series I should be watching as a scholar that I simply cannot bring myself to view for more than 5 minutes at a time. And that is why Joel McHale of The Soup and Chelsea Handler of Chelsea Lately (both on E!) are saving my life every week.

Both series, for the uninitiated, spend time on their comedy shows recapping and discussing developments in reality series (and the lives of their stars); I can tune in nightly to Chelsea and weekly to Joel and discover what happened that regular viewers such as my students might be gabbing about—and I can see the key moments in brief, less excruciating time frames. After studying how each show presents its take on the genre, from The Soup and Chelsea Lately we can glean what some of the main appealing elements of this genre are for many viewers.

The “Showgirls” factor

Much as with the celebrated film Show Girls, a lot of reality TV is unintentionally funny, and the comic framings of both shows aim to make you laugh at even the most serious moments. It’s a cathartic, desperate humor at work: I want to weep when I see a 2 year old from Toddlers and Tiaras literally fall off a stage because she’s so exhausted after a pageant, but it feels better to see this and hear Joel say “Her prize was a carton of menthol cigarettes and a jug of moonshine.” I want to mail copies of The Feminine Mystique to the producers who green-lit Bridalplasty, but I can breathe a little easier when I hear Chelsea tell me that “the show’s alternate title is ‘Exploiting Desperate Women with Extremely Low Self-Esteem’” or see The Soup do a send-up called Idol Plasty (noting that it’s brought to viewers “by FOX—and E!—cause that’s kind of their thing.”)

The Inbred factor

Both series also glory in the fact that many reality shows tap into inbreeding—both metaphorically and generically. The worst moments (e.g., aforementioned toddler or the Civil War re-enactor from Milwaukee on Idol) point the finger of blame at the stars of the genre—and in fact have no problem lumping the “regular folk” in with the “celebrities” so that Kim Kardashian is painted with the same brush as a pageant mom. Our hosts posit these stars as the worst examples of our culture and society (Chelsea noted that Jersey Shore heading to Italy next season means we can “mark [Italy] off as another country that will now hate us forever”). This is what happens when stupid people get a chance to be on TV, right? I realize this is not at all fair, but I also believe many of us watch these shows to feel better about ourselves (we’re much classier and more well-bred than these folks!), and both series aid and abet us in this rationalization. Both series also blur their takes on the genre with their takes on other elements of our entertainment culture, skewering the coverage of the riots in Egypt (it might shut down Angelina Jolie’s filming of Cleopatra!), Brooke’s wedding on One Tree Hill, the website for cheaters, and all our reality faves in one fell swoop. We might like to think “other” TV is more refined, but there’s bad to be found everywhere.

“The Host Who Watches It All for You” factor

By reducing reality TV series to brief clips and comments, McHale and Handler and their teams announce what many of us know: a lot of reality TV is merely a hodgepodge of shocking, over-the-top moments—whether it’s the bachelor choosing no one to marry or the World War II vet demonstrating that his “memento” bazooka flame thrower still works. Not unlike certain scripted procedurals that shall remain unnamed, we can do many other things while watching a reality series, using them as a way to escape a tiring day at work, at school, or with the kids.

So long live reality TV—the good and the bad of it! It gives these two comics great fodder for their shows, which in turn means I don’t have to actually watch much. And if in the end I can do a superiority dance for a few deluded minutes, I’m all for it.


The State of Reality TV: When in the World is Project Runway? Sat, 05 Feb 2011 14:32:34 +0000 Project Runway has made its way to other countries, its scheduling model has been lost in translation.]]> While reality television has made many contributions to the American television landscape, one of its most “revolutionary” may be its cyclical ubiquity. As soon as one season ends, the next season seems to begin; while they may not air dramatically more episodes than broadcast series in the span of a year, at least following the North American model of 22-episode seasons, the constant shifts to new casts means that the entire process keeps repeating: one minute you’re being introduced to a new set of contestants and watching them evolve into characters, and the next thing you know the season is over and you’re already hearing about the great new cast coming up next season.

