Domestic Reality TV

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

I have finally found a reality program that I can watch without cringing with embarrassment for the participants and/or becoming enraged at the producers. Not surprisingly, it’s trailing in the ratings and on the brink of cancellation. Although the title is not immediately endearing, ABC’s version of the hit British series Wife Swap hovers somewhere between the infotainment intent and documentary-like structures of the original and the highly constructed shock-and-spectacle of American reality-tv. In part, this is due to the producers’ conflicting desires both to raise social awareness and to provide the high drama expected by American audiences. But the show’s domestic setting and its concentration on female characters is at times also in conflict with reality-tv’s ideological traditions, so well delineated recently on this site by L.S. Kim. Wife Swap reveals the difficulties involved in sustaining a more typically relationship-based “feminine tv” reality show in an American market and, more importantly, the disruptive power of even the most cursory attention to the actual material conditions and social complexities of women’s lives.

The British series Wife Swap (2003- ) has been enormously popular and won several prestigious awards. Its premise is simple: one wife changes places with the wife of another family for two weeks. During the first week, she follows their “rules” and during the second, they “must obey” her requested changes to their household. The producers’ stated aim is not one of providing exciting competition or reward (the participants are not paid) but of personal enlightenment: “a couple’s opportunity to re-discover why they love each other and decided to marry in the first place” (ABC on Wifeswap). I recently had the opportunity to view the British and American cuts of the same episode of the show and they were markedly different: the British version was much longer and much less sensationalized, with more of a focus on the educational aspects of the show and what the couples learn from their experiences (there was considerable critique of the U.S. way of life from one of the couples, which was cut in the American version).

While the British version reflected the program’s stated goals, the American version was much more uneven. The promos for the American version (which are shown not only before the show as a whole but continually before every commercial break) emphasize the dramatic conflict and contrast between the two couples, who are chosen for the extreme differences in lifestyle (i.e. the working class biker family vs. the middle class environmentalists). While the promos promise continual bitter confrontation and acrimony, the bulk of the program reflects the more feminine values of reconciliation, emotional connection, and mutual understanding. And feedback from participants (widely reported on-line and in the press) suggests there would be even more emphasis on relationship-building if the wives had final cut. Indeed, one participant recently revealed that producers kept encouraging her to be more critical of her new family in order to heighten conflict (which she refused), and that the illuminating 3-hour conversation she had with her temporary spouse to help work through their differences ended up on the cutting room floor.

This tension between the interests of the program’s participants and the commercial expectations of ABC — which encourage the British producers to replicate the arguably masculine, conflict-based aesthetics of American reality — has resulted in confusion and anger among many reality fans. My examination of three different websites for the show suggests that part of the pleasure for many reality tv fans is their expectation of the conflict of opposites that the show promises; their enjoyment also seems to hinge on their desire to judge and feel superior to the people on the screen. The learning and reconciliation aims of the participants undercuts that pleasure, as one self-aware fan on TelevisionWithoutPity.com suggested: “That was a Happy-Go-Lucky episode where people acknowledge and recognize the need for change. I still can’t get used to these happy endings and I don’t want to get used to them. I want hateful, rule resistant people that I can snark on forever and ever. When the couples met they were all so good natured and friendly, it hurts me to like both families. It makes me feel like I’ve failed.”

Some fans welcome the changes, however. The domestic realities of these people’s lives makes it difficult for viewers to divorce the participants’ attitudes from their material reality, which changes the nature of the “conflict” discussions from a typical clash of personalities to more substantial discussions of social difference. Wife Swap reveals the specificity of people’s lives through attention to the mundane, rather than sensational, details that accompany the “wifely” role: cleaning, cooking, child care, spousal negotiations, religious practices, professional responsibilities. The program also foregrounds the variety and complexity of class, race, religion, region and, of course, gender, difference in a way that significantly departs from most reality-tv by eschewing the usual artificial setting of social “equality,” equal opportunity, and middle class norms and values. As a result, the contrasts in social class are revealed since each person’s home and routine is put on display.

Houses are judged by the wives according to both working — and middle-class standards, and the program, stunningly, does not promote one standard over the other. Indeed, one of the program’s most popular and heroic wives, Cristina (a Christian Latina liberal rocker), rejects the dominant notion of the necessity for a “neat and orderly” home by asserting that “we value human relationships above a spotless house.”

Particular objects within each person’s home become symbolically central and take on a rare historical and social dimension. When a black mom, Shelley, objects (politely) to a Mammy cookie jar in her new home, one teenage daughter bursts out, “I am so sick of being called racist just because I’m from Mississippi!” while the other proudly displays the “Mammy” doll both girls have slept with since they were children. In this case, the materiality of the cookie jar and the doll form the core of the show’s conflict, one which results in Shelley (again, a very popular figure with viewers) patiently explaining to her new daughters why she finds the figure of the Mammy offensive. Because Shelley, the heroine here, is both aware that race matters and is permitted to explain her position at length, she brings attention to racial difference and undercuts the ideology of racial equity. The resulting on-line discussion of the episode focused on the cultural and historical meanings of racialized objects, with posters bringing up Marlon Riggs’ film Ethnic Notions as a helpful resource. In this case, difference became a subject of thoughtful discussion rather than serving merely as a source of conflict and eventual ridicule.

