It is no secret that reality TV is popular worldwide — which is why in the last decade it has become a multimillion dollar industry. From social experiment shows like Survivor, to documentary style reality shows like MTV’s True Life and Sixteen and Pregnant, to competition and game shows like The Amazing Race, American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars, to self-improvement and makeover shows like The Biggest Loser, Americans enjoy viewing what appears to be other people’s real lives unfold on the screen.
But how are reality TV show casting agents selecting the contestants on each show? Are they trying so hard to be ethnically and culturally inclusive and diverse that they are encouraging long debated stereotypes? And are they perpetuating gender roles instead of being advocates for change and equality in our society?
“When these shows started, the idea was that we put real people in a contrived situation,” said Eric Deggans, an author and TV media critic for the St. Petersburg, Florida Times in an interview with RIA Novosti. And as the shows gained popularity, Deggans said the outcomes went from authentic to manufactured, with ratings serving as the ultimate motivation. “Producers need storylines to engage viewers and the quick and easy way to create them is to reduce people to stereotypes,” Deggans said.
The majority of popular reality TV shows today are indeed encouraging stereotypes and perpetuating gender roles. It is rare to find a show that has culturally diverse individuals without showing them in light of the stereotypes associated with their cultural background.
Take the families portrayed in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty for example. The producers of these shows are encouraging the stereotype of Southerners being lazy and stupid. Think about Honey Boo Boo’s mom, often shown burping and sneezing on camera. In a different setting these things would be edited out, but in this scenario it almost seems like the producers are making fun of the family. Across a variety of networks there is an irrational fascination with the lives of rural Americans who fight alligators, go shooting, go “mudding” and talk funny, often making it necessary for subtitles.
Now consider the Italian-Americans from Jersey Shore. A group of eight loud, gelled hair, sun tanned, alcohol drinking, drama seeking, sexcraving young people who live in the same house and are filmed 24/7. It’s easy to see this is not a very accurate portrayal of every Italian-American. Not only that, but from the get go, they also repeatedly referred to themselves as “guidos.” This offended a lot of Italian-Americans. According to a BBC News article, the New Jersey state senator Joe Vitale said, “For me using ‘guido’ is like using the n-word,” referring to the derogatory term for African-American.
And let’s not even go to there with shows like The Bachelor and their portrayal of women. First, only skinny women with big breasts and often fake ones are the norm, and they are absolutely fine with being nearly naked on TV. Women are easily emotionally invested and too easily heartbroken, they bicker, are catty, shallow and flat out insane. The show also enforces the gender stereotype that all women want is to be princesses in a fairytale, find their prince charming and live happily ever after, with no bigger aspirations in life than becoming a wife. To top it all off, The Bachelor has deliberately excluded minorities, having not a single minority contestant for its first ten years on the air, and even now only including the “token” black or asian woman among a group of 19 white women.
An article on Rolling Out discusses the portrayal of black women on reality TV:
“Black reality TV, in particular, illuminates a disturbing new formula that producers discovered for the reality TV genre: Put two or more headstrong and mostly black women in the same room — and let the fireworks begin. Everything from Oxygen’s Bad Girls to Bravo’s Real Housewives to the Basketball Wives franchise, the small screen is overflowing with black women who roll their eyes, bob their heads, snap their fingers, spit verbal poison in each other’s faces and otherwise reinforce the ugly stereotype of the angry, uncouth, uncivilized black woman.”
So, are TV shows doing anything to counter these stereotypes?
Although not a reality TV show, Modern Family is countering stereotypes by exaggerating these stereotypes in an effort to expose them and make fun of them. An article on The State Hornet explains that “every single character in “Modern Family” is a sitcom stereotype taken to its logical extreme; the bumbling father, the overbearing mother, the dumb daughter, the nerdy daughter, and the trouble-making son are all there – and that’s just in one of the three main families the show follows. Yes, the two gay characters are both blatant stereotypes, yet it works because both characters know they’re stereotypes, thus making them the only two self-aware characters in the entire cast.”
The Amazing Race also does a good job of accurately portraying cultures around the world without stereotyping them. It is, in a sense, fairly educational in addition to exciting. Through challenges that involve participating in local and traditional activities, contestants (and viewers) are exposed to the culture of a country in an authentic way and gain an understanding that might otherwise be skewed or inaccurate due to its portrayal in the news, for example.
Despite these efforts, reality TV shows are doing a very poor job at countering stereotypes and an excellent job at encouraging them, which is a shame.
TED speaker Chimamanda Ngozi gave a TED talk on the danger of a single story, where she discussed the dangers of partial portrayals of a culture. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” she said. “They make one story become the only story.”