This is especially true of a show like Project Runway, which in recent years has seemingly been on every time you turn around. Thanks to the series’ forced hiatus as a result of lawsuits regarding its move to Lifetime, Runway aired three seasons – 49 episodes in total – in just 14 months between August 2009 and October 2010. This was exaggerated by the sixth season being “on the shelf” for a lengthy period, and the seventh season being rushed to counteract poor viewer response to the franchise’s Lifetime debut, but the series’ omnipresence is demonstrative of general trends within the genre (if in an exaggerated form).

However, the same period has been marked by the absence of two of the series’ most prominent international spinoffs: both Project Runway Australia (2008-Present) and Project Runway Canada (2007-2009) debuted in their respective countries to relative success, earning second seasons and, in the case of the Canadian version, even moving from a niche cable outlet to a national network. Each show largely followed the formula of the American series, with a famous fashion model host (Kristy Hinze in Australia, Iman in Canada), a fashion industry mentor, and a collection of celebrity guests and judgmental observers to complete the package.

The basic format of the series may have remained intact when the show made its way to other countries, but the scheduling model has been lost in translation. Both the Australian and Canadian series aired only one season per year, and both dealt with substantial hiatuses: this is particularly true for the Australian series, which has been off the air for nearly two years. While America’s love affair with reality television has had international ramifications when formats like Project Runway which originated in the U.S. are spread to countries around the world, the way in which the series are scheduled seems to have been considerably less influential internationally.

Some of this certainly has to do with simple industrial realities. American cable networks have the luxury of appealing to niche audiences, with networks like Bravo and Lifetime able to position shows like Project Runway as signature series designed to deliver female viewers to their advertisers. International producers, meanwhile, are working with less industrial infrastructure in general, and most likely less in the way of targeted cable networks that seem a fit for narrowcast reality programming as well. They simply don’t have the resources to schedule two seasons in a single year, which makes emulating the American schedule more challenging.

However, I find myself curious if there are more cultural reasons for the vast proliferation gap between Project Runway and its international adaptations. If we look at the vast array of versions, the longest-running has been the United Kingdom’s Project Catwalk, which lasted three seasons from 2006-2008. While I haven’t seen the series, I do wonder whether its relative longevity stems from the prominence of London as one of the world’s fashion capitals, at least relative to Melbourne or Toronto. Even within the American series, location and setting seem to play a prominent role: viewers and critics alike panned the series’ move to Los Angeles in Season Six, prompting Lifetime to promote the return to New York as the defining feature of the seventh season. Perhaps the same principle applies internationally, and certain locations can only sustain a couple of seasons before fading away into local pop culture history.

And yet, some part of me wants to believe that this may be a purposeful choice on the part of international producers. While these changes are perhaps facilitated by concerns over financial commitments and cultural limitations, there seem to be creative benefits to this scheduling model. Personally, despite having seen countless seasons of the American series beforehand, both the Canadian and Australian versions felt remarkably novel. The format was more or less the same, but the wait between seasons made their introductions more eventful, and their conclusions more effectively bittersweet. The return of the American series feels like routine, but is reality television not (like television in general) more effective – and affecting – when we anticipate its return with baited breath?

With a new host secured, Project Runway Australia will return for its overdue third season later this year (although on a new network). In an era where the American version has shifted to overstuffed 90-minute episodes and barely takes a breath before plunging into a new season of “making it work,” there is something wonderfully refreshing about the notion of Project Runway being a scarce commodity; it’s too bad, then, that most American viewers rarely get to experience such a feeling.


