The Surreal World

Class anxiety, hyperconsumption and mocking the poor, for your viewing pleasure.

Jennifer Pozner November 3, 2010

Poten­tial step­moms were wel­comed to the Cal­i­for­nia estate where they’d be liv­ing while dat­ing divorcee Don Mueller on NBC’s Who Wants To Mar­ry My Dad? This is our house,” said Mueller’s son Chris. Except it wasn’t.

Reality TV’s ‘do-gooder’ programs promise to explore solutions to poverty—yet reinforce the flawed notion that America needs charity, not social change.

Nei­ther was the six-car garage or the $165,000 Fer­ar­ri Don drove on the show. Despite the entry sign that read The Muellers” and the fam­i­ly pho­tos on the walls, Don’s fam­i­ly lives in a love­ly, but hard­ly-pala­tial, Cincin­nati house. The same bait-and-switch man­sions and hot tubs were used on Meet My Folks.

Real­i­ty TV pro­duc­ers relo­cate the folks” on such shows from their own mod­est homes to erase any­thing so banal as a mid­dle- or work­ing-class exis­tence because inte­grat­ed mar­keters pre­fer upscale homes as the sets where their prod­ucts will be show­cased. Real­i­ty TV coach­es us to lust after the exor­bi­tant lifestyles of trust fund brats on MTV’s Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, tro­phy wives on Bravo’s Real House­wives fran­chise and wealthy bach­e­lors on The Mil­lion­aire Match­mak­er. Watch­ing the bad behav­ior of heiress­es, House­wives, and bad-toupee-wear­ing moguls plays on Amer­i­cans’ twin desires to hate the rich for hav­ing what most of us don’t – and to be them.

From Fox’s The Sim­ple Life to wed­ding-indus­tri­al com­plex series such as WeTV’s Plat­inum Wed­dings, real­i­ty TV has skewed our eco­nom­ic real­i­ties, overem­pha­siz­ing the short-term plea­sures of hav­ing nice things” while hid­ing the long-term eco­nom­ic con­se­quences of our nation’s over­con­sump­tion. I don’t under­stand sav­ing for the rainy day,” celebri­ty styl­ist Rachel Zoe said earnest­ly on The Rachel Zoe Project. Nev­er mind that Amer­i­cans are drown­ing in debt – we need cou­ture. Live like it’s your last day, every day!” she urged. 

By the end of 2009, while 34 mil­lion of us received food stamps, Bra­vo rolled out NYC Prep, pro­fil­ing rich kids in the top 1 per­cent” of the elite.” As crip­pling health­care costs con­tin­ue to force hun­dreds of thou­sands into bank­rupt­cy every year, E!’s Dr. 90210 is always on call to pro­vide cost­ly cos­met­ic surg­eries to wealthy women with body image issues. And just as mil­lions were fac­ing fore­clo­sure, Bra­vo invit­ed us to root for mas­sive prof­its for real-estate spec­u­la­tors on Mil­lion Dol­lar List­ing. Of course, there’s no acknowl­edg­ment that our pro­tag­o­nists here come from the same indus­try that gave us the col­lapse of the hous­ing market.

On real­i­ty TV, low-income women’s strug­gles to feed, clothe, shel­ter, and edu­cate them­selves and their kids become fod­der for mock­ery. Broke, busty babes beg for a pho­to shoot on America’s Next Top Mod­el, pro­claim­ing that pos­ing near­ly nude is their only chance” at a bet­ter life. Amer­i­can Idol taunts young, poor sin­gle moms, often African-Amer­i­can and Lati­na, who say they just know that Idol will be their step­ping-stone out of wage-slave jobs at McDonald’s. After their ear-split­ting audi­tions and humil­i­a­tion from the judges, cam­eras fol­low these pitch-poor rejectees as they head home, curs­ing and cry­ing about their dashed dreams, drag­ging sad tod­dlers behind them. Mean­while, host Ryan Seacrest takes snarky swipes at their pathet­ic pipes. Thought you could escape pover­ty through song? Hilarious!

Dis­turb­ing, yes, but not sur­pris­ing for a genre that allows adver­tis­ers to col­lab­o­rate with pro­duc­ers to craft con­tent. One of the myths sur­round­ing real­i­ty TV is that it exists because the pub­lic demands it, via astro­nom­i­cal rat­ings. This is false. Real­i­ty TV is cre­at­ed to meet adver­tis­ers’ needs. Megahits like Amer­i­can Idol unde­ni­ably draw bof­fo num­bers. But unscript­ed series (for exam­ple, The Pick­up Artist, in which awk­ward guys are coached how to erode women’s self-esteem to manip­u­late them for sex) are allowed to lan­guish on the prime­time dial despite ter­ri­ble rat­ings – because they are cheap to pro­duce, and can draw hun­dreds of thou­sands of prod­uct place­ment dol­lars before the net­works ever sell a sin­gle com­mer­cial. In exchange for that invest­ment, these shows aim to con­vince us that spon­sors’ prod­ucts are intrin­sic to our sur­vival, whether it’s a Tar­get tent shel­ter­ing Sur­vivor con­tes­tants from the ele­ments or Sears giv­ing new homes to nat­ur­al dis­as­ter vic­tims on Extreme Makeover: Home Edi­tion.