The most moving example of the way in which Wife Swap both addresses difference and provides examples of reconciliation is in the experience of a woman from a traditional Christian family to Christina’s alternative rocker family. Although also Christians, the rocker children have piercings and wear Goth clothing. Christian mom Wendy is initially very critical of the family, calling them “devil worshippers,” and she eventually breaks down crying, admitting her fear of difference: “It’s culture shock to me. It’s just scary to me. And I know you’re godly, wonderful people, it’s the appearance that scares me to death. I’m sorry I feel this way but it’s very disturbing to me. I’m just totally out on my own here.” By the end of the episode, Wendy has moved beyond external appearances, even allowing the children to dress her up as a Goth chick and singing with them. Her transformation–which is internal more than anything, and in stark contrast to most “Swan-like” transformations — suggests the way in which the program’s attention to difference helps to break down rather than reinforce barriers or hierarchies between people. As a result of the program, Wendy is more able to build a strong relationship with her own daughter. Labels like “redneck,” and “white trash” get unpacked and examined through actual people’s lives, and descriptions like “Christian” are shown to have widely varying meanings.

If anyone is a villain on Wife Swap, it is the inflexible, the intolerant, and the irrational, who most often (surprise!) are personified by the rigid husband of a patriarchal family. The fact that female outsiders are put in charge of traditional male households is remarkable in itself, one of the few instances where women have unrecuperated authority on a television program, reality or otherwise. This moment of take-over is one of the chief pleasures of the program for its fans, whose desire for traditional reality-tv showdowns gets conflated in these instances with those feminist viewers who want to see these women turn patriarchy on its head. These reversals are often also sweetened by race and class critiques: a black women has the opportunity to interrogate and browbeat a white Southern male about his shoddy treatment of his wife until he breaks down and cries; a working-class single mom (gently) takes a wealthy husband to task for his neglect of his children and his need for total control of his environment. Although the changes these women make may be temporary, their critiques offer moments of genuine enlightenment that, I hope, will outlast Wife Swap‘s inevitable cancellation.

Please feel free to comment.




Women Watching Sports

by: Janet Staiger / University of Texas at Austin

Avid WNBA fans

Avid WNBA fans

I knew something had changed when I called my then-mid-70-year-old mom in Omaha several years ago on a Saturday afternoon before Christmas to ask her about clothing sizes for gifts and she responded: “I can’t talk now. Texas is beating Nebraska for the Big XII Championship.”

Granted my brother Don and his son Kevin had been a bit extreme as fans for Nebraska football. Although working in Houston and Los Angeles and now Perth, Australia, Don managed to come back until his Perth job to nearly every home game during a season, especially when Kevin was still at home. Even now, with Kevin working in Washington, D.C., both make it to about half the games. And when he can’t come home, Don will call mom from Perth several times during the game for updates. She tapes the games to send him (sorry about that!; I’m sure he destroys them after watching).

But having my mother become so devoted to watching the game marked an escalation of family commitment to the team. When she watches the game (I’ve been home to see this), she keeps jumping off the couch and paces around the room, holding her arms close to her body until the play is over, and then relaxing. My own recent involvement in Texas sports has been in part due to being able to offer Don and Kevin 50-yardline seats for Texas home-games against Nebraska.

My family life memories are vividly of the family gathered in the evenings around the (sole) television set during the 1950s and 1960s (dad bought a TV in 1952 when Omaha had its second station, but we did not move up to more than one set in the household until after I left for graduate school in 1968). So watching TV always meant negotiating which program to watch and then enjoying it together.

So I have understood my mother’s involvement in Nebraska team sports “escalate” to this new stage potentially as a way to relate virtually with my brother and nephew’s obsessions. But it is also the ability to watch the game on television that has permitted her commitment.

I use this example to suggest that while Title IX has been important in the last thirty years to the development of women’s sports and women (and men) fans of women’s sports, I speculate that television has been an important facilitator of women’s engagement. Particularly cable — with its proliferation of channels and avaricious appetite for content — has enabled fans for most major college teams to see almost all of the conference games. While radio used to supply coverage, now television provides this service as well, with the visual information intensifying the experience. (This raises the question for me as to whether radio or television might be better for certain sports; certainly baseball seems almost a radio game because of its long periods of “inaction” versus the multiple events occurring simultaneously during football and basketball games. Has anyone researched this?)

In fact, I would also argue that fans of sports are increasingly more distributed between the sexes as a result of cable coverage of sports. Often, I will raise the topic of sports — like weather — as a means to engage conversation with new acquaintances. Frequently, recently, men have indicated to me that it is their wives, girl friends, or boy friends (but not they) who follow sports.

Yet we do not know much about women’s sports fandom. My mother, for instance, knows very well what is going on in a game and can intelligently understand and predict plays. However, statistics and recollections of past games are not part of her arena for football fandom.

Other women, however, seem as capable as well-trained men in providing the on-going narrative arcs of a team: the triumphs and difficulties of the players, the inter-school rivalries, and so forth. Trained as soap-opera viewers, this sort of long-term engagement with a text is not difficult for women to do.

We also do not know much about the progression of fandom or its progression in relation to access through various media. Mom also enjoys watching (and playing) golf, a sport I cannot contemplate viewing on TV. Meanwhile, for various reasons, I have recently added the Texas Women’s Basketball team to my sports watching. Being able to see the games on cable television led, finally, to the purchase this year of a season ticket. Lately I have actually been reading the sports pages and watching the headline news tickertape for game results. That has lead this fall to following the coverage of the Pistons-Pacers and their fans’ brawl and actually bothering to watch the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neill re-union match last week. Clearly knowledge leads to curiosity, leads to more information, and so on.

The growth in the popularity of women’s sports and women watching sports (men’s or women’s) is partially a result of second-wave feminism and Title IX. (I haven’t even touched on scopophilia or attention to body images in the past thirty years as partial causes.) But the impact of cable television to facilitate virtual attendance for some intensely visual sports also needs recognition as a factor in the changes that are evident. Personally, as odd as it may seem, Saturday afternoon football viewing has become family time even though my family is spread as “near” as Omaha and as far as Australia. It’s really nice to know that we are still gathered together watching the same program on TV.

Links
Title IX
Women’s Sports Online homepage

Image Credits:

WNBA fans

Please feel free to comment.




