Reality Television Is No Ground Breaking
Michela Ardizzoni / University of Colorado – Boulder

Season 1 Cast of \"Momma\'s Boys\"

The Cast of Momma’s Boys

Relationships have often been the leitmotif of reality-based television program. Whether one thinks about the occasional homosexual partners in MTV’s The Real World, the awkward semi-professional exchanges on NBC’s The Apprentice, or the competition-driven friendships in shows like Survivor, these programs are unscientific explorations of the human psyche as it enters different levels of relationships. Despite the sizable variety of reality programs, and hence the multiple kinds of relationships uncovered, it was only in the Fall 2008 that US television premiered a show – Momma’s Boys – with a specific focus on the primordial ties between mothers and their sons. NBC introduced the program as a new dating show, where possessive mothers must advise their complacent sons and help them choose the perfect partner. Like many other reality-based shows, the purported allure of Momma’s Boys relied on the voyeuristic glimpses into the confused, contradictory, and ultimately conflicting exchanges between genders and across generations. A look at the origins and development of this format in Europe reveals the extent to which reality television’s focus on relationships succeeds in cementing traditional notions of gender roles and socio-individual identities.

the-perfect-bride2

The Perfect Bride

The earliest version of this format has Turkish origins and was titled The Perfect Bride. Very little information about the creator Lutfi Murat Uckardesler is currently available in English, with the exception of the promo web site www.perfectbride.tv. Upon entering the site, the visitor is welcomed by an introductory flash animation that sets the tone for the content of the page: a white, red-haired, young bride, wearing a traditional white wedding dress and a tiara, is framed by a fuchsia Arabesque design. The title Perfect Bride is at the bottom of the screen, and two wedding rings are used as visual connectors between the two words. The bride-to-be appears innocent, malleable, and acquiescent, with her head tilted to the side, a pale smile on her lips, and her hands gently resting on her hips. The bride idealized in this image is romantically feminine and purposefully aligned with traditional views of heteronormativity. This overall impression is confirmed once the visitor is allowed into the content area of the site. Here, the eye is caught by the animated description of the program: “Every little girl dreams of getting married, finding the man of her dreams, moving in together, meeting the parents, the unforgettable proposal …What if the order gets mixed up? A first in television, here comes a new show where the mother-in-law is the one proposing … to the bride … the Perfect Bride.” This text is sided by the opening image of the bride, on the left, and static visuals about the popularity of the program on the right (“rating record” in one frame; “71.7% rating share” in the second frame). The home page of this site combines the Janus-faced nature of television remarked by Waisbord1: on the one hand, the sense of cultural belonging is reiterated by the use of ‘every’ that attempts to standardize views of heterosexual love and connect them indissolubly to marriage; on the other hand, economic profits are guaranteed by the graphic on the right that uses ‘hard numbers’ to convey a sense of pseudo-scientific reliability.2

In 2007, the format was imported by the Italian public broadcaster RAI that saw the focus on family relationships an essential component of its potential appeal for older and younger audiences.3 Indeed, unlike previous shows in which participants performed in individual competitions, La Sposa Perfetta exploited societal fascinations with the classical Italian family, a trope that has proven extremely successful in other genres – from cinema to television dramas and game shows.4 As outlined in the original format, the show was based on the interactions between mothers, sons, and potential brides. As in other reality formats, the daily encounters presented numerous occasions for sharing secrets, forming alliances, and expressing ideological, cultural and generational differences. These become particularly evident when the women converse on what should be important characteristics of a ‘perfect bride.’ While the sons’ desires are always the main priority in choosing a bride, the mothers-in-law never cease to emphasize the importance of cooking, cleaning, and general house management skills. In the Italian version, these are indeed the elements that shape the mothers’ choices on who should be eliminated each week. The weekly edited recaps provide a constant emphasis on the young women’s lack of domestic skills. In the third episode, for instance, Mamma Teresa commented with frustration: “when it comes to household chores, none of these girls is really worthy.” This statement was the apex of a series of clips that featured the young women in distress upon trying various domestic activities (cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, etc.) and failing miserably in the mothers’ eyes.