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The State of Reality TV: The Pain of Watching The Bachelor Wed, 02 Feb 2011 13:00:46 +0000 Recently I find I’m not watching any of the same network reality shows that caught my attention during the reality TV boom of the early 2000s. It seems like a lifetime ago when I sat on my couch watching network programs such as Survivor, The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, and The Bachelor. Instead, I’m watching cable reality series such as Married to Rock, Kendra, Kate Plus Eight, Jersey Shore, and every HGTV series imaginable. This semester, I promised myself a return to some of the network reality series that initially convinced me that reality TV was worth studying. They are still around—some of them for more than a decade. Are they the same, or have they changed?

One night as I flipped through the channels, I came face to face with Brad Womack, this year’s bachelor. His vacant look, mannequin smile, and pumped-up physique reminded me of everything I loved about The Bachelor: An Officer and a Gentleman, the last season I watched, where a beefcake guy walked around with his shirt off, said cheesy lines such as “I’m in Heaven when I’m with Bevin” (the name of a female contestant), and spouted every romantic cliché possible. I figured the new season with Brad Womack would show how hollow an unquestioned embrace of traditional patriarchal romance and romantic coupling can be. Mainly, I thought I would be experiencing the carnivalesque pleasures of reality dating shows that Jonathan Gray has astutely noted, ones that can subvert gender roles and patriarchy. I hadn’t seen Brad’s previous season when he left two women at the altar and incurred the scorn of viewers who believed in fairytale romance.

Normally I find the carnivalesque pleasures of certain reality series or subgenres painful. They lead to such corny moments that are both hard and delightful to watch, and usually the painful moments question normative assumptions about our identities. I’m all for this type of pain. It’s masochistic, but fun.

I think I’ve found a different type of pain on this season of The Bachelor. While this season has carnivalesque moments filled with over-the-top romantic clichés, love-crazed women, and a zombiefied prince, I’m amazed by the way the season has the patriarchal past impinging on the happiness of the present and the hopes of the future. So far episodes have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining how Brad went into three years of intensive therapy after ditching his two love interests in his last season, and Brad goes on about how he had commitment issues because he felt abandoned by his father at a young age. Brad recounts numerous stories of his father coming back into his life, only to leave quickly and devastate our beau. I was particularly surprised when Brad talked about how he turned to body building in an effort to overcome his emotional weaknesses that he developed from being abandoned. Even he concedes that his inflated body is meaningless. Brad claims he came back on The Bachelor in hopes of freeing himself from the past and finding happiness in the present and future.

A few contestants add to the theme of patriarchal ruins destroying the happiness of the present and future. Emily seems trapped in unhappiness because her husband died in a plane crash on a business trip, yet she has come on The Bachelor in hopes of discovering happiness in life. And Ashley S. talks to Brad about the devastating sudden death of her father and how she is trying to find peace in the present. Brad has developed what I call the “patriarchal crisis” look. Every time a woman tells Brad of a devastating loss of a man in her life, he clenches his lips and looks down to the right. It seems to be the image of the season.

Sometimes I feel this season of The Bachelor shares more in common with Vertigo than it does with other seasons; however, maybe I haven’t seen enough previous seasons to make such a grand claim. But I feel like I’m watching a traumatized man re-enter the same love story when history might not allow him to find happiness this time around either.

This season is painful to watch, but not in a fun, carnivalesque way. Rather, the pain seems to be much more serious and reveals the emotional trauma that we can experience when we blindly submit ourselves to normative ideas of patriarchy and the nuclear family. Common sense tells me that the producers aren’t consciously promoting this, but it appears prominently in this season because of casting.

Where is this theme going, and what are we to make of it? Perhaps this theme about the past and patriarchy will simply die out and be replaced by the carnivalesque that dominates reality dating shows. I’d be fine with that, since I initially started to re-watch The Bachelor to experience some subversive fun. But I hope that if the season continues with issues of the past and happiness, it envisions a coupling that doesn’t fall back on assumptions of a good man simply being there for his family—as if that in and of itself is good enough—or a good woman simply standing by her man just because he is there and alive. If issues of the past continue to concern the series, can The Bachelor work through a vision of love that truly frees these people from the ruins of patriarchy instead of redeeming patriarchal roles for them?  Promos for the season hint that Brad might be abandoned by the woman he proposes to because she can’t free herself from the past. If this season continues with its Vertigo trajectory, I hope the final rose ceremony isn’t on an exotic ocean-side cliff with nuns lurking around. If it is, I hope the producers attach Brad’s love interests to bungee cords and harnesses.