The Boob Tube

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College CUNY

“It’s like Jell-O on springs!” Jack Lemmon declares as he ogles Marilyn Monroe’s fleshy derriere in Some Like It Hot (1959). Lemmon himself is in drag, and watching this film recently for the umpteenth time, I am struck again by its strange combination of heterosexual prurience and queer exuberance. I am also struck by Monroe’s plumpness. She is roughly the size that Renee Zellweger beefs up to to play the “fat” Bridget Jones. A few days later I watch John Boorman’s science fiction bizarre-athon Zardoz (1974), in which Charlotte Rampling’s A-cup breasts frequently escape the confines of their futuristic macramé top. Amazing, I think, that thirty years ago a woman with small breasts could be represented in the media as sexually attractive.

One could come up with countless other examples to illustrate a rather obvious fact: cultural standards of the ideal female body are historically variable. No big news here. Like the 19th century woman in her bone-and-viscera-crunching corset, today’s idealized female body can only be attained through technological mediation. While one could point to Pamela Anderson and numerous other TV stars as representative of today’s technologically mediated female body, I would like to hone in on one particular television program, the E! channel’s Dr. 90210, which graphically illustrates the possibility of achieving the impossible body.

Women of the 1950s wore girdles, and women of the 1960s dieted like crazy to attain their Twiggy shapes. Today’s actresses and models (and a handful of the rich and less famous) have the bottom halves of the 1960s and the top half of the 1950s. They are, in other words, slim and stacked, a virtual biological impossibility. This body shape requires rigorous diet and exercise regimes, but it also requires the surgeon’s knife and liposuction pump to suck out the bottom and inflate the top. This is exactly what plastic surgeon Dr. Rey does to white, affluent female bodies on the reality show Dr. 90210.

Dr. Rey’s specialty is inserting breast implants through the patient’s navel, and on most shows women get implants, though Rey also performs nose jobs and other procedures. The thin dramatic tension underpinning the show hinges on the fact that Dr. Rey spends all day in the office using his knives to “empower” women by making them more self-confident about their looks, while at home he is insensitive towards his pregnant wife Haley and overly invested in his Tae Kwon Do practice. Forced to join his wife in shopping for baby supplies, Rey is side-tracked by a beautiful bra in a store window, which he admires for being both fashionable and (unlike him!) “very supportive.” Haley exclaims that not only does she own the very same bra, but she happens to be wearing it that very minute. As she repeatedly gestures to her own chest (itself notably larger than what viewers have seen in the home video footage taken of her several years earlier), Dr. Rey remains fixated on the dummy on the other side of the glass.

Dr. 90210 obviously functions as an advertisement for Rey, and the E! website provides a link to Rey’s practice. Here, dozens of before and after shots are available, mostly of boob jobs. Most shots are straight-forward, with a clinical, mug shot kind of aesthetic. We see small breasts transformed into big boobs. [Fig. 1] (Note: Figures 1, 2, and 3 contain nudity) A much smaller number of images show reconstructed breasts: women with Poland syndrome (two very differently sized breasts) are given symmetrical breasts. And saline implants then transform these breasts into porn star sized jugs. [Fig. 2] The third kind of representation of breasts pictures the models whom Rey has operated on, their after shots showing them in magazine images. Here, we see the only person of color on the website, an African-American woman. Her after shot reveals her in a pornographic posture on the cover of Black Men magazine. [Fig. 3]

Unlike on Rey’s website, on the show nipples are digitally scrambled. This seems a bit silly, since the program regularly shows the body on the operating table, about as naked as it could be. What’s more naked than having your clothes off? Having your skin off! Perhaps inspired by the CSI franchise, with its persistent visual penetration of the body, plastic surgery shows (a growing genre, of which Dr. 90210 is only one example) are not shy about showing bleeding, penetrated bodies. Notwithstanding the coyly scrambled nipples, there is a pornographic show-all dimension to Dr. 90210‘s representation of the body. What is lacking, however, is pornography’s sense of humor and giddy transgression of societal norms. Dr. 90210 shows everything: the naked body, then the naked body with surgical Magic Marker maps drawn on it, then the surgically invaded body, and then the post-operative, quivering and vomiting body. Instead of offering voyeuristic pleasure, though, the show’s images of nude and penetrated bodies are stunningly unerotic. Who knew that naked bodies could be so damn boring?

One episode, however, breaks from the boring pattern and ups the dramatic ante. This show reveals that Dr. Rey is from Brazil, and that his mother worked as a janitor to help him pay for medical school. Charity plastic surgery is Rey’s big chance to give something back to the poor; someday, he tearfully confesses, he will leave Beverly Hills behind and return to his people. (Knowing that Dr. Rey has a SAG card, as per his website, one cannot help but wonder how carefully rehearsed this scene was.) The doctor’s volunteer work is at a clinic in a Latino neighborhood, and in this episode he helps a poor Latina with a unique problem: she has four breasts. He instructs her to quit smoking to prepare for the removal operation, but she doesn’t, and suffers for it on the operating table, as her breathing becomes labored and increasingly desperate. Rey explains how dangerous it is when patients do not obey their doctors. Not allowed to stay in the hospital, the post-op patient is carted to a “recovery center” (which looks suspiciously like a motel) and then returned to her trailer home. This poor Latina has served her function, which was to show Dr. Rey’s largesse, while also portraying a rare moment of surgical imperilment, a rarity on a program that consistently ignores the dangers of plastic surgery. It appears that the only time things go wrong is when patients misbehave. Notably, this charity patient is the only woman on the show with truly “wrong” breasts. The other women want to have their “normal” breasts augmented (or, in one unique instance, reduced).

