As a Proud Feminist, I Have a Major Problem with Reality TV and Here’s Why…
Though some may say there’s nothing quite like binge-watching a few episodes of trashy reality TV to unwind after a stressful day at work, it’s no doubt that shows like these are setting feminism back at least 60 years, in terms of their representation of women.
I am not a huge fan of Reality TV in general. I have seen only a few episodes of The Bachelor. There is something so insanely cringe-worthy in watching a bunch of 20-something-year-olds fight over a guy that they’ve literally just met and who couldn’t care less about who he ends up with on the show. I’ve also been quite adamant on my refusal to give any of the Real Housewives spin-offs or the Kardashians the time of day, but no matter how hard I try to avoid them, they keep popping up on my social media feeds — to the point where I’ve become familiar with everything they represent.
Now, I’m going to get off my high horse for a second because I need to confess something: I may not enjoy contemporary reality TV now, but it used to be a guilty pleasure of mine when I was growing up. I basically devoured the entirety of Laguna Beach when I was in high school — I even owned a DVD box-set of the first three seasons of The Hills! Like, I’ve actually paid money to be able to watch The Hills more than once…
Growing up in a small city in Turkey, I’d always dreamed of going to the US at some point in my life to experience this adventurous side of the American culture. A part of my fascination with the American culture stems from my obsession with these earlier reality shows, which provided me with my first glimpse into the impossibly glamorous lives of some of America’s most *ridiculously* affluent teenagers. These predominantly white, upper-middle class teenagers were just so over-the-top in every way — from their lavish lifestyles, the way they talked and dressed, to their mind-bogglingly twisted relationships — that everything about them seemed cartoonish and foreign to me. But, at the same time, it’s the reason why I felt so engrossed in their stories.
Even though, you can almost feel your brain-cells slowly deteriorating with each mediocre scene that involves “best friends” bad-mouthing each other behind their backs or sub-par dialogues between females that fail to pass the Bechdel test, you feel almost compelled to watch what “life” has in store for them.
What makes these shows so appealing for us — the normal folk that lead ordinary lives — is the unabashedly voyeuristic experience of living a life full of drama, glamour, heartbreak and excitement vicariously, through these somewhat *real* characters. Because, let’s face it: Most of us will never have lives that are this insane and most of us wouldn’t want to, in the first place.
Reality TV, in this sense, is a perfect way to incite catharsis within the audience. Watching others struggle with stressful situations from the comfort of our own homes, presents an outlet for relieving the tension in our own personal lives.
Though this may seem unproblematic at first glance, the innately misogynistic treatment of female subjects in these shows, makes it difficult for the audience to identify with these characters. On the contrary, we begin to distance ourselves even more from them and experience catharsis at their expense. Each time a cat-fight (with a lot of hair-pulling!) flares up between two girls who look more or less the same, we can’t help but think to ourselves, “thank God, I’ll never be that much of a hot mess.”
This misrepresentation is problematic because it perpetuates negative stereotypes of women — portraying them as catty, superficial gold-diggers that, ultimately hate all women within their 10-feet radius with a fiery passion.
Lately, I was looking for a new TV show to watch and I stumbled upon Netflix’s new and first ever reality series called “Selling Sunset”. It’s about the luxury real-estate scene in Los Angeles, California that revolves around the Oppenheim Group Real Estate, managed by the Oppenheim brothers and their 90% female staff. One progressive thing about the show is that, we actually get to see the women working in a high-paced, high-stakes environment. These women are self-reliant and somewhat hard-working. However, everything else remains in line with what reality TV has always been: An affirmation of patriarchal authority.
The show opens with the Oppenheim brothers disclosing the fact that a “new girl” is joining the company and their only request from the other female agents is for them to “be nice to her.” To me, this show felt a little bit like a slightly more polished version of the reality series, “The Girls Next Door” with the Oppenheim brothers sharing the role of Hugh Hefner (founder of Playboy) and their female employees represent the “live-in bunnies” at the mansion. Though there is nothing sexual going on between the brothers and their female employees — besides the fact that one of the agents, Mary, used to date one of the brothers — the brothers still seem to have power over the women, since the agents depend on them economically.
The fact that the twin brothers always seem to hire tall, slim, beautiful, white, heterosexual and cis gendered women to sell their luxury properties hinders the show’s credibility — the workplace just seems so devoid of diversity in every way, that it almost becomes impossible to separate the characters from one another. Their personalities are so bland and one dimensional that, it reaches a point where the only distinguishing factor between them, is their level of bitchiness towards the others.
The ancient Reality TV practice of pitting women against each other for the amusement and befuddlement of the viewer is, unfortunately, still alive on this show. Selling Sunset puts personal gain, ambition and ego battles at the forefront and tries to re-establish “female empowerment” within the confines of patriarchal norms and values.
The women of Selling Sunset, exist within a controlled environment and solely within their own bubble of wealth, greed and glamour. They are carefully constructed in a way that, they are constantly in competition with each other and they never cross paths with men with similar jobs and aspirations. They constantly look impossibly polished — well-dressed and in high-heels— fluttering around in lavish, 5-million-dollar homes, getting hit on by conceited, wannabe actors.
Feminism and female empowerment favor solidarity. Therefore, this is not an actual world of female empowerment, this is a fantasy world idealized by the male gaze that perpetuates negative stereotypes of women — emphasizing that nothing is off-limits when it comes to economic self-reliance.