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J.A.A. Purves

Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV (2010)

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I'm starting a thread here on this book that I've finally started to read, but since the entire discussion is about television, I've put it here instead of in the "Literature & Creative Writing" section.

(A&F links to American Idol, American Idol 2008, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Amazing Race 18, The Amazing Race 17, The Amazing Race 16, The Amazing Race 15, The Amazing Race 14, The Amazing Race 13, The Amazing Race 12, Dance War, The Amazing Race 11, The Amazing Race 10, Survivor Cook Islands, America's Got Talent, Reality TV script writers strike, Treasure Hunters, The Amazing Race 9, Survivor: Vanuatu, Project Runway 2, The Amazing Race 8, The Amazing Race 1, The Amazing Race 7, Reality TV that's actually GOOD?, The Monastery, The Amazing Race 6, How bad TV happens, Apprentice 2, Horrifying, Are Reality TV Shows on the Decline?, Nanny 911, Extreme Home Makeover, The Amazing Race, Canadian Idol, Priest Idol, Amish in the City and Television bad for intimacy? AND escapism vs. entertainment ...)

Beginning excerpts -

pg. 8 -

Nearly every night on every major network, "unscripted" (but carefully crafted) dating, makeover, lifestyle, and competition shows glorify stereotypes that most people assume died forty years ago.

pgs. 9-12 -

Back before we all succumbed to American idolatry, reality television wasn't a prime-time-dominating genre with it's own Emmy category - it was simply one low-rated, unscripted MTV soap opera called The Real World. In just two hours on February 15, 2000, [Mike] Darnell changed all that, with Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? The special, which predated the game-changing Survivor, was a hybrid of Miss America and a mail-order bride parade. With executive producer Mike Fleiss of Next Entertainment, Darnell brought fifty brides-to-be to Las Vegas to be auctioned off to a complete stranger. They sashayed in swimsuits, tittered nervously, and answered pageant-style questions to assess their moral fortitude and sexual prowess in thirty seconds or less ... Darva Conger, Rockwell's eventual choice, got her first glimpse of her "fiance" moments before they were legally wed on-air. Nearly 23 million viewers tuned in ... By February 2003, Fox was devoting a whopping 41 percent and ABC 33 percent of their sweeps offerings to reality shows. These percentages increased over the years, limiting the number of quality comedies and dramas available to viewers ... With 40 million viewers, the finale of Joe Millionaire was the third-most-watched television episode of the entire decade ...

pg 16 -

It's true that millions of people have become reality TV junkies, initially drawn in by a sort of cinematic schadenfreude. That "What's wrong with you?" reaction is the viewer's equivalent of rubbernecking at an accident. Sometimes it makes us laugh, sometimes it shocks us, but we're unable to turn away from the cathartic display of other people's humiliation. Often it makes us feel superior: No matter how bad our problems may be, at least we aren't as fill-in-the-blank (pathetic, desperate, ugly, stupid) as those misguided enough to sign up for such indignities on national TV. It's easy to feel like we haven't hit bottom compared to the dregs of humanity on Rock of Love Bus. We revel in the bizarre antics, pitiful tears, wild hookups, and self-loathing insecurities. We vicariously savor all the delicious melodrama of high school cliques and office gossip, with none of the guilt. These are normal, human emotions, masterfully manipulated ... After a long, stressful day, it can be comforting to zone out with mindless entertainment ...

pgs. 17-18 -

But while the schadenfreude and escapism factors may get us to tune in, that's not what hooks us. One a more subconscious level, we continue to watch because these shows frame their narratives in ways that play to and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women and men, love and beauty, race and class, consumption and happiness in America ... People love to ask why we watch these shows by the millions, and why thousands audition to participate - areas ripe for sociological study. But as a journalist and media critic, what I find most relevant is what we've learned from a decade of unscripted programming. Too often what passes for discussion about reality TV is limited to "Wow, that bitch was crazy!" or "Should this dater/singer/model be eliminated?" We need a deeper debate in this country about the meaning and implications of reality TV's backlash against women's rights and social progress ... In January 2007, CBS Evening News reported that more people watched American Idol on Fox than saw President Bush's State of the Union speech on ABC, NBC and CBS combined.

pgs. 20-21 -

[My book] aims to stimulate deeper debate among academics, social justice activists, media makers, and journalists about the nature and meaning of the most talked about form of entertainment at the turn of the century ... Media both shape and reflect cultural perceptions of who we are, what we're valued for, what we want, what we need, what we believe about ourselves and others - and what we should consider "our place" in society ... We each bring our intellects, identities, and experiences to everything we watch, which affects the way we enjoy, interpret, or internalize media messages. Though we're unique individuals who react differently to specific TV shows, our ideas are inescapably shaped by our participation in collective culture and society. We live in a commercially controlled, media-saturated era ... The influence of all this media is systematic and affects how we think and feel in ways we don't always recognize, even - sometimes especially - when we consider ourselves immune.

pgs 29-31 -

In the early '00s, young people had exceptionally critical responses to my reality TV clip reel. They found show premises to be "ludicrous," "vile," and "completely unrealistic." They'd gasp, groan, or grumble to one another when cameras intrusively zoomed in on rejected bachelorettes' tear stained faces, or on plastic surgeons' scalpels cutting into insecure mothers' bodies. They'd laugh when announcers described manipulative scenarios as "every girl's dream!" They were funny, wisecracking about the overuse of seemingly scripted phrases like "emotional connection" and "I'm not here to make friends!" They were angry, asking "Where do they get off treating women like that?" Most important, they saw right through the networks' fairytale facades. "It's like they want us to think feminism never happened," a Fordham student told me. "Do they think we're stupid enough to believe this shit is real?"

Eight years later, I find stark differences in young people's responses to similar TV clips ... Now when I screen clips, instead of snickering at cheesy narrators or blatant product placements that disrupt the flow of a show, students giggle when women sob after being dumped, when beautiful girls are badgered about their bodies, and when women of color go off on violent tirades. Girls used to ask me about the social and economic forces that might compel a woman to volunteer to have her appearance, personality, or romantic prospects savaged on TV. Now, girls regularly tell me they're dieting to audition for Top Model. Reality shows are appointment TV on many campuses I've visited. This pastime sometimes affects academic priorities and impacts the way educators work: A college in Boston rescheduled my visit because they'd inadvertently planned the lecture on an American Idol night, and no one shows up for events when Idol's on. The Millennial Generation seems to be getting more cynical ("Of course it's all bullshit, but it's funny. Whatever.") but less skeptical. That kind of mind-set makes advertisers salivate ... I am concerned at the increasingly uncritical ways I've seen students react to media over the last decade. I'd like to see scholarly investigation into what impact reality television's portrayals of gender, race, class, sexuality, and consumerism may have on the expectations and worldview of viewers who've come of age with these shows.

pgs. 34-35 -

"This show really is kind of a reality version of Cinderella," Ken Mok, executive producer of America's Next Top Model, told E!'s True Hollywood Story, describing a UPN-turned-CW series that regularly tells gorgeous, insecure young women that they're too fat, too flawed, and, in the case of girls of color, too "ghetto" to make it as an advertiser's muse.

This formula pops up wherever women are pivotal to a series. The central conceit of Fox's The Swan, for example, was that "ugly ducklings" would be sliced and diced into "beautiful swans," as if pitting emotionally unstable plastic surgery patients against one another in a bizarro-world beauty pageant were a modern Hans Christian Andersen fable rather than prime-time exploitation of body dysmorphia ...

Edited by Persiflage

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