Sterotyped: Women in Reality TV

Emerging as early as the 1950s with shows such as Queen for a Day and Confession, reality television is a fad that took America by storm. Utilizing secret cameras, it aimed to capture ordinary people’s everyday reactions and behaviors. Today, with its seemingly accurate portrayals of dating, making it in the music business and even testing survival skills, reality television is a huge sector of the entertainment industry. This genre is so massively appealing because it aims to present real people. However, the turn of the century has brought a level of extravagance and falsity into reality television that is very far from the prior and relatable realism of the first of these programs. This genre is now known not only for its inaccuracy and scripted nature, but also for its overdramatized and over-the-top representation of American culture. It presents an antiquated idealism of women that is reflecting poorly upon popular culture as well as society in general.

The Stereotype

Among the many stereotypes present in reality television, the representation of women is most discrepant. Women are often presented as dependent and subordinate as well as dim-witted and vain. There are very few reality programs that feature women as the main subject. However, the programs that do portray women do so in an extremely negative light. Apart from being depicted as passive and weak, women are generally much younger and more physically attractive than their male counterparts, displaying them as sex symbols. There is also a prominent theme in reality television that confines women to a home setting which renders that the main female roles exist inside the home. As demonstrated by modern society, women’s functions extend much farther than the limits imposed on them through reality television. This stereotype is not only confining, but offensive to female progress.

Catherine Giudici is the last woman standing as she accepts a proposal from Bachelor Sean Lowe on season 17.
Catherine Giudici is the last woman standing as she accepts a proposal from Bachelor Sean Lowe on season 17.

The Fourth Wall

The fourth wall is a term used in television that describes how characters speak directly to the camera almost as if it were an interview. Gender stereotypes show that when women break the fourth wall they are more likely to discuss their personal emotions as well as the physical characteristics of themselves and others. This portrays women as shallow as well as craving attention upon the discussion of themselves. The concept of the fourth wall warrants a new connotation throughout reality programming. In other genres of television, breaking the fourth wall can provide a sense of comedy or drama that was otherwise not present. Yet, with reality TV, programs often lack amusement and the type of theatrics that attract viewers unless the fourth wall comes down. The acknowledgement of the fourth wall by an actor or actress warrants the fact that they are aware of an audience. This awareness is what provides reality television as a spectacle, as it promotes the addition of excitement and tension into otherwise normal circumstances.

Women are often judged against men whom serve as the norm in television and in society. Due to this, women are valued simply for their relationships with men which becomes a chauvinistic motif throughout reality television. Females have become so heavily stereotyped because of their constant comparison to men and have been portrayed and broadcasted as below them on many reality television shows. The classification of women as self-absorbed, subservient and trite has been plaguing the airwaves for decades. The common distortion of gender roles remains years behind that of actual society and demonstrates that despite immense progress for women, an overall acceptance of gender equality is still lagging behind.

Genre Analysis

Reality television has several sub-genres such as talent contests, makeover shows and even law enforcement programs. However, the genres that portray the most negative stereotypes of women are dating shows and documentary or lifestyle series’. The Real Housewives, The Bachelor and Keeping up with the Kardashians are often regarded as some of the most popular programs in this genre. Not only do they attract grossly huge numbers of viewership, but they share a common thread in their female exposition. All three display women as money-grabbing as well as dependent upon a man and or their own outer beauty to bring them success and stability in life.

Keeping up with the Kardashians

Kim, Khloe and Kourtney Krdashian in a promotional photograph for their television show.
Kim, Khloe and Kourtney Krdashian in a promotional photograph for their television show.

Since 2007, Keeping up with the Kardashians has followed the lives of Kim, Kourtney and Khloe, as well as their Olympian step-father Bruce Jenner, self-claimed entrepreneur mother Kris Jenner and their less-featured siblings Rob, Kendall and Kylie. The show ultimately began when eldest sister Kim was entangled in a national sex-tape scandal. The scandal created a media storm which conveniently noticed and later enveloped the rest of Kim’s dysfunctional yet very attractive family. The television show is documentary style and records the actions of this family’s everyday lives and over-sensationalized drama.

Facing the facts, Kim Kardashian was only noticed due to her publicly leaked sexual intercourse stunt with musical act Ray J. Before this she was just another young woman, which only further promotes the over-sexualized nature of women in television and the need to flaunt ones physical attributes in order to get noticed. Initially, the program documented the three sisters’ social agendas, trials and tribulations with the male gender and complicated yet heartwarming relationships with each other. The aim was to demonstrate that while this family was immensely wealthy and in the constant spotlight, they were just like every other American household.