Of course, the idea of any body being normal or natural becomes increasingly fraught the more one views Dr. 90210. While it may be tempting to wax nostalgic about Jayne Mansfield’s decidedly non-anorexic chest, or Emma Peel’s more modest cleavage, mediated breasts were no more “natural” before the recent explosion of televisual plastic surgery. What is unique today is not the cultural regulation of what constitutes the desirable breast but rather the fact that the increasing number of TV representations of enhanced breasts reveals the process behind the cultural construction. We didn’t watch sitcom girls throw up and take diet pills on 1960s TV, whereas today the process of bodily construction is played out before our very eyes. And since — with the exception of an occasional mole removal from a supermodel — the plastic surgeons of reality TV work their magic on “normal” women, not real stars, the patients can only afford so much plastic surgery. Though the uplifting, therapeutic message offered is that any woman can achieve her bodily dreams, Dr. 90210 stops short of the full body Frankenstein-like reconstruction of The Swan. The result is women with big boobs but bodies that otherwise look fairly average, marked with cellulite, dimples, and wrinkles.

We are completely missing the point if we condemn Dr. 90210 for offering women unrealistic, oppressive body images that will give them low self-esteem, the standard liberal feminist argument. All any female viewer has to do is look down a few inches to realize the distance between TV’s surgical cantaloupes and her own comparatively modest rack. Even the amply endowed woman will not find a televisual mirror, for TV’s completely round, enormous, man-made breast held upright at sternum level has nothing in common with the large breasts provided by genetics. (Consider Chesty Morgan’s 73 inch endowments in Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons.) What Dr. 90210‘s images of surgical breast enhancement actually offer viewers, contrary to the show’s intentions, are not fantasies of self-improvement but representations for which there is no original. How appropriate, then, that E! Online offers Dr. 90210 fans a videogame called Ka-boob!, which requires moving a character back and forth to catch falling implants [Fig. 4], with California iconography – palm trees and a Beverly Hills sign – in the stylized background. The tongue-in-check introduction invites us to “meet the docs who put the boob back in the boob tube.” The Dr. 90210 boob is ultimately a lot like California, as per Gertrude Stein. In spite of its abundant excess, there is no there there.

Links
Dr. 90210
Dr. Robert Rey

Please feel free to comment.




Super Freaks

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College

I am a film snob. There are a few TV programs that I feel truly passionate about, but when push comes to shove, I just plain prefer movies. Part of their appeal is aesthetic. Most TV is visually dull as dust.

With the exception of some splashy music videos and a few remarkable showcase episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Hush” and “The Body”), TV doesn’t look or sound very interesting. It is at its aesthetic best when it sticks to close-ups, focusing on faces and feelings.

Whatever TV lacks in form, though, it sometimes makes up for in content. TV may not look good, but it feels good. And I don’t mean this in some plug-in-drug, opium-of-the-masses kind of way. What I mean is that in recent years more and more smart, well-written shows focusing on women and relationships have emerged. They feature the complex female characters and psychological realism absent from so much contemporary cinema. Shaun of the Dead is a sharp zombie movie, Infernal Affairs is a brilliant thriller, and Elephant is a beautiful study in anomie (and tracking shots), but none of these recent films include compelling, fully elaborated female characters. For this we must turn to Gilmore Girls, Alias, Buffy, and Freaks and Geeks.

Aren’t there any contemporary films that can compete with these programs? Though chick flicks tend to lay on the Prince Charming happy endings a bit too heavily, at least they are interested in women as more than buxom side-kicks. So when Mean Girls came along, I thought I’d be in for a treat. If the critics were to be believed, this was the Heathers of our age, a thoughtful examination of the sociology of high school…with some cool outfits too. If not as incisive as Heathers, it would at least measure up to Legally Blonde and Clueless on the girl power scale. I’ll admit, though, I was a little nervous, as I had seen Lindsay Lohan on Ellen explaining that the film’s message is “just be yourself.” Great advice from a teenager who just got a boob job.

The film opens with the socially adrift “new girl” trying to figure out which crowd of high school girls she wants to hang out with. She’s good at math and is immediately invited to join the Mathletes. Hey, wait a minute, this sounds a little like Freaks and Geeks! In fact, the more I watched the film, the more it disappointed me because it couldn’t match the brutal honesty of Freaks and Geeks. The nadir of Mean Girls is the scene where each girl gets on a platform with a microphone, apologizes to all the girls she has been cruel to, then plunges backwards into a “trust fall” and is caught by the other girls. This is exactly the kind of bullshit that the geeky guidance counselor on Freaks and Geeks would propose, and the kids would be forced to do it, and they would hate it and know it was stupid.

Freaks and Geeks showed teenagers rebelling against both adult authority and the expectations of their peers. Such a program should not have had a problem finding a huge adolescent audience. But it did. Though the show developed a core audience of devoted fans (and earned a number of Emmy awards for writing), it never became a hit. Eighteen episodes of Freaks and Geeks were produced, though only thirteen aired before it was cancelled. The show’s creators were allowed to make the show exactly the way they wanted to, ignoring NBC’s advice that the characters should have “less depressing lives” and that there should be “one decent-sized victory per episode.” Though plenty of male adolescent hysteria is expressed (garage band traumas, first kisses, disco outfits, and a curious obsession with ventriloquism), the show also highlights two very compelling female characters. Lindsay is the mathlete who leaves her geek identity behind and joins the freaks and burn-outs who cut class and smoke grass. Kim is a freak, with a depressing home life and a relentlessly bitchy demeanor. In fact, NBC at first would not even air a Kim-centered episode because they thought its darkness would scare away viewers.

