gender and reality television
January 6, 2004 11:17 AM

This week on WHB, Brigitte is talking about reality television.

Are these shows exploitative? All of them, or just some? Are the female cast members exploited more than the male, or is there some gender equality on these shows?

Brigitte references a season of The Real World, which is a show I haven't watched in years. My impression is that it became much more a show about trying to get people drunk enough to have sex or make asses of themselves than what it started out as (basically, a show with a handful of somewhat manufactured normal roommate issues among some pretty freaky people). So, I'm not surprised if the show turns into a multi-week drinking party. But I also don't know enough about The Real World - or even other shows like it - to effectively analyze it.

I have watched a handful of episodes from some other "reality" television: a couple of those godawful dating shows where people live in houses together, and just about anything on TLC or the Style network that involves redecorating or party planning. I'm particularly fond of Clean House (you through things out, have a yard sale & get cash to redecorate in exchange) and You're Invited (really cute girl comes to help you plan a surprise party). And makeover shows in general - Fashion Emergency, Movie & a Makeover, blah blah blah. I might be an expert on those.

What surprises me about the makeover shows is that they are not as gender-divided as one might expect. Most of them maintain about a 2:1 ratio of women:men subjects, and some are almost 50/50. And, not surprisingly, no one seems to feature genderqueers in makeover shows - though I think it'd be fun. In fact, the men and women in the Extreme Makeovers show (which is the truly bad, depressing one where people think they need plastic surgery in order to live normally) differ primarily in which features they believe make them unworthy of happiness without plastic surgery (the men seem to fear age, the women fat).

Not that the makeover shows aren't gendered. There's a sharp division between the way women are taught to "dress for your shape" (read: hide that which is imperfect and accent that which is closer to ideal) while men are taught simply to dress stylishly and in ways that suit their personality. If you watch enough of this, the message is clear: everyone needs to change to look better, but a man's asset is his personality, and a woman's is only her imperfect body.

The dating shows are worse, more painful to watch, but sometimes less gender-biased when you compare the content show-for-show. The Batchelor (muscley guy picks airbrushed girl) is no more exploitative than Average Joe (airbrushed girl picks normal looking guy), for instance. Both the suitor and the sought have their emotions manipulated throughout the shows, and everyone comes out looking desperate and pathetic.

All of these shows play on major gender stereotypes. You have your catty and competitive women going after slimy-ass men because they think the guys have money. Doe-eyed regular guys jockeying for position whilst mooning after empty-headed hot chicks. Average Joe was interesting, because it sometimes slipped something moving past those stereotypes, only to continue reinforcing them. And Boy Meets Boy was exceptional - it was characterized by very little cattiness or oneupmanship, and all the cute boys seemed to get along well. It was a whitewashed view of gay life, but it was also endearing that the conflict of the show was really about the manufactured situation, and not the inherent bitchiness of people the belief in which the other dating shows constantly reinforce for our television viewers. Boy Meets Boy is the one dating show I've watched more than two episodes of.

The most gender-neutral shows are the household ones. Their designers, builders & redecoratees aren't cut from one single mode (Trading Spaces, the most watched of these shows, for instance, has male and female designers, presumably both gay and straight, and carpenters of both genders). It seems you're as likely to catch women as men doing fine with hammers and power tools in these shows, and they rarely play on stereotypes of how inept men are at designing things. The exception to that is, not too surprisingly, Queer Eye, where the untidyness and decorating disasters of shared homes are invariably attributed to the man. The boys always mock the poor guy severely for his house, yet praise and dote on his wife/partner - but then, that's a key part of the show, playing up the "incompetent but well-meaning straight guy" stereotype.

I suspect that the most exploitative and annoying reality television shows are the ones where a bunch of skeezy lunatics inhabit a house together. But I don't watch those.

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your wicked thoughts

Hey ^_^ Thanks for responding so thoughtfully! We wrote on completely different shows, which was nice, because I'm almost completely oblivious to the interworkings of makeover shows. As I was reading your entry I remembered some episode of one I bungled into wherein a woman went in to get one facial surgery, and in less than five minutes had been talked into four more. I was apalled and turned it off, so I forgot to write about it.

these are the thoughts of Brigitte on January 7, 2004 12:24 PM

Incidentally, they DID have a drag queen on What Not to Wear, but they made him over in his male form.

these are the thoughts of house9 on January 12, 2004 08:22 AM

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