Yet, as the show developed it was realized that the girls could no longer remain famous just for being famous. They began attempting to break into the employment industry, but through jobs that are considered as less important compared to those generally held by men. This is yet another cultural and gender stereotype that demonstrates a female’s lack of ability to hold a job that provides a substantial benefit to society as well as stimulates intellectual talent. The Kardashian trio was documented as chasing after traditionally feminine jobs, including acting and modeling. These jobs conveniently also require little to no schooling or occupational experience, but withhold a healthy dose of entertainment qualities as well as female objectification.

The majority of the program is shot inside of the Kardashian home stereotyping that they are scarcely motivated and rely mainly on the royalties and wealth brought upon by their features as reality stars. The final and most prominent stereotype present in the program is the reliance upon and use of beauty to get ahead. Not only do the girls only pursue jobs that emphasize physical appearance, but their fourth wall interviews frequently focus around themselves, their emotions, or their appearance. This particular show in reality television is a great hit to American women and demonstrates that dim-witted, culturally attractive and ill-motivated females gather the most attention in today’s society.

The Real Housewives Series

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

The Real Housewives series may be one of the most controversial programs on television, as its name alone degrades women to the standard of subordinate homemaker. The reality television show has several installments including but not limited to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Miami, New York City and Atlanta. The basis of the show surrounds the housewives, whom live extravagantly wealthy lives due to their husbands’ line of work. Filming generally takes place in the home which is done to confine them there and perpetuate their roles as beautiful yet incapable housewives. However, contrary to much of documentary style reality television, the women are the main focus and are the ones mainly on camera; their husbands scarcely make appearances. This would seem like a great leap for female stereotypes in reality television, but the surrounding theme of making women the main focus is to define them as dependent and vapid.

The wives in the program are always dressed to the nines and made up heavily, adorned in expensive jewels and sporting designer shoes. This makes them seem almost as if they are dolls or toys; property that their husbands dress up. The producers make it very clear that the women do not hold jobs of their own and it is heavily implied that the support of their husbands is what allows them to live such a lavish lifestyle. This theme in mass media has been present since the 1800s when Henrik Ibsen penned A Doll’s House. Women are often regarded as nothing but possessions to men, and the male figure-head believes that if their beloved wife is living a comfortable lifestyle, he owes her nothing more.

This idea of marital obligations is ever-present in the Real Housewives series, as infidelity is a frequent issue and topic of discussion. Not only are the women portrayed as trophy-wives, but a message is sent that as long as they are being provided for, it is more than acceptable to take advantage of them. This is completely unacceptable and makes a mockery of marriage. Infidelity is also used to add drama to the show as the women are often shown discussing the infidelity of their husbands or of their friends’ husbands to the fourth wall. The fact that it is so heavily discussed only promotes it as well as adds an unneeded piece of personal trial to the show.

Concerning the fourth wall, the Housewives are interviewed not only discussing cheating, but also their physical appearance and those of others, their shopping agendas and their extravagant plans for the weekend. Many are also taped gossiping about the other Housewives and being extremely catty. Speculations have been raised whether or not the fourth wall interviews or the show in general is partially scripted. If so, it is to promote the negative stereotype of women as narcissistic and reliant. If not, this stereotype remains exceedingly present and begins and ends with the title of the show.

The Bachelor

The 27 women vying for Bachelor Juan Pablo Galavis' heart on the most recent season of the series.
The 27 women vying for Bachelor Juan Pablo Galavis’ heart on the most recent season of the series.

ABC’s The Bachelor is unlike the two programs previously discussed due to its classification as a reality dating competition. However, is maintains common threads through its heavy objectification of women as well as its stereotyping of them as vapid and dependent. The Bachelor phenomenon is one of the most watched prime-time programs on television. It portrays one man who is searching to find love and around 15 or so contestants; women who are competing to be the one he falls in love with. The concept of the show is relatively hysterical and hard to take even the slightest bit seriously. It is nearly impossible to fall in love with one girl over the course of a month and a half while weeding through and eliminating the rest. The bachelor also goes on a series of dates with every single woman and generally kisses every single woman. The fact that viewers even consider this program to be the slightest bit reflective of reality demonstrates Americans as simple and feeble-minded.

