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Mean Girls

2/20/2012 2:01 PM Eastern

Love it, hate it — or love to hate it — reality
television is a popular staple of American entertainment. Not only are
reality shows a form of programming that’s less expensive than scripted
comedies and dramatic fare, they also bring in significant ratings for
cable programmers, particularly among those who watch television the
most: women and girls.

Women love seeing other women in leading roles on television. It’s validating.
And while nonscripted shows have put more women on television
than ever before, the gap between the women in reality TV and women in
real life is huge, and growing.

Cover_Story_Image_02/20/12Despite the increased political and business clout of women in
the real world, images of cat-fighting reality television stars and lipplumped
Housewives present an unrealistic — and decidedly unfavorable
— image of women and of what women value, according to
writer Jessica Bennett of The Daily Beast.

ANOTHER WORLD

Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth
About Guilty Pleasure TV
, notes that the “representations in reality television
are more dangerous than in most other forms of media.”

As the executive director of Women in Media & News, a New York-based
media analysis, education and advocacy group, Pozner contends that reality
shows perpetuate “1950s ideas set to a contemporary soundtrack.”

“Over the last 12 years, reality TV has presented the
most regressive ideas about who women are, and while
women in the world are making vast progress — you
have Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin running for president
and vice president in 2008 — what did we see on reality
television?” Pozner said. “Real Housewives, and all
they want to do toss back martinis and yell at each other
and compete over men and beauty and $50,000 earrings
for product-placement ads.”

But strip away all the distracting details about each
show — whether it’s brides-to-be on TLC’s Say Yes to
the Dress
or WE tv’s Bridezillas; the competition of Top
Chef
on Bravo or Project Runway on Lifetime; the lives
and styles of the nouveau riche and newly famous of
Style’s Big, Rich Texas, VH1’s Love & Hip Hop or Basketball
Wives
; or any of the Real Housewives shows — and
what you’re left with is something very familiar in scripted
TV: a soap opera.

“All you’d have to do is look at a scripted soap opera
and look at these reality shows, and all the elements have
been recreated — without actors,” Eric Deggans, TV and
media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, said. Deggans is
currently writing a book about TV, race and social issues.

Rarely, if ever, do viewers see these real women in reality TV shows worrying
about paying bills, Deggans said. They may work, but they never appear
concerned about holding down a job. They have great clothes. They
eat in the finest places. They vacation in the best locales. Their husbands
are famous. And yet they’re constantly clashing with one another; fighting,
divorcing or hooking up with someone they shouldn’t. “There’s sex
and anger and emotion in the middle of all that,” Deggans said.

It’s not surprising then that girls who regularly view reality TV accept
and except a higher level of drama, aggression and bullying in their own
lives, according to a recent study by the Girl Scout Research Institute.

The study found that a vast majority of girls think reality shows “often
pit girls against each other to make the show more exciting” (86%). The Girl
Scouts study also found that girls believe that their value is based on their
physical beauty (rather than their personality), that gossiping and competition
are normal parts of relationships between girls and that happiness
is dependent on having a boyfriend or significant other.

“There were mean girls before reality TV,” Sally Ann Salsano, executive
producer of the MTV hit Jersey Shore, said. “Even when I was a kid, there
was competition on the soccer team, in the dance class. But now there’s a
show like Dance Moms (on Lifetime) that’s showing you what’s really happening
in a dance school in Long Island. I just think it’s more relatable now
on TV, like making a documentary; following people doing what they do,
and if America wants to watch it, then that’s up to America. ”

Americans have been in a long-running love
affair with reality TV. It began back in 1973,
when more than 10 million viewers tuned in
to watch An American Family, the PBS documentary
series said to be one of the earliest
examples of the genre.

The 12-episode series intended to reveal
the lives of an ordinary family, but quickly became
the subject of water-cooler discussion —
and a headline feature in The New York Times
— as it documented the break-up and subsequent
divorce of parents Bill and Pat Loud.

A generation later, MTV’s 1992 docu-soap
The Real World — in which seven diverse
young strangers were cast to live together in
a SoHo apartment — changed everything,
spawning a new viable format in television
programming.

“It was a docu-style look at a social experiment
and an unfi ltered take on what it’s like
to have a bunch of kids come together and
share their different world views and different
life experiences,” MTV programming
head David Janollari said of the series that,
after 27 seasons, is still going strong.

“Reality, throughout the last couple of
decades, has certainly undergone some
broadening and some expansion across the
television landscape, and I believe that it will
continue to evolve,” Janollari said.

WHY WOMEN WATCH

At NBCUniversal, parent company of Bravo,
E!, Oxygen and Style, understanding why
women watch, and how the company can
evolve with their diverse female audiences,
was the subject of a 2011 study last summer
which revealed 14 themes — called “needstates”
by NBCU — that motivate viewership
among women.

“What this work was about specifically was
not understanding the topics that are important
to people, but more understanding what were
the underlying emotional
benefits of different
shows that were
associated with hit
shows,” executive vice
president of NBCUniversal
Entertainment,
Digital Networks and
Integrated Media Tony
Cardinale, who led the
study, said.

One key finding:
Women attach themselves
to shows that
are both aspirational
and relatable. “We
call it ‘Me Plus,’ which
is sort of a take me
away scenario that’s
a little different from
their own lives but
something the viewer
can relate to, and
that’s at the core driver
of ratings for a lot of
shows in our space,”
Cardinale said.

Ratings for shows
such as Jersey Shore,
Real Housewives and
Oxygen’s Bad Girls
Club
are driven also
driven by another
key factor: emotional
connection.

“People think the
moments of table
flipping are what drive viewing, but the truth
is there is a relationship between viewer and
subject on screen,” Cardinale said.

But it’s the impact of “train wreck TV”
that’s of particular concern, Detroit News
television critic Mekeisha Madden Toby said.

“We don’t have any dramas with predominantly
African-American casts, and all the
comedies featuring predominately African-
Americans have been relegated to basic cable,”
Madden Toby said. “So if it’s not a Tyler
Perry comedy on TBS or a BET comedy that’s
been rescued from The CW, then it’s reality.”

Were there alternatives — in which images
of African-American women were more
prevalent in a diversity of roles — then reality
shows wouldn’t be so polarizing, Cherie
Saunders, editor of online newsmagazine the
Electronic Urban Report, said.

“These shows bill themselves around the
amount of conflict that they can show per
episode, and it seems like the fights and
the riffs between the women are the selling
points of the shows,” she said.

THE LIVES OF WOMEN ON TV: SCRIPTED AND UNSCRIPTED

How different are images of women in scripted vs. reality TV? The log
line descriptions from the list of TV Guide’s most popular shows on
cable and broadcast featuring female leads reveal much about the
lives and aspirations of women on television.

Scripted TV

A forensic anthropologist in
Washington D.C. (Bones)

Two Southern California suburban
housewives (Modern Family)

A band of Seattle-based surgeons
(Grey’s Anatomy)

A quirky L.A. school teacher living
with three single guys (New Girl)

A telepathic waitress from
Louisiana with a soft spot for a
vampire (True Blood)

Reality TV

A single woman searches for
love among 25 male contestants
(The Bachelorette)

A New York City bartender, a
Chilean born-New Yorker adopted
by an Italian family, and her longtime
friend become housemates
with five guys at the Jersey Shore
(Jersey Shore)

Each season, 25 women
compete for the heart of one guy
(The Bachelor)

The private life of twentysomething
L.A. socialite Kim
Kardashian (Keeping up with the
Kardashians
)

Kim Kardashian’s sisters and their antics in the Big Apple (Kourtney
and Kim Take New York
)