At the end of Freaks and Geeks‘ one and only season, Kim is still a bitch (irresistibly so), and Lindsay has not rejoined her mathlete compatriots. The lead burn-out has discovered he is actually good at one thing: Dungeons and Dragons. The boy who Lindsay dumped has a girlfriend he’s not crazy about and has taken up disco to make her happy. The sarcastic freak has a girlfriend, though she was born with a penis, so he has had to work through a few anxieties. As for the geeks, one got the girl of his dreams, but broke up with her because she turned out to be boring, materialistic, and Republican. Another is suffering through the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and a third had a pretty good make-out session in a closet, but, on the down side, his mom is dating the school’s gym coach.

Freaks and Geeks was poignant, smart, and hilarious. Anyone who was ever humiliated by a gym coach, chosen last for a team, or teased for athletic inability will be elated by the episode that climaxes when the geeks are made team captains and immediately choose the short kids, fat kids, and smart kids for their teams instead of the dumb, insensitive jocks. At the same time, viewers will realize that in this non-Brady Bunch universe, the punishment for insulting the jocks will surely be some ass-kicking in the showers later. Perhaps Nielsen households are dominated by jocks, because, ultimately, the ratings weren’t high enough, and the show was axed. Busy Philipps (Kim) surmises, “Television is run by rich white men who are told what to do by rich white men, who want a formula to sell the most soap.” Philipps’s soap reference is apt, because it is the precedent of the soap opera, with its characters that develop over long periods of time, complex extended story arcs, and a dedication to examining emotional realities and psychological motivations, that enabled a show like Freaks and Geeks to exist in the first place. One season of Freaks and Geeks is twelve hours of viewing. It’s not enough, but it adds up to about ten more hours of character development than one finds in most films. There are, it turns out, a few things that TV does better than movies.

Links
Freaks and Geeks
Women in film and television bibliography
Buffy‘s website
Media representations of gender
Mean Girls website

Please feel free to comment.




Casting Shirley Partridge: The Reality TV Audience as Talent Scout

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Reality television is developing a new force on the creative side of television production as the TV audience joins television executives in the creation of entertainment programming. Bridges between entertainment and audience have always been fundamental to show business, and reality TV is taking audience participation to new heights. The reality TV watcher, sitting at home and unencumbered by the immediate proximity of global corporate economics and network politics, is invited to observe auditions and act as talent scout in the development of their own entertainment. Is the TV audience, once conceived of as passive consumer of entertainment and advertising, becoming more active and enfranchised in the actual production of programming?

Reality TV has already broken down the distance between audience and performer. Reality TV players (“player” here taken to mean both game player and stage performer) are different from movie and TV stars. John Ellis used a useful distinction to describe the appeal of the movie star: s/he is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. Stars are like us and yet they are different from us. We can recognize ourselves in the star and the characters the star plays, yet we also appreciate their exceptional qualities. The reality TV player is familiar, more ordinary than extraordinary. Trista & Ryan and Boston Rob & Amber may be fairy-tale romances, but they are also as familiar as the initials of high school sweethearts spray painted on a town’s water tower.

Reality TV players may be ordinary and familiar people, but reality game shows cast personalities in the hope that the mix will engender drama and interest. Reality casting can generate critique of social categories and assumptions. Survivor‘s staff psychologist has identified social types (one type for each of the players on a Survivor season) and described the anticipated dramatic outcomes of these types. While the reality player may be cast as a social type, s/he is not simply a fixed and predictable stereotype. Some reality players come to their games with an understanding of how they embody social types. In the confessionals, these players explain how erroneous assumptions about type can work in their favor in the game. “I may seem weak, but I’m strong and smart. The others will underestimate this good ol’ boy, this petite young woman.” Rather than confirming types, these players ask the audience to recognize the types that they embody and to disengage preconceptions about stereotypes.

In its striving for some mix of racial/ethnic/sexual/gender diversity, reality casting can reveal fundamental barriers that reverberate through US life, culture and opportunity. On The Apprentice, African American women players (Omarosa in the first season and Stacey J in the second) seem to not fit comfortably in the show’s business culture (these women seem to provide too much drama). Romance reality shows may occasionally explore the ordinariness of men players (such as Average Joe), but women players seem to be subject to more restricted notions of feminine attractiveness.

In reality shows that are cast by agents, the selection process has become legendary. Nationwide, thousands of applicants (sometimes hundreds of thousands) are winnowed down to numbers that can be managed by the program’s production team. The final mix of reality TV players are the dramatis personae, characters and personalities that are designed for the show just as writers and producers design characters for sitcoms and episodic dramas. Reality show DVDs and the reunion episodes present clips from the audition tapes of the finalists and take us “behind the scenes” of casting, for a glimpse of the performances that won the player the coveted role as castaway.

In reality talent shows, professional casting judgment is made more open and visible. These shows may play a didactic role in the circulation of popular knowledge about entertainment. Whether opinion is rendered caustically or gently, professional judges share their views with the TV watcher. The judges “teach” as they ensure that players have a requisite level of expertise and qualities for the entertainment genre. In America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks and a panel of fashion industry experts assess performance and explain the expectations for a “top model.” ANTM showcases the hard work (get up early, be ready, don’t be a diva) and skills (posing, make-up) as well as the body type that undergird this glamorous profession. There is no popular vote because what matters to ANTM is the judgment of the professionals. “Top models” are extraordinary, not ordinary.

Some reality talent shows cast the TV audience as a creative partner in the discovery of talent, calling on the audience’s experiential history with entertainment (sitcom, pop music, country music). These shows invite TV viewers to understand and to join in the “occupational ideologies” of the creative team, to become aware of the judgments that A&R or casting directors or talent agents might bring to casting decisions. American Idol and Nashville Star are competitions that end in the promise of a chance for a show business career, entry into an arena that would otherwise be inaccessible to most of the hopefuls. These shows have an interchange between a panel of entertainment professionals who make a public assessment of performance and the popular vote. The audience voters may be expressing their desires for what they would like to see in entertainment or maybe they are culture jamming, subverting entertainment by voting for the least likely entertainer or the underdog. American Idol and Nashville Star are talent shows, looking for pop singers.

