Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Are We Our Own Role Models?

Written by Augustine Blaisdell
Why do we love shows like MADE and The Hills? Ok, let’s be honest, why are we obsessed with them? For some, the answer is because they’re so bad they’re good. For several of the over three million viewers watching the pitfalls of these “real people” makes them feel better about their own lives. For others however, it is not only for entertainment value, but it is also a measure of their own hopes, dreams, and ambitions. When we watch The Hills, we admire these career-driven, fashionable, seemingly independent women. For the reality show MADE, the makeover story, we watch the heroine triumph by becoming what she always wanted to be, which is usually a more feminine, ladylike, and confident woman. But it begs the question, what are these girls being transformed into? And are these “reality” shows helping or hurting young women in their vision of the world and of themselves?
{multithumb resize=1 full_width=600 full_height=600 thumb_width=300 thumb_height=300} Why do we love shows like MADE and The Hills? Ok, let’s be honest, why are we obsessed with them? For some, the answer is because they’re so bad they’re good. For several of the over three million viewers, watching the pitfalls of these “real people” makes them feel better about their own lives. For others, however, it is not only for entertainment value, but it is also a measure of their own hopes, dreams, and ambitions. When we watch The Hills, we admire these career-driven, fashionable, seemingly independent women. For the reality show MADE, the makeover story, we watch the heroine triumph by becoming what she always wanted to be, which is usually a more feminine, ladylike, and confident woman. But it begs the question, what are these girls being transformed into? And are these “reality” shows helping or hurting young women in their vision of the world and of themselves?
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It seems safe to say that we love drama. My personal take, having grown up as a teenager in LA, is that drama is the use of extremes and absolutes that turn friends to enemies, acquaintances to lovers and back again. While most of us admittedly do not like drama in our own lives, (we all probably have had our own share of drama to know) we do enjoy escaping into the drama of others who are purportedly “real” in a TV series that leaves us wanting more. In short, we love a good story, and a good story usually involves very cleverly, or not so cleverly, hidden quintessential plot lines.

For instance, in The Hills, we have best-friends-forever who stop being best friends because of the influence of a man. In some narratives this is via a love triangle; in others, it’s the case of choosing a man over your girlfriend, but the inherent concept is the same: one without the other and a definitive choice must be made. This theme of maintaining your girlfriends and in turn your own identity is one of crucial importance as we grow up and face the world with hopefully a high moral standard of ourselves and our true friends.

In my quest to discover if any of these television shows give us an adequate female role model, I investigated The Hills and MADE and discovered the answer is not as simple as one would think. It would be easy to say there is no way that these shows possibly depict positive role models. Like a younger version of Sex in the City, The Hills propagates the culture of women as consumers, beauty queens and, most importantly, the age-old standard, objects.

Jennifer Pozner, Executive Director of Women in Media and News, a media analysis, education, and advocacy group, has been paying close attention to reality TV since the 2001 debut of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?. The moment she saw shows such as Survivor and The Bachelor, she knew this genre of television was going to be extremely influential, and in turn very dangerous and regressive for women. She is currently at work on a book investigating and deconstructing the twisted fairytales and fantasies of reality TV, which will be published by Seal Press in Fall 2009. Needless to say, Pozner is an expert in her field and her thesis for this impressive book is that:
Reality TV is the cultural arm of the contemporary backlash against women’s rights. The narratives these shows are steeped in attempt to erase the progress women have gotten to in terms of social, economic, and political equity; producers and the product-placement advertisers who fund these shows are not actually trying to reflect where we are, but where they want us to be. The imagery that they often use is not aimed at our adult mind, but instead aimed at our earliest childhood education on gender roles, the fairytales our parents read to us, which informed us at a young age about what girls and boys, women and men should expect from ourselves and from one another. They speak to some of our culture’s most sexist and regressive notions about what we should consider “our place” in society, and then craft those biases into network-generated fairytales in the name of reality.
In a world where the line between fantasy and reality is so purposely blurred, and voyeurism is at an all time high, it is of crucial importance to acknowledge these myths of supposed empowerment that are being fed to us.

Meredith Markworth-Pollack who worked as Assistant Costume Designer for Gossip Girl, when asked about the influence of fantasy in these shows said, “These shows are promoting this extravagance that is not really the reality of the rest of the teenagers of the country. This idea that you can be a celebrity inspires all these girls, where all they want to do is fashion, styling, and PR where you don’t necessarily need an education for that. This is not something that I want to continue promoting in my own work.” Meredith recently left Gossip Girl to pursue her screenwriting career and is currently working on a project entitled The No Where Kids, a love story about a twelve-year-old girl and boy who run away from home to live in an abandoned house, thus creating their own utopian world which eventually crumbles. Meredith, no stranger to success, loves the world of fashion, because it is an art, but has found the means to stretch beyond the stereotype of this business by becoming a director of her own film.

In a world where money is no object, you are the object. This is the reality and fantasy depicted in The Hills and MADE. In The Hills, for example, men are easily objectified by being called “arm candy” and “accessories” that are nevertheless necessities that every woman should have. The Hills would lead us to believe that symbols of success include a Louis Vuitton purse, a BMW, or Mercedes, and of course, the ultimate rock of a diamond ring. By contrast, MADE’s message appears to be a more positive one; as stated on MTV's Web site, the synopsis of the show MADE, “An ugly duckling transforms into a beautiful prom queen. An overweight couch potato becomes a model… See, dreams really do come true -- on MADE!...We're here to prove that with dedication, hard work and a little help from MTV, kids just like you can accomplish anything they set their minds to.” At the end of each episode of MADE, the primary gauge of success is one of loving and accepting yourself, and most importantly, having achieved the confidence you wanted but lacked before.

One of the problems with this show is that it is still enforcing these stereotypical roles that society would like us to fit into. While most of the willing female candidates already possess strong accomplishments in more unfeminine endeavors, such as, sports, student council, and science, they still want to be something that is culturally accepted, which usually includes objectifying themselves. Pozner goes on to say that, “Whether gender is an explicit or implicit thing, no matter what a woman on one of these shows may do for a living or be in her actual life, the primary thing reality TV tells us is she is supposed to define herself by is her appearance. That we should base our own self worth on how we look, and whether some so-called ‘prince’ thinks we’re hot enough to ‘choose’...” As young women, we all still have to contend with the fairy tale princess scheme and our search for our own “Prince Charming.” In each of these shows, the women want to become or be treated as a “princess” and this is the ultimate negative and positive role model. While we may have long since determined that we will not wait around for men to save us, we still have yet to completely negotiate the balance of feminine and masculine roles within each of us.

Pozner is on the forefront of instigating change, not only in our own perceptions of us as women, but also in the media world at large. Hers is a call to action by giving lectures at colleges all across the country, and teaching methods of critical analysis of these shows. “We must be actively consciously critical, the only way these damaging messages are not going to take hold of your psyche is by thinking about what is being sold.” The benefit of these television series' is that they are an indicator of our culture. Therefore, the challenge with MADE and The Hills is that we must know how to see them. In order to have a critical eye when watching these shows, we must continue to question the values being presented. We must realize our own power; after all, it is we viewers who have made these shows the success they are, and it is when we are paying full attention that we ourselves become our own positive and influential role models.

If you would like more information on Women in Media and News, or for media analysis from dozens of women who write about media issues, please visit their website at WIMNonline.org or bring Jennifer Pozner to your school or community group to conduct a multi-media presentation as part of WIMN’s lecture series on gender, race, and class issues in reality TV, as well as in other aspects of news media.

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