Concerning stereotypes, the fact that these women are willing to compete with one another for the affections of a man portrays them as desperate as well as attention-craving. It also serves to stereotype them as irrational, because no woman in her right mind would believe that a spectacle like this could eventually result in true love. The bachelor himself, aside from being a pretty boy, is presented as rational, strong and dominant. These characteristics directly juxtapose the women’s depiction as vulnerable and clingy. This comparison is crafted purposefully by producers in order to emphasize the women’s subordination.

The women in particular who are selected to compete are often shown as having no clear future, as their presented careers are those regarded as secondary or traditionally feminine. On the most recent season of The Bachelor, the women were employed in jobs such as nanny, massage therapist, grade school teacher and hair stylist. The lawyers and doctors are few and far between as the inclusion of their occupations is meant to emphasize that they need to marry a man for financial support. The female contestants are often shown all dolled up and many dates include activities that require swim suits. This only further promotes the sexual qualities and physical beauty of the women and the looming stereotype that attractiveness will secure them a spot on a man’s arm.

At the end of each program a rose ceremony is held, where the women are forced to dress up in cocktail attire and stand in a large room where they are selected for the next round one by one. The women are often wearing very high heels and very revealing dresses, almost as a last ditch effort to get noticed as a possible trophy. This concept in particular is very disappointing and sends the message that desperation is attractive. Not only are these women competing for the affections of one man, but they are doing it in a way that confines them to a societal stereotype of permanent inferiority.

The Effect

While producers and programmers claim that shows of these genres are solely for entertainment, lifestyle and romantically based reality programs euphemize the objectification of women. These shows not only culturally signify that subordination is acceptable, but they promote the embodiment of the media’s version of attractive; tall, thin and beautiful. According to a study done by Oregon State University, nearly seventy percent of people ages 18-29 say that they enjoy reality television. This is the viewing demographic that programs like these will affect the most, as this group is most likely to identify with the dating world as well as struggles with physical appearance and the desire for money. Over forty percent of prime time reality television programs are sexually oriented, which naturally is a classification that includes The Bachelor due to its emphasis on dating and romantic attraction. However, both Keeping up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives series deal with their fair share of sexual topics. Both shows maintain focus on the personal lives of its subjects which often concern romantic interest, intimacy with husbands or partners and matters of seduction. The increasing sexual connotation of reality programs displays a cultural message to viewers that it is appropriate to over-sexualize your lifestyle as well as revolve the majority of your life around dating and intimacy.

Experimenting with ones sexuality is a natural part of life but shows of this connotation present that it is a large and extremely important element. They demonstrate that dating and finding a husband is a top priority for women and emphasize the rush of beginning this search once you have surpassed your early twenties. This cultural lesson is ridiculous, as many women at this age are still in school or focusing on beginning successful careers. This message once again confines women to a stereotype of subservience. Teens and adolescents who regularly view sexually or romantically themed reality shows are more likely to endorse traditional gender roles and stereotypes. These traditional roles limit women to the home and the caring for of children and allow men to be the bread winners. This cultural view is highly passé, as what many would consider untraditional family dynamics are ever-present in today’s society. Yet, reality television programmers are still attempting to enforce these sexist ideologies upon viewers. Reality television shows of these types also promote the judgment of women, as women in these programs are often evaluated based on their sexual attractiveness coupled with their ability to maintain a relationship one would consider successful. Messages such as this aid in imposing chauvinistic views on young males and deem the appraisal of women as an accepted second-nature. Not only do reality television programs relay the appropriateness of the confinement of women, but they also promote over-sexual attitudes in teens and young adults.

Works Cited

Lauzen, M. M., Dozier, D. M., & Horan, N. (2008). Constructing gender stereotypes through social roles in prime-time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52(2), 200-214.

Lauzen, M., & Deiss, D. (2009). Breaking the fourth wall and sex role stereotypes: An examination of the 2006–2007 prime-time season. Sex Roles, 60(5/6), 379-386.

Reality TV- A brief history. (n.d.). Oregon State University. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/soc499/cordray/media/Realitytv.html

Slocum, C. B. (n.d.). The real history of reality TV or, how Allen Funt won the Cold War. Writers Guild of America, West. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from http://www.freelanceuk.com/find-a-freelancer/web-designers-and-developers/in-bideford

Vandenbosch, L., & Eggermont, S. (2011). Temptation Island, The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire: A prospective cohort study on the role of romantically themed reality television in adolescents’ sexual development. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 55(4), 563-580.

