Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Race, Class, and Gender Identities in Reality TV

“Identities are the definitional categories we use to specify, both to ourselves and to others, who we are. They are social locations that determine our position in the world relative to other people. At times, we purposely call attention to them, through how we dress, walk, and use language, whom we choose to associate with, perhaps even where we live. At other times, though, people ascribe identities to us, whether we want them to or not (Newman, 2007, p. 33)”

The quote above is taken from Newman’s book, Identities and Inequalities. Identity is something that each person possesses. While some people may act differently in certain situations, identity essentially remains the same. Race, class, and gender are three very important parts of identity that will be used to analyze a character from a reality television show on MTV. Sometimes, identities are assigned to people, like Newman shares. Sometimes these identities are helpful, while other times they come in a package with negative stereotypes. The character, Brianna, from MTV’s reality television show, The Real World (Season 20), is victimized by stereotypes in the areas of gender, race, and class, both through her own actions and through the assumptions made by her peers (MTV, 2008).

The first stereotype that Brianna is susceptible to is the role of gender. In today’s patriarchal society, media and advertising often morph women into sexual objects, instead of humans with feelings and personalities. Because of this depiction, ideas are ingrained in the minds of women, that they can achieve success and receive attention, by adopting a sexual persona and acting in a submissive manner. At the same time, men are exposed to the promiscuity and submissiveness of the female body through the media and advertising. Author, Anna Whitehead, sums this point up in the article, Girls, Sexuality, and Pop Culture:

“In this culture of heterosexual, patriarchal privilege, men are entitled to the bodies of girls. And why shouldn’t they be? Men have seen girls’ bodies in numerous sexy and emotionless displays, in everything from movies television to advertising. There is also little distinction between real and fantasy girls. This popular culture will not acknowledge the emotional and physical consequences of its abuse because it does not see girls as human beings; instead, they are as inanimate as mountains and exist only to be conquered (Whitehead, 2002, p. 23).”

Brianna is imprisoned by this philosophy, that girls are simply sex objects. She illustrates this through her profession, prior to her appearance on The Real World, as an exotic dancer. She becomes submissive to men by stripping for them to make money. The inclusion of twenty year old Brianna, into this season of The Real World, strengthens the message of “sex sells”, to teenage girls who watch the show. Since this show is considered “real”, it becomes ever more serious because girls see this profitable occupation as attainable.

In addition to Brianna’s night time job as a sex icon, she also fits the stereotype that women should be thin and attractive. All of the girls on The Real World are thin and often parading around in small bikinis and skin baring outfits. Even though it is considered a reality television show, in reality, not all women have thin bodies that they enjoy exposing.

As mentioned before, women are not only sexually objectified in media, but portrayed as submissive. This is most apparent in the field of advertising. In several advertisements, women are often seen in a belittling position, looking up at men. Another common symbolism in advertisements is the positioning of women so that their mouth is completely or partially hidden. This symbolizes that women should be seen, but not listened to. This symbolism reaffirms that men are superior, the premise of a patriarchal society. Allan G. Johnson describes patriarchy in his article, Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them or an Us, “It's about defining women and men as opposites, about the "naturalness" of male aggression, competition, and dominance and of female caring, cooperation, and subordination. It's about the valuing of masculinity and maleness and the devaluing of femininity and femaleness (Johnson, 1997, p. 92).” Patriarchy does not just focus on male dominance, but the outcomes because of it. In Brianna’s situation on The Real World, she is often submissive to males. Brianna seems to pour her feelings over her ex boyfriend, who previously harassed and verbally assaulted her. Even while living on the other side of the country, Brianna still calls her ex boyfriend and continues to be bashed by his accusatory language. Brianna seems to be submissive to other men as well. She is willing to sexually exploit herself to receive attention from guys, and shares that she does not care if she is respected or not.

The second stereotype that Brianna faces on a daily basis is one of race. In The Real World, both overt and inferential racism are seen in the episodes. Brianna is African American and from the city of Philadelphia. Brianna is very light skinned, thin, and has long blonde hair, so she does not have the typical characteristics of black women: dark skinned, curvy, and shorter, ebony colored hair. Racism is still directed at her however, particularly by the other two girls in the show, who called Brianna “a nice girl” but not “close” with them.

To focus on racism in the media, Jennifer Pozner describes many characters that are commonly seen on television in her article, The Unreal World. One of the characters is a female African American. “Women of color are tokenized and often eliminated after each series debut (Pozner, 2004, p. 98).” Although I did not watch the entire season of The Real World, in the first episode, Brianna receives a phone call from her home in Philly, sharing that there is a warrant out for her arrest. Because of this warrant, Brianna believes her time in Hollywood might be cut short, because she only has a month to return home and untangle the messy situation. Pozner’s theory is supported because Brianna is the only character who hints that she may leave early.
Besides this passive racism, there is also the detail, that Brianna is African American and in trouble by the police, to be considered. No one else on the show has a warrant out for their arrest, except the Black girl, which gives the other girls a reason to push Brianna away, since she does not quite “fit in”.

