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Martha M. Lauzen Headshot

Reality Showing its Age

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NBC's latest entry into the ever-devolving genre that is reality television is called Age of Love. Much like other dating programs that have come before it, the series pits women against one another for the undoubtedly short-lived affections of a male stud, in this case a 30-year-old tennis pro. The "revelation" is that the show features 40-year-old women competing against 20-year-olds. The "cougars" versus the "kittens."

The program trots out an endless stream of tired clichés, from the older females worrying aloud about biological clocks and being "left behind," to the younger females trading solely on their youth and beauty. In the pilot, the program's editors made sure to include the younger contestants referring to the older competitors as "decrepit" and "pathetic."

Age of Love is hardly the only program to promise that "the claws will come out" as females battle one another over appearance. America's Next Top Model and Inside the Real Coyote Ugly also trade on these well-worn stereotypes. Yet another program figuratively turns female contestants into "pussycat" dolls (Pussycat Dolls Presents: The Search for the Next Doll).

What is so troubling about the program is not the addition of yet another series selling that women are the sum of their physical parts, the yawning double standard regarding the appropriate ages of men and women in relationships or even that the women in their 40s don't seem to have evolved much past their 20-year-old counterparts. What is so disturbing about the program is how it pits younger women against older women. Of all the enduring stereotypes offered up in prime time, this theme is the most insidious and harmful to women. Echoed across media, it requires that women compete over trivial issues like appearance. Not that competition is bad in and of itself. After all, males frequently find themselves competing over the affections of women on series such as The Bachelorette. But they also compete over things like world peace on other shows.

The problem with these types of portrayals is that they encourage women to distrust one another, to search for negative ulterior motives, and ultimately to remove themselves from the community of women. The unfortunate side effect is that younger women are then left to fend for themselves, disconnected from older women who hold a wealth of knowledge about how to navigate life as a female.

In part, this theme remains popular because women remain under-represented in powerful behind-the-scenes positions. According to the latest study of prime-time television entitled "Boxed In," women comprised just 26 percent of all executive producers, producers, creators, writers, directors, editors, and directors of photography during the 2006-07 season. While it would be naïve to think that all women agree on what constitutes an entertaining or positive portrayal of women on television, on average women behind the scenes tend to create and write more multi-dimensional and powerful female characters. Further, viewers might see female characters of more varied ages if women held more positions of power. In the season just completed, 70 percent of all characters in their 40s and 71 percent of all characters in their 50s were male. Women 40 and over comprised 9 percent of all characters. In contrast, men 40 and older accounted for 20 percent of all characters.

Gloria Steinem once wrote that men become more conservative with age, whereas women become more radicalized. Informed by their accumulated life experience, women learn over time that gender inequities in our society remain. Some even work up a healthy sense of outrage about the whole thing. Of course, this type of female character or personality is rarely seen on screen, though the women of Grey's Anatomy and the recently departed Rosie O'Donnell of The View represent exceptions to this rule

We could chalk up the Age of Love to NBC's desperate search for original summer fare. But a look at the larger television landscape -- past and present -- suggests that it is part of a cultural milieu that encourages women to think of themselves as physical commodities unable to trust other women. In the final analysis, this prime-time contrivance offers viewers nothing more than updated versions of souped-up spinsters and comely babes unaware of the power they could yield by joining forces.

Martha M. Lauzen is a professor at San Diego State University. She conducts annual studies or women working on screen and behind the scenes in television (("Boxed In") and film ("The Celluloid Ceiling").