In Search of the Partridge Family takes it up a notch, inviting “America” to help cast the Partridge Family for a new series on VH-1. Three roles in the sitcom (two child actors and an established character actor to play the lynchpin role of the family’s manager) were cast by professionals. The TV audience participates in casting performers who can sing pop songs, act in a sitcom, and re-inhabit the roles of four Partridges: Shirley, Keith, Laurie and Danny. For each one of these, auditions in four cities (Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Orlando, New York) generated eight hopefuls and a televised competition that combines professional judges and popular votes. The four show business judges are a record producer, a casting director, a music industry executive and an executive producer of In Search of the Partridge Family. Unlike American Idol and Nashville Star, the judges of In Search of the Partridge Family do not share their assessments with the TV audience. Nonetheless, In Search of the Partridge Family makes visible some of the processes that go into the production of entertainment television.

A week of rehearsals, singing and acting lessons, wardrobe and hair is presented in montage. Called “Boot Camp,” this process starts the visual transformation of the players from ordinary to extraordinary. However, despite their more polished performances, trendier haircuts and stage clothes, the players remain on the ordinary side of the continuum. The judges eliminate 3 of the 8. After a singing competition, the judges eliminate two more. Now, the field effectively narrowed to three very similar possibilities for the Partridge family character, the TV audience is invited to participate. The last three players perform a scene taken literally from the 1970s show. They stand before a green screen, interacting with the 1970s characters. In a secret combination of TV audience votes and judges’ opinions, two finalists are selected. In “The Battle of the Finalists,” the TV watchers make the final selection, voting by phone or Internet.

As the field of eight is narrowed to two, the TV audience gets to know the players as familiar and ordinary people. In “The Battle of the Shirley Partridges” episode of In Search of the Partridge Family, the players introduced themselves with sound bites that explained how their personal attributes match those of Shirley Partridge: I’m a mom; I used to be a rock singer and now I’m a mom; I’m organized; I can learn to drive a bus. The players present the sense that being myself is the same as being the character. Their personal attributes will allow them to deliver this character. In the method acting of reality TV, you don’t have to reach into yourself for an experience or an emotion that helps you understand and deliver the character. You are the character and the character is you, in your ordinariness. Yet, the bottom line will be the need that profitable entertainment has for the extraordinary–when the ordinary and likeable person has to deliver the character through photogenie and sustained performance.

The women vying for the role of Shirley are very different from Shirley Jones, the actress who played the character on TV in the 1970s. Jones was an experienced performer with the attributes of the perky TV sitcom mom. She starred in musicals (Oklahoma 1955 and Carousel 1956) and received the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry (1960). After working on stage and in film, television and nightclubs, Jones and stepson David Cassidy formed the nucleus of The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-1974). The reality show amateurs offer themselves not as trained and experienced performers, but as closer and truer embodiments of Shirley Partridge. The contestants situate their performances in “being” more than in “performing.” The Shirley Partridge of the 1970s might have been an extraordinary TV mom, one who formed a touring pop band with her kids. In today’s reality talent show, Shirley Partridge is a character who connects with real moms. Or perhaps, over three decades, moms of the 21st century have become more like Shirley Partridge.

Links
America’s Next Top Model/UPN
Reality Television forum
Reality TV information
Race, class, and gender in media
The Partridge Family

Please feel free to comment.




Small Pleasures

by: Mimi White / Northwestern University

Can you love and hate a television show at one and the same time? I am not talking about general indifference — you watch the show when you can, perhaps if nothing else you like is on, but you don’t miss it when you can’t. What I am thinking about is when you really like a show, and make an effort to watch it regularly. But at the same time (or perhaps some of the time) you actively dislike the very same show. So you watch sometimes but find yourself, as often as not, changing channels, or even turning off the television. But when you don’t watch, you wonder what you are missing.I was made acutely aware of this sort of conflicted viewing when Sex and the City ended its original episodes life on HBO, and started showing in reruns on TBS. When Sex and the City was in its first-run on HBO (1998-2004), I was an indifferent viewer. If I happened to come upon it while flipping through the channels, and had nothing else in particular to do, I might watch it, but often would not. Or I would watch for maybe 7 minutes. The show always seemed mildly appealing, but slightly dull. At the time, I did not think about it in terms of more extreme responses. I didn’t watch enough, or with enough interest, to have a more extreme response.

Cast of Sex and the City Cast of Sex and the City

When HBO ran the final set of new episodes in January-February 2004, I decided to take the program more seriously. Did I fall for the hype? Was I finally willing to engage with a “positive” variant of television’s ubiquitous postfeminism? Does it even matter? I ended up seeing some pretty good shows, and was particularly struck by “The Ick Factor” (11 January 2004), an episode that combines and carefully balances issues about bodies, relationships, grand romantic gestures, and traditional rituals. If certain plot developments gave me pause (I am still unsure whether diagnosing the exuberantly sexual Samantha with breast cancer wasn’t in some perverse, covert way using a women’s health issue to “punish” her), the episode managed to walk the tightrope between being icky and being about things that are icky, between cynicism and romanticism, tragedy and comedy, and women’s romantic relationships and their friendships. I thought it was perhaps the best half-hour television episode I had ever seen. I wondered if this is what I had been missing all these years.

I turned to the best “informants” I could find to figure out if I had really missed the boat here: the students in my graduate seminar. When I gushed about the episode (and I am afraid I did gush), the students who had seen it agreed that it had been an exceptional episode. Many of them assured me that I didn’t need to rush out and buy the series on DVD, because I was as likely as not to be disappointed, if this particular episode was my standard of judgment; others said that the show was uneven, but that I probably would really enjoy other seasons and other episodes. And thanks to the afterlife of first-run television, TBS began rerunning the series shortly thereafter (even if it was “cleaned up” for basic cable audiences — less nude bodies and crude language).