Zemach, T., & Cohen, A. A. (1986). Perception of gender equality on television and in social reality. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 30(4), 427-444.

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35 Comments

  1. McCaggers

    Interesting article! I myself have never been interested in reality TV purely for these stereotypes you mentioned. I’m glad you brought these issues to light. Thank you!

  2. What we call “reality TV” is in fact not reality. These shows are jam-packed with several stereotypes I can’t even keep count. You have “Jersey Shore” and their typical guidos, or “America’s Next Top Model” and their ideal, slender, and beautiful women. I do agree, although, that these types of shows bring in the most money for television programming, soley based on entertainment. Personally, the only reality programs I enjoy are competitive ones. For example, So You Think You Can Dance has dancers from all around the country of all types of dance genres. It is very difficult to form a stereotype among dancers due to the large variety. The other reality TV shows follow groups of people that create a perception, for those somehow linked to their kind, that is not always accurate. I think money should be invested in following groups of people that many can relate to. These shows will document their struggles that others can actually take lessons from.

  3. MasakoGay
    1

    As demoralizing and brain melting “reality TV” truthfully is, people still watch it. And at the end of the day that is all that matters to TV stations providing us with this joke of “reality” we call reality TV. These terrible shows just continue to demonstrate themselves as a waste of money and time.

  4. Doretta
    1

    Whenever I see an ad for The Bachelor, I die inside a little . . . and I say this as someone who has been guilty in the past of checking out an episode of some reality trainwreck or other.

  5. Prentice
    1

    Reality shows are for entertainment. People love drama, they love being in the know-it-all without actually dealing with it. Gossip is what drives people to turn on these shows every week to see what more has unfolded. Shows such as Flavor of Love or Rock of Love portrays a bad reputation for women. They make them seem like hungry animals out in the wild fighting for their prey. Reality TV makes women seem trashy and ignorant for the most part. For example, Jersey Shore with the countless hook-ups, partying, and drama that has occurred for the past five or so years. Yet people cannot wait for the premiere. However, not all reality shows should be bashed because they are not all terrible. For instance, America’s Got Talent is a popular show and it is the competetiveness that draws people in. Many people enjoy watching it and it is all family friendly.

  6. Bruna Ellington
    0

    Instead of pointing pitchforks at reality TV, why don’t we stop watching it.

    The reason there are so many reality shows on TV today is because people watch them. We can complain all we want to networks and demand better programing all we want but until people stop watching, they will continue to be on the air.

    If you want good programing on TV with positive and diverse portrayls of women, then watch good programs with positive and diverse portrayls of women.

    Examples: Homeland, The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire, Nikita, Once Upon a Time ect.

  7. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    I saw a documentary once arguing that reality shows depict women in a negative light. Thank you so much for writing an article bringing the subject into critical observation. There are so many shows on that depict a well-rounded woman, yet people are obsessed with reality tv, specifically in watching women complain about the most mundane things, rather than showing a woman strive for a leadership position.

  8. Before reading this article I just thought reality TV was a ridiculous waste of time. Since I’ve never sat through a show I didn’t realize how insidious it is. Some of these shows sound as if they are borderline pornographic, and desensitize viewers to blatant sexism, violence and child abuse. Sounds like the downfall of civilization.

  9. What reality tv seems to have done is created an audience who loves to hate. The fact that people keep watching is a sad reflection that many get enjoyment out of the derision or humiliation of others.

    Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses, tv is.

  10. Change does start with the consumer, but how to educate the consumer? The US lags far behind other nations in media literacy education, which fosters critical thinking skills in viewers. Articles like this one are important: they raise awareness of issues such as stereotyping in the media, and may prompt audience members to think critically.

  11. Kyra Tobias
    2

    It’s unfortunate that the stereotypes of yesterday are perpetually recast in today’s media and poisons our society. I definitely think it’s important that we as a society, not just the youth, become more media literate so that we can continue to attack the fallacies portrayed in media and break the cycle.

  12. The critical thinking needed – to survive our media’s constant barrage of detrimental gender, race, and class – need to be taught to our students…now.

  13. We now know that reality tv as a genre aims to set women back decades, and stoops so low as to mock children.

  14. I personally do not understand the general interest in such TV programming. It is not even entertaining, let alone making any type of positive contribution to a better understanding of ourselves through actual address of important issues. Reality TV preys on our worst qualities and amplifies our collective ugly side.

