Jennifer L. Pozner and Reality Bites Back


Feminist, media critic and journalist Jennifer L. Pozner’s upcoming Reality Bites Back (www.realitybitesbackbook.com) is available for preorder at Amazon.com and other online booksellers.

I’m eager to get my hands on it, as Pozner is one of my favorite critics of the reality genre.  While some of our perspectives on reality television content differ, what I’ll never argue is that her critical essays and lectures on a skein that so often falls back on stereotypes (leaving story to take a back seat to chauvanism and sensationalism) are quite thought-provoking.

While my own book speaks to a number of ethics issues within the genre (for example, my distaste for victimizing contestants on prank shows or intentionally humiliating participants), Pozner goes a step further, lashing out at everything from dating programs to makeover shows in a manner that paints most of the genre as irredeemable garbage.

This is the woman who called Flavor of Love the “modernization of the minstrel show,” and just look at what she has to say about everything from Next Top Model to popular dating programs:

“Fairy-tale narratives are the saccharine coating that masks the genre’s chauvinistic and regressive ideas about women and men, love and sex, marriage and money.”
excerpt from Reality Bites Back

Professor Henry Jenkins, during his time at MIT, said “Don’t look at the characters on reality TV, look at the audience usage of those characters. Contemptible behavior, even if successful, is still condemned by an increasingly participatory audience.”   I agree with Jenkins, and believe that reality programs thrive on audience’s individual takeaways from the show, not subscribing to the idea that anyone who makes it to the screen should be blindly idealized.  I’m not rooting for succeed-at-any-cost jerks, and I don’t think most of the viewing public does, either.

Pozner’s stance on reality television villainy and boorish behavior, particularly in cases where those behaving badly or on the receiving end of such behavior are women or minorities, is far more damning than mine.

Sometimes too extreme in her seemingly blanket condemnation of the genre for my taste, Pozner’s soon-to-be-released book is, nonetheless, at the top of my fall/winter reading list. If you’re a student of the genre, it should be on yours, too.

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5 thoughts on “Jennifer L. Pozner and Reality Bites Back

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  1. Troy, I thanked you for your reasoned disagreement on Twitter, but I figured this post calls for more than a 140char. reply.

    I think (hope) that when you read the book — thanks for your enthusiasm for it, by the way — you will find that my analysis is more substantive than it is extreme. With limited space and ten years or television to synthesize into a cogent analysis, I didn’t have a lot of room to talk about shows that do things well… but I definitely don’t write off the entire genre as irredeemable garbage. (Shows in which gender or race are the primary narrative, well, yes, most of those have been pretty problematic. And, as a media critic my focus is on the messaging of content, rather than reception research with viewers. I do think there is a real need for in-depth viewer reception research by sociologists and media studies scholars into the ways viewers relate to, respond to and use reality TV. Until that kind of research is done, what I think, what you think, and what prof Jenkins thinks about viewers’ responses to these shows is all just speculation.)

    I mention “The Amazing Race” as an example of a reality series that, while not entirely above reproach, also has many good things going for it, including socio-cultural and educational merit… not to mention diverse casting and compelling storytelling. I also really enjoyed Margaret Cho’s too-short-lived VH1 reality show, a poorly promoted knockoff of Kathy Griffin’s D List — and I note in a couple of places in Reality Bites Back that it isn’t the *format* that’s the problem with most reality television, it’s what producers and embedded sponsors choose to do with the format that lead the genre to present America as if our culture is basically still stuck in the Mad Men era, minus the cool clothes and decor. It is very possible for reality TV to avoid fomenting bigotry… but that will take intentionality on the part of its storytellers. And with the meddlesome input (sometimes collaboration) of product placement advertisers, it’s unlikely that effort will be made.

    I see you’re a member of the WGA-W… I wrote quite a bit about their efforts to unionize reality TV writers, and also about their white paper, “Are You Selling Me.” They’ve been doing fascinating stuff.

    A question before I get back to editing my latest reality TV speech, which I’ll be giving at Kansas State on Tuesday… are you going to be going to that reality TV convention I’ve been hearing about in LA in the spring? If so, I’d like to talk with you about that, offline. My email’s above.

    Thanks again for recommending my book. I hope you find it compelling, even though I expect we’ll disagree quite a bit. I look forward to hearing your thoughts once it’s out in November.

    1. Readers:

      I responded privately to Ms. Pozner, but wanted to be sure to mention that I look forward to reading her book in its entirety. Much of her commentary on reality television over the years has been delivered through the medium of television, which (due to limited time and the conversational direction guests can be taken in) unfairly painted her, in my eyes, as someone with little good to say about the genre.

      You’d think (of all people) that I’d know better than to base an opinion on soundbites and interview content!

  2. To be honest, I discounted her book when looking over books to read about reality TV. I picked yours, Troy, instead. In the little write-up presented on Kindle (I now only read ebooks), hers seemed too extreme. Too unrealistic. Too idealistic. Too high horse. Too harsh.

    This isn’t to say I’m not interested in reading books that are critical of what I’m wanting to learn about. I commonly do that, but I try to avoid those books that go too far to the extreme. Feminist books commonly do this. I know they’re preaching to the choir and need to do that to sell to that choir, but they lose me by doing so.

    But now that it has been out for a while, I assume you, Troy, have read it. Any thoughts you’d care to care about it? What you agree and disagree with? Where you think she’s on target and way off the mark?

  3. Scott:

    REALITY BITES BACK is the result of years of deep research and interview on Ms. Pozner’s part. Jen and I have gone back and forth on a number of issues since the book came out, but as I often say, she’s most maddening when she’s completely right.

    You can skip the drinking games and summary digs at reality TV near the end of the book. The rest is interesting stuff, if occasionally repetitive.

    1. Okay. I’ve got quite a few on my current book list that I want to get through but I’ll try to remember to read the sample chapter that Kindle offers on it when I get through those others and decide after reading that on whether to then buy it.

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