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We Are What We Watch

BY Susan J. Douglas

One highly disturbing resonance between Abu Ghraib and reality TV is the central role both play in advancing anti-feminism.

A few weeks ago, Fox-TV offered up the finale of “The Swan”—the mutant offspring of the Miss America pageant, Cinderella and “Extreme Makeover.” Women held up as “dogs”—whose supposedly oversized noses, flabby thighs and saggy breasts were scrutinized and pitied, even ridiculed—subjected themselves to multiple invasive procedures, including as many as 14 surgeries and psychological counseling, before a national viewing audience. The finalists then vied in a beauty contest complete with lingerie competition, and one was chosen winner, the Swan.

As “The Swan” and a swarm of reality shows colonized primetime, the news media was consumed by repugnant images coming out of Abu Ghraib. All were appalling, but possibly the most disturbing were those of young women like Pfc. Lynndie England pointing and laughing at an Iraqi man’s genitals and, in another shot, seeming to drag a naked Iraqi man by a leash.

How do these seemingly different images of women work together? To understand, we need to consider the synergy between the coarsening of our culture and post-feminism, between TV’s sadomasochism-lite and its escalating objectification of women.

Because we often dismiss popular culture as banal and inconsequential, we don’t stand back and think about the connections between what we see in the news and what we see in entertainment programming. But we should appreciate that reality TV, particularly, traffics in and relies upon voyeurism, one-upsmanship, humiliation and often soft-core pornography. This is hardly to say reality TV “caused” Abu Ghraib; the soldier-torturers, including the women, were socialized into highly macho military institutions predicated on conquering and killing those deemed the enemy. But the “few bad apples” argument Rumsfeld and Bush used in their efforts to distance torture from “the true nature and heart of America” fails to acknowledge how common humiliation has become in what passes for daily entertainment.

Perpetuating degradation and terror is the premise of such shows as “Fear Factor” and “The Apprentice.” Near nudity and ridicule of people’s bodies, too, is de rigeur in reality TV. In “Are You Hot?” “judges” like Lorenzo Lamas used a laser pointer to identify which parts of a contestant’s barely clad body were shameful. In the early episodes of “American Idol,” when hundreds competed to get to the final phase, we were invited to laugh at those pathetic tone-deaf pop star wannabes.

Others have noted how various cultural practices, from fraternity hazing to torture in U.S. prisons, are of a piece with the sadism at Abu Ghraib. But what’s chilling about reality TV is that it exhorts us to be a voyeur of others’ humiliation and to see their degradation as harmless, even character-building fun. It is not surprising that, as Susan Sontag wrote in dismay, Abu Ghraib torturers “apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show.”

The other highly disturbing resonance between Abu Ghraib and reality TV is the central role both play in advancing anti-feminism. Right-wing pundits like Linda Chavez suggested that the presence of women in the military “encouraged more misbehavior” in the prison. George Neumayr of the American Spectator summed it up this way: “The image of that female guard, smoking away as she joins gleefully in the disgraceful melee like one of the guys, is a cultural outgrowth of a feminist culture which encourages female barbarianism … [t]his is Eleanor Smeal’s vision come to life.”

In other words, not only are women not morally superior to men, when they get too much power they are worse than men, so they should be expunged from public life and get back in the kitchen.

Reality TV’s obsession with women’s appearance, sexuality, ability to please men, desperate need to compete with each other over men, redecorate, have breast implants and liposuction—reinforces and celebrates pre-feminist gender roles. From “The Bachelor” to “Joe Millionaire” to “Trading Spaces,” reality TV keeps women in their place and encourages a retreat from citizenship and world affairs into consumerism and the domestic sphere. With “The Apprentice,” it was clear that no woman could win the top spot—women were cast as too emotional or too bitchy or too reliant on their sexuality to handle a top job with The Donald.

In these shows, the inevitability of female narcissism is rendered utterly natural, almost genetically determined. But so is a culture of surveillance, of voyeurism and of demeaning exposure. The promised prizes are meant to be worth the initial shame, rejection. Post-feminism—the insistence that deep in their hearts women really want a return to 1957—is thus deployed in the service of a culture of humiliation. Others may dismiss reality TV shows like “The Swan” and “Are You Hot?” as mindless drivel. But when they simultaneously naturalize misogyny at home and shamelessness abroad, we need to take a pretty hard look at what our society finds entertaining—and why.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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