Friday, May 30, 2008

Reality TV: The Undercover GOP

Reality TV is a phenomenon, which in the past few years has taken television by storm. The overwhelming volume of reality programs is not by chance; the number of corporations that control a majority of American media (newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, music, movies, videos and books) has dropped dramatically from 1983 to 2004 (MRIC). Only a handful of media moguls -- Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom (formerly CBS) -- control most of the media industry. These companies are the gatekeepers of reality television. Almost every major cable channel hosts their own reality show. It becomes too easy to list the names of common reality programming. In fact, reality programming has become so popular that it can be broken down into categories, each with their own list of ‘specialized’ reality shows[1]. Reality television shows are commonly viewed as ‘fluff’, containing nothing more then ‘mindless entertainment’ by which viewers can enjoy and not devote much thought. This is exactly the problem that authors Laurie Ouellette and James Hay are eager to take on. Ouellette and Hay focus on ‘the regimens through which the conduct of subjects is regulated and regularized’ (9), in that the reality television genre is encouraging and promoting a shift to ‘self-government’. Reality TV and the emphasis on ‘self’ has taken the responsibility off of the larger governing body and puts blame on the individual, disguising its power and control in rules and responsibilities through a changing form of “glamorized consumerism”, appearing in shows such as TLC’s What Not to Wear.

The economic and entertainment lines have been blurred in ‘Reality Makeover’ shows, turning ‘needy’ citizens into everyday citizens. The commentary that the average citizen is actually in need of some sort of intervention by which a ‘specialized other’ must interject a persons’ life because he or she is incapable of success because of a “flaw” in their appearance. Outwardly, shows such as What Not to Wear seem to have the purpose of empowering a person (being ‘transformed’ on the show). It looks like power is given to the individual, when really it is the monopolized corporations exercising their power over the people. Here, television (i.e. reality shows) operate as a form of ‘neo-liberalised social service’ (18), instructing individuals to be responsible for themselves in way which had not been a problem until reality television made it a problem. Privatization is what is being marketed, saying that it is up to the individual to make changes. Reality TV polices the boarders of what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not. It reinforces hegemonic norms and expectations based on gendered social norms, and stereotypical inferences all together.

What Not to Wear makes an example out of those who have not ‘conformed’ entirely to social norms via -- of the most frivol ideals -- clothing. It is an exploitation of the governing power over those who have not fit their ‘criteria of normality’. Compliance to the programs’ rules misleads participants (and viewers) into believing that they are becoming empowered and ‘free’ by adhering to the shows “fashion tips”. On the contrary, every time a fashion tip (i.e. “freedom”) is exercised, they are further reinforcing governmental control of what is a ‘freedom’ or is not.

“... The 'self-fashioning' staged through TV is bound up with strategies of corporate cross-promotion. Women are encouraged to empower themselves […] but there is no oxygen for women who might want to reject femininity or adopt an alternative, 'subcultural' style, or step out of gendered expectations altogether (Ouellette and Hay, 116)” (Marsh).

Reality TV’s display of public humiliation and government control supported be a multi-million dollar corporations’ code of social conduct, is hidden behind the label that it is “mindless”, makes reality programming all the more dangerous. What Not to Wear and reality programing similar thus, bring the practice of ‘makeover’ into daily life, therefore able to reach a broader range of individuals. Cable broadcasting reality makeover shows affects a much larger population who may not have been reached, had these shows not been televised. Business corporations recognize the connection between pubic spending and advertising, and for that reason shows like What Not to Wear push consumerism and label spending[2]. Television is a medium through which individual products can be advertised, ‘but also provides a relentless flow of information and persuasion that places acts of consumption at the core of everyday life’ (Lipsitz, 43). Reality TV makeover shows are what mega corporations have been looking for: a niche where social control can be disguised as ‘fashion tips’ for the everyday person.

[1] To name just a few sub-categories there are: ‘Documentary style’ reality programming Making the Band, Real Housewives of Orange County, ‘Historical Re-creation’ Kid Nation, ‘Science’ Mythbusters, ‘Dating’ The Bachelor, Next, Flavor of Love, ‘Law Enforcement/Military’ Cops, Dog: The Bounty Hunter, ‘Makeover’ What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover, ‘ Lifestyle change’ Wife Swap, The Biggest Loser, Nanny 911, or ‘Talent Searches’ American Idol and Last Comic Standing. This is but a fraction of the number of reality television programs available today.

[2] Consumerism based on marketed brand-name labels.


Hay, James, and Laurie Ouellette. Better Living through Reality TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship. USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 9-18, 116.

Lipsitz, George. “The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class and Ethnicity in Early Network Television.” Gender, Race, and Class In Media. 2nd ed. Eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2003. 43.

March, Victor. “TV Studies: Defining Visions & Better Living through Reality TV.” M/C Reviews: Culture and The Media. 8 May 2008. 29 May 2008

Media Reform Information Center (MRIC) “Media Reform Information Center: Links and Resources on Media Reform” MRIC. 28 Oct. 2007. 29 May 2008 <>

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