Behind The Funhouse Mirror: The Racialicious Review of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure Tv

By Arturo R. García

In a way, author and journalist Jennifer L. Pozner’s latest work was endorsed by The Learning Channel, without her even having to appear:

We have made it known from the start that Sarah Palin’s Alaska is not a political show.   Sure, there has been plenty of conversation of Sarah Palin’s Alaska through a political lens — some of it on our blogs — but when the focus turns political the conversation goes off track.  And for that reason we try to avoid conversations that are seen as being political wherever possible.

- Brian Reich, host, Sarah Palin’s Alaska podcast

Over the weekend, Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media & News, and more recently the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV, was invited, then un-invited from appearing on the channel’s Alaska podcast after Pozner called the series a “series-long unpaid political advertisement.” Her post and subsequent live-tweeting of an episode, Reich went on to say, “created an untenable environment tonight that wouldn’t allow for us to focus on the topic we both want to discuss.”

Translation: the call-in portion of the show would veer into flame-war territory, because Pozner’s analysis would have revealed some truths TLC and Palin’s fanbase weren’t comfortable confronting.

Indeed, Reality Bites Back makes its’ stand not just on analyzing the goings-on in front of the cameras in shows like The Bachelor, America’s Next Top Model and Flava Of Love – identified as three turning points in the Reality TV genre – but in shining a light on the behind-the-scenes machinations that go into making this kind of “entertainment” possible. The tone is set early on, as we get a closer look at the thought process of Mike Darnell, the Fox executive who changed the game 10 years ago, when he brought Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire? to the airwaves with executive producer Mike Fleiss:

Mike and I … knew that the National Organization for Women would hate us. That this would be the most controversial show ever! We thought it was all good, but it got so hot, so crazy red-hot. They said it was the most talked-about show since Roots! It was the lead sketch on Saturday Night Live.

Fleiss went on to launch The Bachelor in 2002, and Fox promoted Darnell, giving him the all-clear to launch shows like Joe Millionaire, The Swan and Temptation Island. Fleiss provides a chilling summation of these and other programs’ calling cards: “It’s a lot of fun to watch girls crying. Never underestimate the value of that.”

Under Pozner’s lens, the multi-pronged assault on these shows’ female participants and feminism in general is only confirmed: the emphasis on restrictive norms concerning body type; the faux-Cinderella narratives; the consumerism; and, as regards race, the wholesale revival of the worst of stereotypes, with the introduction of Flava Of Love setting the stage:

Producers made sure viewers understood that race was the reason why this show was so different from anything we’d seen before. From the archetypal reality TV limousine during the series premiere, Flav screamed, “I know y’all heard of that show called The Bachelor. Flavor Flav is the Black-chelorrrrrrrr … orrrrrrr ….” Lest that prove too subtle, he yelled, “I’m the pimp behind the wheels!”

While Flava and its’ extended family of spin-offs pick off contestants’ self-esteem at the “street” level, another chapter in the book focuses on Tyra Banks and the high-rise abuse on Top Model. On the page, without the camouflage of mood music or product placement, the show’s pattern of victim-blaming and hypocrisy is laid bare, from the framing of Yaya DaCosta in Season 3 as pretentious to the “sexy little animals” photo shoots. Yet, Pozner theorizes that Banks herself is dealing with her own form of brainwashing:

From age fifteen on, Banks was raised by the fashion and beauty industry and its advertisers. In loco parentis, they gave her fame and fortune beyond her wildest dreams – but always while pitting her against other women, requiring her to hide her natural hair and reminding her that her value depended on being young and thin. And so the cycle continues.

Pozner makes it clear she doesn’t want people to not watch the genre, but, through games, how-to tips on writing to programmers; and community-oriented mini-commentaries from an array of guests, she devotes the book’s final two chapters to a sort-of self-help guide of her own: how we as readers and viewers can watch these shows and their ilk more critically – and, hopefully, stem the tide of faux-reality a little bit at a time. On a personal note, I’d recommend buying this book for the avid Flava, Tyra or Bachelor fan on your holiday list as part of that process.