I watched the first two episodes. While I had some qualms about episode one, a scene partway through the second, “Models and Mortals,” moved me to turn off the television. Based on one of Miranda’s dating experiences, Carrie decides to write a column about “modelizers,” men who only date models. At dinner with her friends, the women start discussing modelizers, but end up focusing their attention on models. They say the sorts of things you might expect, parroting most of the well-worn stereotypes about women in this profession combined with pat feminist critiques of the fashion-beauty world. Models are stupid and lazy; they practice starvation in the best restaurants; they are giraffes with big breasts. Models embody the impossible standards of beauty to which the culture holds women, including the women having this conversation. While Carrie makes an effort to speak on behalf of her friends (they are smart, beautiful “flesh and blood” women who should not be intimidated by this beauty fantasy), they all, save Samantha, identify a body part they particularly hate, especially when compared to models: thighs, chin, nose.

There are (at least) two things in this scene that I found distinctly irksome. First, the women soon turn their venom on other women — models — rather than maintaining the initial focus of the conversation on men who date models. What starts as a problematic sort of man is quickly recast as a problematic sort of woman. Second, the women holding this conversation are themselves only one small step removed from models. They may not be quite as tall or thin as the “impossible standards of beauty” that models represent, but they are hardly distant from these idealized, “impossible” standards, and fully participate in and contribute to the same beauty-fashion-body culture as the women they are disparaging. This is true of both the characters and the actresses who portray them.

This scene is written to encourage a viewer to recognize them as “ordinary” women, even though part of their appeal, and part of the larger appeal of the show, is based on their appearance. Indeed, high end, trend-setting clothing and accessories (the very things that models model) are an integral part of the show. The characters shop for and wear expensive clothing and shoes; publicity emphasizes how the characters are dressed, and how they never wear the same outfit twice; and articles in magazines and newspapers promote the latest fashion trends being set by the characters on Sex and the City. This is after all the show that made “Manolo Blahnik” designer shoes a familiar household name. Do Carrie and her friends really not know that Manolo Blahniks are part and parcel of the culture of “impossible standards of beauty” they attribute to models? In terms of bodies, faces, and costume, these women are obviously not ordinary. In fact, they are rather like…models. And while I don’t want to disparage them for this, as they disparage models, I also don’t want to pretend otherwise. Having them vilify models in the language of popular feminist critique of the beauty-industrial complex doesn’t help. Instead, having these women-characters-actresses express these views seems like a blatant contradiction, an insult to my intelligence (even though I also recognize the same clever writing that I enjoy in other episodes). So the first time I saw this scene, I turned off the television, not in indifference, but with full-blown distaste.

This kind of response, oscillations of variable intensities (love/hate or like/dislike), seems especially acute in television. The medium is, after all, so extremely multiple: multiple programs, channels, episodes, writers, producers, directors, etc. are all part and parcel of “a” television show. While we use the singular to designate a television program, it really is not just one thing, but a series — quite literally, of course. Seinfeld, Cagney and Lacy, Two and A Half Men, Two Guys and a Girl, Party of Five, Eight is Enough: you can keep adding to the numbers in the title, but each of these is still a singular program. The multiplication intensifies as opportunities for access proliferate, through reruns, syndication, home recording technologies, and in many cases, the possibility for purchase on tape or DVD.

Television, even one show on television, provides multiple viewing experiences — multiple episodes and multiple ways of seeing them. This, among other factors, opens television to much more complicated, and even contradictory, ways of watching and responding to its texts. We often simply assume that people do or don’t like a show (or a program format, or a genre), and do or don’t watch it. But since a show is many things at once, it isn’t necessarily quite so straightforward. And perhaps my response to Sex and the City is only a slightly more acute version of ordinary viewing. A number of people state that this is how they watch Judging Amy; they only care about the scenes with Tyne Daly, and are otherwise at best indifferent to the rest of the show (or even pretty much dislike it). When it comes to routine viewing (situated somewhere in between not watching, channel surfing, and fandom) perhaps the best we hope for is an exceptionally good episode every now and then; a few characters who engage or divert us; or a few good scenes in an episode that is otherwise boring, clumsy, or even offensive. But given these “small pleasures,” it is worth thinking about how we (and others) make decisions about our regular, but ordinary, viewing choices.

I expect that if I watched all of Sex and the City, I would probably continue to have similar experiences. I would really like some episodes or scenes, and really not like others. And I did end up buying two seasons of the show on DVD, including the set with “Models and Mortals.” So I guess I will get a chance to find out.

Links
Sex and the City
Turner Broadcasting
TBS
Sex and the City fan site
New York Times Sex and the City article

Image Credits:

Cast of Sex and the City

Please feel free to comment.




Diary of a Political Tourist

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Diary of a Political Tourist

Diary of a Political Tourist

Must political documentaries always return always return us to shopworn clichés about the artifice and pageantry of American electoral politics? Isn’t there anything else to say? Can media scholars and critics contribute anything original to the discussion at this point?

These questions crossed my mind watching a review copy of Alexandra Pelosi’s interminable Diary of a Political Tourist, a documentary about the democratic primary races. Scheduled to air on HBO next week, Diary is a follow up to the 2000 video diary Journeys With George in which Pelosi — daughter of Nancy — joined the media correspondents assigned to George W. Bush’s campaign. There were some good moments in Journeys with George. Pelosi’s first person camera captured how the dreary monotony of bad catering, sleepless nights, cramped flights, and monotonous hotel rooms tests the stamina of candidates and correspondents. Her bratty girl bravado was aggravating, but it made it impossible to ignore the masculinist chemistry of campaign culture. Most crucially, she made us confront some worrisome truths about the charisma of the Republican nominee. Affecting an airhead persona only a political insider could pull off, Pelosi exposed the bullying bonhomie with which the Republican nominee alternately charmed and disciplined his captive press.

