I was listening to a radio program about two months ago which was about the controversy surrounding the Bachelor/Bachelorette television franchises. Two would-be contestants on the Bachelorette were suing the producers of the show, claiming that they were rejected due to the fact that they were both African American. The media expert brought in by the radio show to discuss this issue was Jennifer Pozner, a media critic with the group Women In Media & News.
I was so interested with what she had to say on this concept of racism in reality show casting, that I ended up reading her book, Reality Bites Back. In it, she describes how, if one were an alien who just had reality television as a frame of reference, they would be under the impression that the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement and the gay rights movements had never taken place. This skewed casting towards heterosexual, Caucasian woman and men is a staple of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchises, and Pozner argues that this is to pander to a specific audience. In other words, these decisions are driven by advertisers, who want to reach a suburban, mainly white, demographic. Unfortunately for those minorities who are lucky enough to be cast, they usually are cut in the first few episodes of these dating shows.
Cast members are not exclusively chosen because of their ethnic background/marketability. Appearance plays a huge role as well. With the inevitable hot tubs scenes which are par for the course, the average woman would have difficulty meeting the producers' requirements, unless they are genetically/surgically blessed. Another aspect of these dating shows that has always riled me up is that the women who try out for these shows will often put their own lives and careers on the backburner, agreeing to relocate for true love. Not many women in the real world would consent to leave their jobs, family, friends, etc. for someone that they met a few weeks ago. Knowing full well the poor track record for real romance that dating show alumni face when the cameras turn off, I would be even more inclined to keep my day job.
Pozner does address issues beyond the controversy about dating shows including issues of female stereotyping, virulent amounts of product placement, and manipulative practices which erode whatever "reality" is left in these types of programs. Though I was aware of how producers tend to cast people (mostly women) to type in reality shows, with the staples being whiny, bitchy, or sugary sweet girl-next-door types which pervade shows like America's Next Top Model and the like, there is more to it. The extent to ehich producers will go to get juicy confessional soundbites from contestants is really deplorable. Seeing as these are real people and not SAG actors, they don't have the same labour laws protecting them. Thus coercion, lack of sleep, etc. are all fair game. One particularly disturbing practice is that of "frankenbiting" where a contestant's words are chopped up and remixed into a totally different sentence, which is then dubbed as a voiceover. This way they avoid the clips where lips are moving, but different words are coming out, Japanese film style.
I could continue on for a long time about this book because it is a fascinating read which is incredibly topical and worthwhile for the average reality tv show consumer to read. The concepts she puts forward definitely will make me a more critical viewer of some of my favourite guilty pleasures.
Speaking of which, I have included a link to a YouTube video that Pozner mentions in her book. It is a speculative piece which poses the question of what would happen if Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Edward Cullen of Twilight met.