Real­i­ty TV encour­ages us to lust after things we might have nev­er want­ed or need­ed. Dur­ing an episode of What Not To Wear, TLC gave a record indus­try staffer $50,000 for a dream wardrobe.” Turns out 50 grand doesn’t go very far at Armani and Guc­ci: her fash­ion inter­ven­tion” net­ted just two small suit­cas­es of clothes and accessories. 

Need” isn’t the issue. Improv­ing people’s lives can be a hap­py side effect on some shows, as when Extreme Makeover built flood-dam­aged homes for Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na sur­vivors, or when What Not to Wear gives sin­gle moms new wardrobes to help them dress for the job they want. But altru­ism is these shows’ feel-good tac­tic, not their pur­pose. The pre­sen­ta­tion of these gifts is about plug­ging the brand, and cul­ti­vat­ing the idea that lux­u­ries are the secret to happiness.

Extreme Makeover fam­i­lies weep with joy at the end of every episode, shield­ing view­ers from prob­lem­at­ic fol­low-ups: Exor­bi­tant prop­er­ty tax­es, build­ing code vio­la­tions and legal issues that lead to head­lines such as, With Extreme Makeover’ Homes, Some Get Fore­clo­sure Instead of Hap­py End­ing.” The big reveal at the con­clu­sion of What Not to Wear is as much ide­o­log­i­cal as visu­al. Made-over women’s for­mer protes­ta­tions about fru­gal­i­ty, com­fort, and non­tra­di­tion­al gen­der pre­sen­ta­tion van­ish. By the end of the show, one stilet­to-clad foot after anoth­er, these Step­ford Shop­pers march to the same con­sumerist beat, rav­ing about their new­found shop­ping bug.” 

Give them a piece of cake

At the oppo­site end of the real­i­ty TV spec­trum, do-good­er” pro­grams promise to explore solu­tions to pover­ty – yet rein­force the flawed notion that Amer­i­ca needs char­i­ty, not social change. On ABC’s Oprah’s Big Give, well-inten­tioned par­tic­i­pants give $2,000 worth of flow­ers to passers­by on the street, pay off med­ical bills for the unin­sured, and donate sup­plies to under-resourced schools. View­ers get warm fuzzies, but noth­ing is fun­da­men­tal­ly improved. On Fox’s The Secret Mil­lion­aire the über-rich are dropped into the hood,” giv­en a week’s worth of wel­fare wages, and go under­cov­er” at soup kitchens and bat­tered women’s shel­ters. They learn a les­son eight-year-olds under­stand: some­times bad things hap­pen to good peo­ple. Then they write a few well-placed checks, and, *poof* – everything’s all bet­ter. And each episode of CBS’s post-reces­sion Under­cov­er Boss is a full-length com­mer­cial for cor­po­ra­tions such as Hoot­ers and Waste Man­age­ment, Inc. pack­aged as a pop­ulist fan­ta­sy: Greedy CEOs pose as work­ers, observe mis­treat­ment and labor abus­es, have emo­tion­al awak­en­ings, then promise their employ­ees that things will be dif­fer­ent from now on. 

As we know, cor­po­rate offi­cers’ feel­ings don’t result in work­place pol­i­cy shifts – union orga­niz­ing does. It’s love­ly when com­pa­nies donate books to needy kids, but that can’t replace nation­al invest­ment in edu­ca­tion. Yet real­i­ty TV rep­re­sents the nation­al scourges of pover­ty, fail­ing schools, home­less­ness and work­place injus­tice as indi­vid­ual mis­for­tunes, not insti­tu­tion­al prob­lems requir­ing pol­i­cy solu­tions. The truth is, the world will not be a bet­ter place if only more of us would give flow­ers to strangers. 

Real­i­ty TV’s mock­ery of the poor and ele­va­tion of the brand­ed super­rich has coin­cid­ed with an increas­ing dearth of oppor­tu­ni­ty in the Unit­ed States. Add to that the genre’s glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of spend­ing for spending’s sake, and the result is a strain of pop cul­ture that con­tributes to a super­fi­cial mind­set and a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of pub­lic life that does not serve Amer­i­ca, or its peo­ple, well. 

This essay is adapt­ed from Real­i­ty Bites Back: The Trou­bling Truth About Guilty Plea­sure TV (Seal Press). For media lit­er­a­cy resources, see www​.Real​i​ty​Bites​Back​Book​.com.

Jen­nifer L. Pozn­er is exec­u­tive direc­tor of Women in Media & News (www​.wim​non​line​.org).
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