This year’s Diary of a Political Tourist, like most tourism, is an experience in which we mostly get the feeling we’ve seen it all before. Lack of access to the candidates leads Pelosi to scramble for an angle, especially once Kerry’s nomination has been secured. She resorts to tricks from the Michael Moore repertoire, renting the scoreboard at a baseball game to ask Kerry to give her an interview, interviewing a piñata about how media “is” undermining democracy when Kerry is nowhere to be found. But these extended shenanigans quickly become dull. As if aware of this, Diary looks at other moments, specifically to the political filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s, for visual inspiration. We see cheerleaders in starred and striped leotards prance about like extras in an Altman film. Politicians and their families pose for photos, their grins horrifyingly fixed. Make up artists prettify the blushing candidates. Shriners glide across the screen in their miniature red cars. And in perhaps the most interesting aesthetic reworkings of the documentary past, we see both Bush and Kerry at different times take the camera from Pelosi’s hands and point it back at her — a gesture towards reflexivity that would not be out of place in the era of Medium Cool, not least because of the paternalism of the gesture.

It’s not surprising, given these cinematic intertexts, that the documentary settles into a default form of media critique when it has nothing else to say. It is supposed to show, as Pelosi puts it, the nature of “the dance between the candidate, the staff and the press.” But mostly we get recycled ideas about democracy as spectacle. They issue not only from Pelosi but also from participants like CNN correspondent Candy Crowley, who seems both ashamed and exhilarated at television journalism’s role in shaping the fate of Howard Dean after the Iowa Caucus. Voters also contribute analyses of the mediation process. A young Dean supporter with slacker hair and oversized aviator sunglasses makes the canny observation that the primary process is “like a reality TV show because it’s staged, it’s not like a spur of the moment type thing.” And Bush himself, acknowledging the performative nature of his job, jokingly asks Pelosi “Where’s my Emmy?” (When Pelosi later greets democratic supporter and West Wing star Martin Sheen with the quip “hey, Mr. TV president!” he is not amused, questioning whether such glibness is appropriate.)

In the end the girly glibness is what I found myself focusing on as I tried to answer the questions that ran through my head as I watched the tape. It would have been easy to replicate Sheen’s finger wagging automatically, but why single Pelosi out when shallow one-liners are the essence of so much political speech these days? As I considered Pelosi’s authorial persona in this tape and the one before it, I was struck by the uniqueness of her approach as a political correspondent. What other female reporters get to operate through a kind of kittenish, childish provocation? The effect of this style on her interlocutors is noticeable. Not surprisingly, they tend not to take her seriously when she asks direct questions about the campaign or about her level of access. Instead they respond with tepid wisecracks. When she asks Kerry who his running mate will be he replies instantly “you,” as if being quick and condescending in the comeback is more important than being funny. Other kinds of questions, however, get us to a different and possibly more interesting place. In these moments of female tongue poking, Pelosi tries to crack the armor of a group of men who are all under incredible pressure to look good, wear make up, and perform perfectly at all times. When she asks whether a gathering of senior citizens is “a Gephardt-pallooza” (a quip to which the befuddled and clueless candidate can offer no response whatsoever), and when she compares the primary voters to fickle brides who choose “tall, handsome, electable warriors” Pelosi is not particularly funny. But she is certainly bringing some sass into the proceedings.

Pelosi’s provocations made me think about the potential of bratty girl culture as a medium for political critique, and more generally, about girls as political subjects. There’s been a lot of interest in girl culture in television studies over the past few years. Some might say it’s nothing more than a Buffy Bump. But what if we take Pelosi’s documentary as an example of what happens when Clarissa actually does try and explain it all? And explain it in the world of politics, where young women are largely invisible? Perhaps she does what teenage girls often do — talk about boys and adults and make fun of them. I found this quite entertaining when I watched Journeys with George four years ago. Pelosi drew George W. Bush out, showed him playing to the audience of correspondents with a tight-lipped, self satisfied smile and a script full of catchphrases, his performance reminiscent of the Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse (although when he was sulking, W’s style seemed closer to the morose sadism of Bobby Flay). In Diary of A Political Tourist, even though it was a mostly tedious video to watch, Pelosi continued to show us how weird-acting women make white men in power uncomfortable, and makes us notice how those men (and women) respond. When Pelosi asks Hermes-clad Teresa Heinz Kerry whether she thinks her husband is a movie star, Kerry’s visible recoil, spitting out the word no! is a moment of sharp conflict far less decided than the rote media critiques that occupy us elsewhere in the film.

Unfortunately, as if to anchor and contain the meanings of her potentially disruptive presence, Diary has Pelosi narrating the events of the 2003 primaries with canned voice-over wisecracks. These wacky bits, noticeably louder in the mix on the review copy I received, seemed like anxious last-minute additions. Their effect is to bring Pelosi herself closer to the domesticating discursive sphere of Food Network programming. “We’re here in Las Vegas, where everyone loves a winner. And a wedding,” she announces, right before voters consummate their support for Kerry. Like Rachael Ray introducing us to the culinary delights of Paris, this and other vocal intrusions (“let’s see what it takes to kick the leader of the free world out of office”) are a non-threatening, wholly recognizable form of zany fun. Perhaps this is what Karl Rove has in mind when, at the end of the tape, he tells Pelosi that she has “ennobled our political process through her revealing and candid look.” I can’t answer that, but watching him try to formulate that sentence definitely made me want to giggle.

Links of Interest:

1. HBO’s homepage for Diary of a Political Tourist

2. IMDB site for Journeys with George

3. IMDb site for Alexandra Pelosi

Image Credits:

Diary of a Political Tourist

Please feel free to comment.