A similarly conservative representation of gender roles is furthered in the program’s degrading insistence on the female body as a scientific specimen or consumable object for the voyeuristic male gaze. The male gaze that informs most women’s roles in Italian television affects the perception women have of themselves and necessarily regulates the visual and discursive gender relations. Hence, fictional and real women in television display a de-valorizing attitude towards their female counterparts: their role as interviewees, for instance, is downplayed by a lack of proper introduction and emphasis on women’s credentials, a paternalistic approach that highlights the physical significance of women, rather than their potential intellectual or ideological contribution to the discussion (Cornero, 2001: 82-84). This particular way of framing women in television is evidenced not only by the interactions between hosts, interviewees or fictional characters, but also by the specific camera movements that represent a consistent pattern of showing women. Generally, a series of close-up shots that begin at the feet and move up to the head introduces the woman, thereby underlining her physical accouterments and bodily details. In several instances, the camera often lingers upon specific body parts (breasts, hips, eyes, mouth) and overtly connotes them in a sexualized way by zooming in on extreme detail. This type of camera work frames the female figure from the beginning of her appearance on screen and defines her discursive interventions.

La Sposa Perfetta

La Sposa Perfetta

In La Sposa Perfetta this emphasis on the body defines the role of the brides-to-be. Information about the young women’s height, weight, age, size of clothes, and physical attractiveness is primordial in the online description of each contestant; the juxtaposition of each bride’s identikit allows viewers as well as mothers-in-law to compare and rank the eighteen women based mostly on physical attributes. The centrality of bodily performances finds constant reiterations in the program, when the weekly edited narrative accentuates the time the young women spend on improving their looks: close-up shots of bathroom scenes, where the women put on make up, struggle with their hair, or check their breasts, are regular reminders that physical attributes will eventually determine the winner of the competition.

It is worth noting at this point that this unflattering portrayal of Italian culture and gender relationships did not go unnoticed in the Italian and foreign media. Soon after the first episode aired in April 2007, the Italian Federation of the Press (FNSI) released a statement in which La Sposa Perfetta was defined “uncivil, vile, and squalid.” The same statement also pointed out that, before launching the program, RAI had just signed a five-year contract through which it committed to strengthen its public-service mission by avoiding stereotypical and discriminating views on women. In her column in La Repubblica, feminist journalist Natalia Aspesi5 noted that “the country of televisual mothers-in-law seems to originate from sketches … of the Fascist era.” In her article poignantly titled “And Italy plummeted into the country of mothers-in-law,” Aspesi exclaims incredulously: “What muck this is! If we are talking about a game to amuse the easy-going masses, it bears saying that state television really needs to put a limit to the rubbish, the vulgarity, the lies, the rudeness, and the denial of social changes that happened 50 years ago.” (2007)

As the local adaptations of this format show, reality television often exploits people’s fascination with human relationships to promote unchallenged and, perhaps, reassuring gender norms, which can be easily re-inscribed within the flattening framework of most mainstream television. With a few exceptions, the novelty of reality television formats has remained unmatched by an equally innovative and fresh look at the changing social relationships that shape contemporary society.

Image Credits:
1. The Cast of Momma’s Boys
2. The Perfect Bride
3. La Sposa Perfetta

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  1. Waisbord, Silvio (2004). “McTV: Understanding the Global Popularity of Television Formats” Television and New Media 5(4): 359-383. []
  2. “[C]ontemporary television is a Janus-faced industry that in the name of profitability needs to commodify real and imagined nations while being open to global flows of ideas and money. The global circulation of formats responds to programming strategies to bridge transnational economic interests and national sentiments of belonging.” (Waisbord, 2004: 10-11). []
  3. A more thorough analysis of gender roles in La Sposa Perfetta is forthcoming in “Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media.” []
  4. Often defined as a culture of ‘mamma’s boys,’ Italy is rated as one of the countries with the highest percentage of adult males living with their parents: 85% of men between the ages of 18-33 live in their parents’ household (Manacorda and Moretti, 2005). Several studies have investigated the possible reasons behind this trend and they generally concur that a combination of economic and cultural factors is at play here. []
  5. Aspesi, Natalia (2007) “E l’Italia precipito` nel paese delle suocere” La Repubblica April 6. []

13 comments

  • I certainly agree with the argument that there are traditional, negative gender representations on reality television (such as the male gaze). I also agree that it is mocking the relationships that form America. What is not mentioned though is that reality shows have the same framework as any sitcom or drama, there is nothing “real” about them. These relationships and negative gender stereotypes are being created quite literally by the producer. There is no wiggle room in the world of most reality programming. Certainly reality shows are nothing new, but they have changed the public’s perspective as to what is watchable. The majority of television broadcasting is now “reality”-based, focusing on the quantity of shows that can be produced and not the quality of them. Re-runs and previously thought-up shows now make up this majority.

