I've been talking about reality TV a lot lately, both via my blog at WIMN's Voices and in several media commentaries, because I'm so done with people dismissing these shows as harmless guilty pleasures.
Since reality TV is product-placement driven, it's no surprise that the genre routinely attempts to manufacture a vision of "reality" which -- though bearing little resemblance to real life -- methodically mirrors the deeply sexist ideology of Madison Avenue. In the world of advertising, women are always "hot girls," never self-actualized adults; we're always available for male sexual gratification but rarely allowed to be in control of our own sexuality or our own pleasure; and, of course, we're only valued for being "perfect 10s" (i.e., thin, firm, white, Western, waxed and perfectly coiffed, with no visible cellulite, panty lines or even pores).
In reality TV as in advertising, female sexuality is used to sell pretty much everything that exists to be sold -- the only difference is that in advertising we understand we're being shilled to, while in reality TV the shilling masquerades as content. Yet the use of female bodies and female sexuality as commodities is consistent in both realms.
So, what's the most efficient way to get across the message that women are nothing more than commodities? Pose them as living mannequins for commercial fashion brands, as on Britain's Next Top Model. In a rerun episode of the show that aired today on VH1, a group of aspiring models literally replaced the mannequins in the windows of Harrods, the upscale London department store, while gushing about how much of an honor it was to be of use to such a famous shopping center. The same device was used in 2004 on the third season of America's Next Top Model, then on UPN, when the ANTM competitors were made to pose in teensy lace bras and thong underwear in the window of La Perla, the lingerie store in which a couple of pairs of panties can cost as much as a month's rent. In both episodes, crowds of leering men gathered outside the store windows, using cell phone cameras to capture what amounted to the low-rent version of soft-core shots of the just-barely-clad models. In the American version, the La Perla window task was an official challenge, and the women were evaluated as to how little they were able to blink as they stood, sat or lounged stock-still in their skivvies; in the British series, hawking underwear for Harrods wasn't considered a challenge but its own reward.
The symbolism is exceptionally clear: mannequins have no voice, no choice, no agency, no personality (and no asses -- ever see those tiny one-size-fits-all plastic bods undressed? Scary!). Of course, neither do women in reality TV, who are about as interchangeable as Robert Palmer video girls. Both plasticized versions of the female form (actual mannequins, as well as women who appear on reality TV modeling, makeover and sometimes even dating shows) exist solely to sell products and, by proxy, to sell dangerous ideas about women's bodies, beauty and worth as well.
I've been saying it for years, but it seems to bear repeating with an example as clear as this one: reality TV is every ad man's (and, ok, yes, ad woman's) wet dream. No longer do they have to hope that their one page lingerie ad gets noticed amidst the over-stuffed pages of Vogue or that you haven't gone to the bathroom during their 30-second commercial spot for Harrods' holiday sale. Now, they can construct entire programs in which the characters, dialog and plots revolve around the crap they're hoping to get us to shell out for -- all the while pretending these programs are "entertainment" rather than hour-long infomercials for integrated sponsors.
By literally reducing women to lifeless mannequins (and by portraying women as wanting nothing more than that) for the benefit of product-placement advertisers like La Perla and Harrods under the guide of "reality," shows like America's and Britain's Next Top Model are likely to exponentially increase the harmful psychological impact of advertising on girls and women who view these programs (see Jean Kilbourne's Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think And Feel for documentation of advertising's negative influence over girls' and women's self-esteem).
But who cares about the well being of women and girls when we've got pricey La Perla panties to push, eh?
(I can't remember if I mentioned this here prior, but I finally hit on a working title for my reality tv book -- Bachelors, Bridezillas and Beautiful Corpses: Unraveling Reality TV's Twisted Fairy Tales. If you have any better ideas, send 'em my way -- info[at]wimnonline[dot]org -- or suggest them in the comments field below. )
Oh, and as always, if you're interested in bringing WIMN to your campus or community group for a multi-media discussion about representations of women in reality TV, contact WIMN using this form, or let us know at info[at]wimnonline[dot]org
This post originally appeared at WIMN's Voices: A Group Blog on Women and the Media , a project of Women In Media & News, the national women's media analysis, education and advocacy group. To bring Jennifer L. Pozner to speak to your campus or community group, or to send her blog tips, email info [at] wimnonline [dot] org. To subscribe to WIMN's free media alert list, see the Action Center at http://www.wimnonline.org/action/