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The State of Reality TV: Kidding Around with Reality Wed, 26 Jan 2011 15:00:31 +0000 **This is the first in our new series: The State of Reality TV. Each Wednesday, and select Saturdays, one of our Antenna Contributors will provide analysis of a different reality television show. We encourage you to participate in this series with your comments.**

Looking back at Kid Nation, most observers probably find the industrial controversy preceding the 2007 reality series to be its most significant legacy.  Purporting to put children in a frontier town to fend for themselves, the CBS series drew fire prior to its premiere for both the supposed reality of the genre and the artifice of its construction.  Detractors who feared the endangerment of children stranded in the wilderness did not recognize omnipresent producer supervision and direction, while those who criticized CBS for violating child labor laws saw kids participating in the calculated fabrication of a television commodity.  Most viewers didn’t seem to care one way or another, and the low-rated show entered obscurity well before CBS declined a second season.

Yet it’s worth looking back at the text overshadowed by this industrial controversy.  Though not the most popular or influential entry in the genre, Kid Nation appropriately offers an elementary school primer both on the conventions of reality competitions and their negotiation of social structures taken for granted in the “real” world (enough so that I continue to rely on it in my TV courses today).

In the first thirty minutes of the series, the cast of forty 8-to-14-year-olds meet their “council” of appointed leaders, trek with provisions to the abandoned ghost town “Bonanza City,” and start trying to meet their basic food and shelter needs.  This opening suggests alternative social structures could emerge as children self-organize without the imposition of traditional parental order.  Like clockwork around the thirty-minute mark, however, host Jonathan Karsh appears to impose adult order on this fledgling kid nation, providing specific game-show rules by which their society must operate.  He divides them  into four “districts” that compete in challenges for class status to determine their unequal prestige and income as laborers, cooks, merchants, and the upper class.  Laborers on one end of the spectrum do the most work and get paid least, while the upper class on the other enjoys least responsibility and most pay.

Of course, some 2007 reviewers challenged this bald imposition of capitalism upon children. Systemic competitive social rules are not unique to Kid Nation–many other reality competitions in the Mark Burnett-model, from Survivor to Apprentice, allow a period of social experimentation before competitive structures are imposed by someone like Jeff Probst or The Donald.  By rendering reality television’s generic embrace of social capitalism as a child’s game, however, Kid Nation opens it to strangeness and play.  Seeing industrious child “laborers” unable to afford  candy sold by “merchants” in the general store calls class inequality at least partially into question (even if one child’s entrepreneurial response is to pull themselves up by their bootstraps as a panhandling street performer).   Just as the absurdity of domestic norms come into view when children play house, so too does this mimicry of adult class distinction open it to critique.

Class structures were not the only thing mimicked–these kids also “played”  as reality contestants.  Take Taylor, the 10-year-old girl who performed adult reality celebrity culture through catch phrases (“Deal with it!” being her version of  “You’re Fired!”), emphasis on beauty ideals (“I”m a beauty queen, I don’t do dishes”), and gravitation toward the outrageous (“the ugly animals should die and the pretty ones should stay”).  As Taylor explained a year later, producers fed her many of these outlandish lines.  So unlike, say, Toddlers and Tiaras, where we reel at what parents impose upon children, Kid Nation begs to be read in terms of what conventions reality producers ask kids–and all reality viewers–to take for granted and perform.   Kids are not just endangered and employed by the reality industry here, but also encultured.  What continues to resonate years later, however, is that “kidness” prevents these participants from unproblematically adopting the same positions adults do as reality contestants or social subjects.  Their imperfect mimicry instead makes reality strange.