  • I would definitely have to agree with this article that major ideologies are portrayed through out these different “Bride” reality television shows on how women are expected to be. These shows play into the ideology of the perfect woman. It is interesting to note that each show uses the ideas of being the perfect domestic housewife but only shows the woman failing at the tasks they are assigned to. People watching the show get the sense that that is how the character always is not taking into account that the editors of the shows choose what is seen by the viewer. I would also have to agree with women being seen as objects on these shows especially in these Bride reality shows. Women are portrayed as flawless when in reality we all have flaws. This article is a perfect example of how women are shaped by the camera and placed into different ideologies for the viewer to follow.

  • The examples of the various reality shows mentioned in this article support the dominant hegemony and its views concerning women as sexualized objects that should remain domestic. The idea of domesticity reminds me of an article I read for my TV class earlier this quarter, titled ” Situation Comedy, Feminism, and Freud: Discourse of Gracie and Lucy”, by Patricia Mellencamp, in which she argues that women on television were contained to domesticity, thus keeping the power in the hands of the male. The show mentioned above, “La Sposa Perfetta” shows an ideological desire to keep women contained to the home even in our modern society where women are supposedly equal within the work force. Mamma Teresa’s disappointment in the lack of domestic skills of the potential brides for her son demonstrate that our society still places strict guidelines based on assumptions within gender roles that must be met to cater to the ideology. Who knows exactly when these ideals will be reshaped, but it is clear that many of the reality shows of this era support the conservative and traditional gender roles that were established many years ago.

  • Natasha Childress

    In this article, Michela Ardizzoni does a fantastic job at breaking down elements of the Italian form of the reality show The Perfect Bride, titled La Sposa Perfetta. However, her rapid discussion of Mama’s Boys and the Turkish reality show The Perfect Bride were not discussed enough; although they led an introduction to her main argument, I thought more emphasis could have been made there to interrelate these shows and connect them through similarities and differences to make her main argument stronger.
    An interesting point made in her article is made while she analyzes the roles of the women in La Sposa Perfetta. It really relates to John Berger’s view on women being looked at as he discusses in his book, Ways of Seeing. He describes women as viewing themselves as how the men view them. Here, in “Reality Television Is No Ground Breaking,” Ardizzoni describes a portion of the show as demeaning in terms of this perception of women made by men when she states how “the male gaze that informs most women’s roles in Italian television affects the perception women have of themselves and necessarily regulates the visual and discursive gender relations.”
    Reality television often wants to satisfy audiences through ideologies since it is that common sense that is comfortable with viewers. In order to get older audiences, the stereotypical roles of men and women should definitely be enforced, however, the RIA, as Ardizzoni states, was not content with the image and portrayal of women in La Sposa Perfetta and therefore the show did not ultimately succeed in the entertainment world, although perhaps it had many interested viewers. The women were ultimately objectified. Reality television, in this instance especially, deforms the identity of women through its narrative; the women are portrayed as insignificant in terms of “potential intellectual or ideological contribution to the discussion,” as Ardizzoni argues. Women in La Sposa Perfetta are demeaned by only being qualified as “good wives” if they can fulfill basic household chores well.

  • This article has many strong points and I especially liked the stance taken on the exploitation of relationships in reality television. Another thing I realized upon reading this article, is that a lot of ideas for American reality shows are coming from Europe or somewhere else in the world. A lot of the time, they are just transcribed versions of the same show. I think this effectively debunks the theory of Americans being the only nation that is hooked on reality shows. It also shows that reality television may be stronger than the masses think and while everyone likes to push it off as a fad, it may be here to stay. The fact that this is an international trend gives it much more strength as well as momentum. What I liked about this article is how descriptive and analytical the author was in explaining the opening web page of “The Perfect Bride.” Such a detailed and elaborate analysis that perfectly exemplified usage of the four overlapping stages of the critical process (descriptive, analytical, interpretive, and evaluative) that was taught in class.

