Last night, I headed up to PSU to to see Jennifer Pozner, founder of the Women in Media and News organization, speak as part of Bitch Magazine’s Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture lecture series. The title of her talk was “Project Brainwash: Why Reality TV is Bad For Women.” In a show of what some would call heroism and others masochism, Pozner has been watching reality TV shows over the past few years in order to record and expose their dark subtext.
Pozner’s talk focused on exposing reality shows as the marketing machines that they are and revealing how they work to perpetuate incredibly damaging stereotypes of, well, everyone. Considering that I don’t even watch “American Idol,” much less “The Bachelor” (frankly, I didn’t even realize it was still running.), most of the clips Pozner showed merely confirmed my worst fears instead of forcing me to look more deeply at something heretofore dismissed, which is how her talk was set up. I learned more about why networks continue to make reality shows, but the actual analysis of show content was the same sad story that anyone dealing with media literacy can recite by wrote: Women are unintelligent, shallow gold diggers. Money is the key to happiness. Being single makes you worthless. It was actually impressive how shows like “The Bachelor” so perfectly walked the tightrope between a straight male harem fantasy and a straight female fairytale romance. But it was nothing I hadn’t seen before.
And yet, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The story may be tired, but media outlets are still using it. Also, while most every feminist knows that reality shows are potentially terribly damaging, I don’t think many of us actually watch reality shows because we know them to be damaging. But anyone with a good journalistic instinct understands to actually make these claims, we have to be able to show they exist. To the very media literate, Pozner’s talk might have sounded like old news, but from a journalistic standpoint, it was very important work. I’ll be interested to read her book on the subject, Reality Bites Back: How Guilty Pleasure TV is Making Us Sexist, Shallow, and Socially Irresponsible, which comes out this October. As a friend said of the article Pozner wrote in the latest Bitch issue which covered many similar points as the talk, the lecture had the sense of trying to summarize a very complex longer work in an hour or so. I have nothing but sympathy for her on this point–it’s a near-impossible task.
I’ve never become immune to the energy that comes from being in a room of people who are, at least for the most part, passionate about a cause. I just love the sense of community it fosters. As we watched Pozner’s horrifying clips we gasped and groaned. It was cathartic to know I wasn’t the only one disgusted. Nevertheless, as much fun as I have being in a room full of like-minded people, understanding how dangerous and damaging these images are, I often wish there was a way to reach people who don’t understand. The fact is, probably no one who needed to hear this talk came to it. Why would they? There are still people, even commenters on feminist blogs, who don’t understand that the media we absorb affects us, even if our logical brains know to dismiss it. Until we can teach people media literacy, there will be those dismissing reality TV as “just a show.” I don’t have a good solution to this, but it’s always in the back of my mind.
On a personal level, I found Pozner’s talk to be rather inspiring. I’ve been reading obscene amounts of terrible fanfiction over the past few months in preparation for an article about the dumbing down and weakening of feminist-leaning female characters in fanfiction (It’s what privileged, unemployed feminist bloggers do when they’re not job hunting, volunteering, or blogging.).
There were some technical difficulties (the perils of new lecture series and using unfamiliar computers,) but overall I think it was a well-worthwhile night. I wish I could have stayed longer to talk to some other people about it–if any of you were there, please let me know your take on it. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to savor my spontaneous free cappuccino.