  15. Camille Brouard

    Sadly it’s a similar situation across the pond in the UK! The ones I find the most bizarre are the more clearly scripted “reality” shows like Geordie Shore and Made in Chelsea. Similar vein of appeal to the ‘based on a true story’ or even ‘made to look real’ horror films – all the professionalism of script, but the appeal of “realness”. Great article btw 🙂

  16. Tyler Edwards

    Unfortunately so many of these stereotypes aren’t limited the semi-mindless void that is “reality” TV, but into so many different aspects of our culture. Great read!

  17. Amena Banu

    As mentioned in couple of the above comments, I too don’t watch reality shows like the ones you discussed because I’m frustrated with these stereotypes. When it comes to reality TV, I only find talent-based shows interesting. Great analysis!

  18. Nof

    This is exactly why I don’t watch TV anymore! It totally ruins it for me. Well written and overall great article!

  19. Venus Echos

    Thank you for this article it was very well done and it is also an important commentary on our society. I have not watched these particular types of shows. However, I must confess I did enjoy being a voyeur to the silly show “Blind Date.”

  20. Very enjoyable article! The treatment of women in reality TV is from a sketchier time in cultural history. Made to be the butt of every joke, it’s an archaic and degenerative form of humour to have multiple bimbos fall over one another. Hopefully, a revolt against this form of programming will forever change the format.

  21. Sam Stout
    0

    Sadly, demanding better programming won’t achieve anything. I get into this debate with a Libertarian friend all the time. Though the free market system is terrific in many ways, and results in lots of wonderful inventions and technological advancements, it seems to have a devolutionary effect on film and television. Films and/or TV shows that cater to the lowest common denominator make the most money, and the lowest common denominator is not watching Frontline or going to the movies to see Searching for Sugarman. This is why we need governmental support for public television, and why we need grants to fund intelligent, independent film. The free market system is going to result in Honey Boo Boo – I predicted this years ago, long before reality TV. We can’t stop it. All we can do is counteract it with intelligent programming, and hope that parents exercise caution when choosing what their kids watch.

  22. While I agree that reality TV only picks women that are ditzy and incapable or thinking for themselves, the men on these shows are absolute morons as well. While I don’t watch reality TV, I don’t think of it as sexist so much as exploitive.

  23. It seems that reality TV has taken the place of soap operas in depicting overly made up, hysterical and/or evil women and dim-witted men. I agree that schadenfreude makes these shows so desirable to many, but to me they are painful to watch. There are some exceptions not mentioned in this article, reality TV shows that don’t prey on women such as Little Couple and Hoarders.

  24. LCS

    The stigmas and stereotypes that society pins on women are all over the media. How to dress, how to act, how to be “better.” These stigmas must stop if women are going to progress in the future. The media plays such a huge part in presenting these stigmas and what is seen as “normal.” What we deem as normal needs to change. We need to start representing better ideals and ambitions than aspiring to getting a man. I enjoyed this article very much.

  25. This is why I think that our school-aged children need to be taught media literacy, so that as a society, we can ultimately stop supporting this type of “entertainment.”

  26. Morgan R. Muller

    Fantastic article, this is a very important and prominent issue in today’s culture.

  27. Brianna

    Needless to say, reality TV is definitely my guilty pleasure. The Kardashians are my favorite, but I do believe that reality TV is too fake to be called reality TV. Reality Tv would be reality if regular people in society were followed around and not made up everyday like the Kardashians are.

  28. Maddie Gubernick

    True depiction of reality tv and its implications

  29. Couldn’t agree more with your analysis. Let’s be honest, the titanic popularity of the Kardashians and the Real Hosewives have set the standard for the women of reality television. And it also seems as though there really isn’t an in between.

  30. Excellent article!

  31. Diego Santoyo
    DSantoyo
    0

    Very insightful and great article. You make a lot of valid points.

  32. Great article! This article shows just how constructed these supposed “reality” tv shows really are. They never focus on the positive. It’s all about the drama, which is sad.

  33. True indeed.. a lot of emphasis is laid on sexual objectification and the view that women are second or pleased with material possesion

  34. mckenna
    0

    whos the author?

  35. Brooke
    0

    Was JUST talking to my mom about this Samantha. There is so much objectification on women when it comes to Reality TV its disheartening. The bad part about it is most of us could say that its our guilty pleasure and this allows the shows to make money and continue on…

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