  • Tam (Stephanie) Luu

    I agree with many of your arguments in this article. Reality shows are not “reality” at all. I think the reason that they have become so popular is the fact that all reality shows base their characters off age-old stereotypes. Producers get to choose contestants and place them in unlikely scenarios or challenges that will produce a certain outcome. They also get to cut out and edit the show according to their own ideas and vision. Reality t.v. should be real life, no pretending, no forcing. Jon and Kate plus 8 anyone? But whats on television now is a perfectly controlled, scripted version of a “reality” show. Is this really “reality?” The only reason why these shows exist is because they bring in good ratings.

  • I certainly agree with the fact that reality television is not “real.” Reality television is scripted and there is hardly any difference between sitcoms, dramas, and reality shows. In these reality shows women are portrayed as inferior to men because they are objectified and contained by the household. Therefore, they are objects of sexual desire who are subordinate to men. Patricia Mellencamp talks about women who are contained to domesticity. A perfect example of this would be the television show “La Sposa Perfetta” because the wife is continuously being contained to domesticity and husband. This show elaborates on the illusion of the perfect wife and how she is suppose to act and behave in the house and in society.
    The dominant ideology in television portrays women as the ones who clean, cook, and perform other duties for their husbands. Reality shows focus on the dominant hegemony that women are subordinate to men. Some examples in reality shows include the illusion of a perfect bride and how her primary role is to look beautiful so that she can be happy, loved, and cared for by her husband.
    Another example would be the show about being the perfect wife. This show talks about containment and domesticity. Reality television gives its audience a misconception that women are always suppose to look attractive for their husbands. Furthermore, these women are objectified and lured into the human gaze by men. Mulvey says that humans find pleasure in looking at other humans. In this case the human gaze is the concentration on female beauty at a surface level. Therefore, women are sexualized in television through explicit images of their bodies.

  • Michela Ardizzoni brings up interesting points regarding this form of reality television show. She mentions three versions of this format, which are different based on the locale, Momma’s Boy in the United State, The Perfect Bride the Turkish version, and La Sposa Perfetta in Italy. Ardizzoni focuses her attention on how the camera portrays the women trying to become the spouse of the men. The concept of the male gaze plays a crucial role in these shows as the camera is constantly judging the women by zooming in on certain body parts or panning from the feet up. The mothers in the shows who are helping their sons pick their bride are frequently asking about how a given girl is at doing domestic chores such as laundry, cooking, etc. By doing this, the creators of the show are highlighting the gender role of women as perceived by the mothers. The author did a great job explaining the website for The Perfect Bride. By giving a descriptive analysis of the website, it allows her to interpret it and tell us what it says about gender roles and the male gaze.

  • Reality television has grown incredibly fast. However, most of it stays the same. The same stereotypes, the same ideas, and the same outcome. The Perfect Bride is no different. The only two sides of these women that seem to be important are their attractiveness and their domestic skills. They are seen as either objects of the male gaze or as slaves. Intelligence is downplayed no matter where one looks in reality television and The Perfect Bride seems to follow suite. I feel it is not because there are no smart girls that want to be on these shows, but because the producers want explosive, sexy, and unpredictable television. Little do they know that overtime with these stereotypes being played over and over that reality television is becoming just as predictable as anything else that fights to be original. The incredible thing is predictability can pull addicted viewers in. Just as in Joe Millionaire and other shows like The Bachelor, The Perfect Bride covers the entire idea in fantasy. The fantasy that the true match will be left standing and they will live happily ever after. Unfortunately most of these reality television “stars” don’t make it off set before they have broken up. The viewers don’t care a sequel or a spin-off of that show has already begun and the old season is thrown in the trash pile along with all the others. This is fine as the next season will leave some female viewers wishing to be the next girls on the show and the male viewers are going to be just fine because these women are there for them to look at.