Another description of colored females in Pozner’s piece is that they often play the more common “hyper-sensitive ‘sista with attitude’ whom everyone hates (Pozner, 2004, p. 98).” In another episode of The Real World, tensions build between Brianna and another girl, when Brianna wants to bring some agents to the house but is unable to because there are too many guests already in the house. The fight pushes the other girl to repeatedly use the phrase, “Don’t get ghetto on me!” and accuse Brianna of coming “from Blackville”. This overt racism not only upsets Brianna, but I am sure every other black female who watched it. The girls in the household have quickly gone from “not feeling close” to Brianna to displaying their racist ideologies.

The last stereotype that Brianna faces on The Real World stems from the influence of social class. It is interesting that someone like Brianna would even be portrayed on television, specifically a “documentary” of the lives of people living together in Hollywood. Traditionally, television only focuses on middle class society and upper class society. Rarely do people from the working class go on reality TV, or have lives depicted in network shows. This excerpt from an article by Croteau and Hoynes (2000), shares the secret behind class and media, specifically newspapers. However, it can be applied to television, magazines, radio, books, and other types of media.

"Newspapers receive about two-thirds of their revenue from advertisers, not readers; therefore, they must be sensitive to advertiser needs in order to stay in business. In turn . . . advertisers want to reach only readers with enough disposable income to buy their products. . . . To sell advertising space at a premium, newspapers want to improve the demographic profile (in terms of average household income) of their readership. They can do this in two ways: attract more affluent readers, and/or get rid of poorer readers. (Croteau & Hoynes, 2000, p. 215)"

Basically, this quote explains that advertisers want upper and middle class people to be depicted on television, because it will attract the interest of these classes. As a result, these wealthier families will view advertisements that will encourage them to buy products ultimately benefiting the advertisers (Newman, 2007).

While Brianna avoids thr stereotype of not existing in media at all, she has some other prejudices to tackle. Brianna is from the city of Philadelphia, and it is clear that she does not come from a wealthy or overly caring family. She explains in one episode that her sister is “crazy”, her father left her family, and her mother kicks her out on a regular basis. When Brianna was nineteen, she became pregnant and could not afford to keep the baby or pay for an abortion. For this reason, Brianna decided to become a stripper, after she raised enough money for an abortion, she continued to dance because it was profitable. Upon learning all this information, her female housemates quote, “I make fun of girls like her at home”. It is apparent that Brianna is from a low socioeconomic class and that she has a lot of problems: stripper, abortion, warrant for arrest, starts fights with others, etc. As a result, viewers may associate this rebellious lifestyle as a result of low social status. Since the working class is not typically illustrated on television, the few times that it is brought up are crucial. The way Brianna is depicted on The Real World is not in favor of the working class.

To sum it all up, race, gender, and class stereotypes exist in today’s hegemonic society, alienating certain groups. Some characters display these stereotypes on reality TV, such as Brianna from The Real World. Identity is something that each individual has but it can often become distorted by these stereotypes. It is important to try to remain unbiased when watching shows on television, even if they are considered to be “reality”.

Johnson, A. G. (1997). Patriarchy, the system: An it, not a he, a them or an us. The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Temple University Press.

Let’s not get ghetto. (2008) [Television series episode]. In The Real World: Hollywood. MTV.

Newman, D. M. (2007). Identities and inequalities. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Pozner, J. L, (2004). The unreal world. Learning Gender.

Welcome to Hollywood. (2008) [Television series episode]. In The Real World: Hollywood. MTV.

Whitehead, A. (2002). Girls, sexuality, and pop culture. Off Our Backs. (32)5, 22-26.

1 comment:

Schultz-Walls said...

Wow, I personally have not seen the new season of the Real World but this sounds like every other season of the MTV show. It seems to me that each season the casting directors look for people who fit in this stereotypical group. They always have the “preppy ones,” and the “ethnic ones.” To me the casting directors seek out people to fit in there mold and to them this makes good television. I mean whatever they are doing does work because like you said MTV is entering their twentieth season of the Real World.
I have to admit when I was in junior high and high school I was an avid watcher of all shows MTV and especially the Real World and Road Rules. The cast never changes only the faces from seasons to season. The stereotypes are always surrounding the Real World and the representation of the people on the show is unreal. The cast is fixed to fit a world of the unreal and seriously how do you get people of all the different backgrounds to have the same goals and will to work for the same employee. The individuals cast in the Real World are roommates hang out buddies, and co workers. How could you not have controversy with each cast member? Everyone is so different and they are selected just for that reason alone. They are picked just for the simple face they could start arguments with others and they might be a little on the wild side. They want a mix of people and this is the television only goal along with bring in audiences.
Brianna for example was probably chosen because she was different from the other females and the other females. The other females most likely were cast to be friends and they probably work together and pit against the other female on the television show. It just seems like the casting directors seek out the stereotypes.