Sexuality & Gender on Transatlantic Reality Television
Edited by Brenda R. Weber
Duke University Press, 2014
Paperback. 380 pages. ISBN 978-0822356820. $26.95
Reviewed by Donna Spalding Andréolle
Université du Havre
Reality Gendervision is a collection of articles edited by Brenda R. Weber, whose already excellent work on reality TV in her book Makeover TV paves the way to her reflections here on the politics of gendered representations and television dynamics. In the introduction Weber rightly points out that although reality shows are perceived, even in the American culture, as the “toxic sludge” of the televisual landscape, they are surprisingly complex in nature, a “combination of reality and realness—what might be called real fakery or staged actuality—that fosters a way to know and see that which is hybridized, polyvocal, and bicameral. In short, it is the epitome of how we understand a complex cultural genre” . The overview of the articles, divided into three categories (The Pleasures and Perils of Being Seen; Citizenship, Ethnicity and (Trans)National Identity; Mediated Freak Shows and Cautionary Tales), presents clearly and convincingly the multi-tiered ideological intentions of reality TV under scrutiny: female glamour and « flaunting » the body as signs of postfeminist consumerism, with “glamour figures as central to an aspirational logic of the neoliberal family” ; voyeuristic freak shows which “articulate clear hierarchies of race, gender and class” ; reality TV as an instrument of governmentality in promoting “micro-practices such as self-control, guidance of the family, management of children, supervision of the household and development of the self” .
Part I, The Pleasures and Perils of Being Seen,” is composed of five articles that examine different cases of reality TV as the (paradoxical) site of both gendered stereotypes and the debates that their staging might instigate. Examples range from the controversies of British reality TV (notably Strictly Come Dancing as analyzed by Holmes and Jermyn) to the concept of “flaunting” developed by Kavka in shows such as How to Look Good Naked and The Real Housewives franchise. In this particular article it is interesting to note that although reality TV usually stages the female body and feminine stereotypes à la Kardashian sisters (treated in Pamaggiore and Negra’s article), flaunting also includes the male body in three modes: “the virile mode as expressed in programs that focus on authority, risk and danger (in Discovery Channel series); the villainous mode (e.g. Survivor); and the sexual mode in programs such as Gigolos, The A-List and Jersey Shore” . Brenda Weber’s article on how Oprah Winfrey contributed to Sarah Ferguson’s “self making” after the latter’s fall from the graces of the British crown (and public) brilliantly demonstrates transnational differences in the discourse of self-worth and “redemption” so typical of makeover programs in the American reality TV landscape. The analysis here is of a “docuseries” called Finding Sarah produced by Oprah’s TV network OWN, a series which unveils cultural differences in “the discourse of selfhood, celebrity and success” in a comparison of American economics show host Suze Orman and Sarah Ferguson [112 & 113]. The final article of Part I deals with what author Dana Heller calls “train wreck TV” and how it applies to “celesbian reality” through the study of The Real L Word, a spin-off of Showtime’s fictional series The L Word. As train wreck TV “is defined by the willingness to transgress and mock the boundaries of normative class and gender imagery” , this program dealing with a lesbian circle of friends promised a lurid spectacle of queerness which tested the limits of “porn,” and it indeed sparked controversy inside and outside the LGBTQ community.
Part II, which considers the themes of citizenship, ethnicity and (trans)national identity regroups articles such as Klein’s paper on Jersey Shore and its representation of the “Guido” (Italian-American) subculture with its performance of gender, both “compulsory masculinity” and “abject femininity.” Linsay Steenberg also analyzes more closely the male body in what she calls “gladiatorial television”, a space similar to video games which “center on interpersonal violence, competition and the display of men’s bodies” . Under scrutiny here is the show Deadliest Warrior, in which unlikely comparisons are made between historical figures (Shaolin Monk vs. Maori Warrior, or Pirate vs. Knight). Steenberg points out that the “experts” used to present evidence “ensure their authenticity as experts via their practical use of historical knowledge,” thus distinguishing themselves from “stereotypically inaccessible, and undemocratic, intellectualism” typical of other historical documentary programming. In another article, Stephens concentrates on how shows such as 19 Kids and Counting and Sister Wives (both produced by TLC) “speak to critical fears expressed in the cultural discourse surrounding them: the recession’s impact on gender roles, anxiety about the dissolutions of the family, and the fear of public intervention in private family life” . It would appear that ultra-patriarchal values and the question of over-the-top consumption (as is necessarily the case for a family of 21 and 22 members, respectively) speak to a nostalgic pre-recession America, creating a receptive audience for these particular programs. Last but not least, Kimberly Springer returns to the specific case of Jade Goody, a Big Brother celebrity whose story occupied considerable media space in Great Britain until her death from cervical cancer in 2009. Goody is an interesting cultural example of how the meritocracy schemes of American television do not function in British society, “entrenched in class hierarchy”; and Springer provides an illuminating demonstration of how Goody’s case unveils “the skirmishes over Englishness versus Britishness” in the UK popular culture.
The final part of the book, “Mediated Freak Shows and Cautionary Tales,” discusses some of the most extreme forms of reality TV: the staging of the human dramas of teenage pregnancy, hoarding, little girl beauty pageants and the morbidly obese. In her article “It’s Not TV, It’s Birth Control,” Laurie Ouellette examines teen pregnancy shows such as The Baby Borrowers and Teen Mom, demonstrating that “what differentiates commercial reality entertainment from earlier forms of documentary is not an absence of civic engagement but its compatibility with profit-making objectives and emphasis on the self-empowerment of individuals over journalistic investigation, muckraking and reform” . Such programs, however, also feed into racial stereotyping of the non-white welfare mom, a “brown epidemic” to be eradicated in the name of “responsible citizenry” typical of the Reagan years. In her article on hoarding, Susan Lepselter draws a fascinating parallel between a Cold War documentary on good housekeeping as a way to survive nuclear holocaust (titled The House in the Middle, 1954) and recent hoarding shows such as Hoarding: Buried Alive. This “intervention show” and others like it promote a similar form of formatting ideology, that of the managed, choosing self and the problems of addiction in a highly consumerist society. Like other types of reality TV, women are the predominant subjects, and the female hoarder shown not only as a bad person, but more importantly as a failed mother and spouse. Kirsten Pike, in her article on the show Toddlers & Tiaras takes this analysis a step further by explaining how seemingly mentally deranged mothers use their young daughters as objects of the adult gaze while their husbands are shown as being more rational and critically distanced from the madness of toddler beauty pageants. On a different subject, Gareth Palmer studies the structure of shows which stage obese contestants (notably, The Biggest Loser) and how they reinforce the idea that self-discipline is the only solution to weight problems, thus allowing the trainers on these programs to put the subjects through crushing exercise routines, without ever questioning consumerism or the promotion of body stereotypes and ideals of “beauty” linked directly to the advertizing schemes of the shows in question. In the final article David Greven takes a look at ghost-hunting shows and to what extent they encapsulate “traumatic manhood”, linked specifically to the gothic genre.
All in all, an indispensable addition to any self-respecting television studies library.
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