  • I found this article very interesting because it showed the concept of the male “gaze” in full effect within this new genre of reality TV shows. It was interesting how the shows attempted to display their version of what the perfect women should be by having a mother, who was primarily focused on domestic responsibility, and also all the information of the contestant’s physical characteristics. The description provided by Ardizzoni about the website for The Perfect Bride showed this ideology being enforced by it’s model who was chosen to embody “the perfect bride.” La Sposa Perfetta was also very interesting, especially when it came to the way in which the camera would pan up the contestant’s body and linger, or even zoom in, on specific body parts. In this way the camera was almost acting like the “gaze” itself by placing emphasis on particular sexualized parts of the contestants’ bodies. It was good to hear that the Italian government actually disproved of La Sposa Perfetta’s portrayal of gender roles. The fact that the government felt the need to make stricter broadcasting rules also shows the true power that television has when it comes to spreading ideology, in this case the ideology surrounding what constitutes the “perfect” bride.

  • Similar to that of Mellencamp’s views regarding I love Lucy and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Ardizzoni’s argument demonstrates reality TV’s potential to contain women. Mellencamp describes containment as a theory that, “was practiced on the domestic front,” and worked to exclude, “women from the work-force…keeping them in the home.” (“Situation Comedy, Feminism, and Freud: Discourses of Gracie and Lucy) Although Mellencamp uses two sitcoms as her examples of this theory, with the emergence of reality television, the opportunities to restrict women to the role of housewife increased dramatically.

    Ardizzoni points out in the Italian show La Sposa Perfetta the different characteristics that were of import in deciding who would be “the perfect bride.” She describes the mothers-in-law concerns with the contestants “lack of domestic skill.” Ardizzoni also explains, “the camera often lingers upon specific body parts (breasts, hips, eyes, mouth) and overtly connotes them in a sexualized way by zooming in on extreme detail.” Although Lucy’s containment is not as centered around her sexuality, both I Love Lucy and La Sposa Perfetta fail to take their women character’s seriously.

    In I Love Lucy, Lucy continually pleads with Ricky to allow her to perform in his show. However, Ricky always ignores her wishes, thus causing Lucy to try to scheme her way into his act. In so doing she more than proves her talent as a performer. Unfortunately, Ricky disregards this talent, and one way or another Lucy is defeated in her attempts to become a star. Similarly, by judging the women in La Sposa Perfetta primarily on their domestic skills, the show is disregarding any other important aspect of the contestants. This portrayal of women proves very harmful. Not only do these depictions help to contain women to the household, they also promote the image of the woman object.

  • Joseph Braverman

    At the end of the day, no matter what genre a show is, it still has a specific message to give out to viewers, and its solely controlled by the producers. Reality TV is no different, because shows, especially such as Survivor, use the editing process as a means to display contestants at their most vile and dramatic. We are only given a realistic glimpse of the individual or groups real situation, which in itself may or may not have been influenced by the producers, and from those glimpses viewers make a judgement of the entire real person and their entire real situation. In fact, reality television as escapism almost works better than non-reality tv forms, because it gives us a perspective we know that does not portray us, but the mirrored realistic lifestyle does seem that the scenarios are plausible, but its easier watching others go through trials and tribulations who are real, rather than ourselves as viewers comfortable on the couch. This article conveys how the producers attempt to construct an ideology which hegeomy governs over everyone that the male gaze is predominant.

  • Yes reality shows are not ground breaking but what I think you have to realize is that most are not trying to be. As you might be able to tell most reality shows follow the same format of having multi racial casts with one objective at the end of the show, which may or may not involve elimination. They purposely put characters on the show that will act for the camera and be entertaining whilst representing as many races of people as possible. After all these shows are on to make money and if they are not entertaining then they can’t make money because they will be off the air. Advertisers don’t want to have their adds on a show that no one is going to be watching. Therefore reality shows are not going to be reality, they are going to be as entertaining and controversial as possible. Take the new season of the Real World for an example. Katelyn on the Real World who is a transgender person serves as a controversial figure and as a spectacle. She is not on the show to represent all transgender people, she is on the show because people are interested in what she will do, what she will say, and how she will act. All the networks want to do is to make money. They don’t care about anything being fair or just, they just want their money and they will put whatever kind of crap onto the television in order to achieve that goal. After all these are business men not saints.

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