Gender Manipulation and Reality Television

Reality television has become a staple of American society. It dominates primetime television on just about every network, at least one evening a week. When selecting a television program to watch, most Americans opt for a reality program, because of the lack of choices and sheer pleasure that society, as a whole tends to get from living vicariously through other people’s lives. As we continue to be regular viewers of reality television, the ratings continue to grow and the popularity of reality television continues to rise. To the American public, reality television has become the new choice drug and television networks and producers are just fueling the addiction.

MTV’s Real World is a program that has been said to start the reality television craze. With the first season of the Real World airing in 1992, the groundwork was laid for all future seasons to come. The framework of the show was built so that seven strangers, who are picked by the producers to live in a house together and have every moment of the five months spent there taped. The members of the household work at the same location and virtually spend the whole five months getting to know each other and getting underneath each other’s skin.

The various seasons of Real World have taken place in London, New York, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. Each season has a dramatic combination of roommates, drama, and situations that are considered to be “real life”. Throughout the various seasons, the roommates have faced various obstacles, from battling with personal problems with race and homosexuality to surviving in an unusual environment. Each season of the show offers a familiar cast living in a hip, funky environment. The cast lives rent-free throughout their stay while on the show and is placed in a job. This takes away some of the real life qualities that the show has to offer, since the members are not being filmed while partaking in real life activities and situations that they would be likely faced with while living on their own in a new city. Real World: Las Vegas was the show’s twelfth season to air. The season consisted of one drama packed episode after another. The cast was made up of four women (Trishelle, Brynn, Arissa, and Irulan) and three men (Steven, Frank, and Alton) who all typically fit the mold that the Real World producers seem to fill when casting the show. “The cast is a narrow group that always includes the gay man or lesbian woman, the proud African American, the ignorant/uneducated white boy (or girl) from the South, the virgin, and the troubled person whose anger frequently explodes” (Prosnitz).

Many television critics say that “reality TV reinforces gender stereotypes, glorifies cutthroat behavior, and deceives viewers into thinking these highly edited shows are raw, unfiltered reality” (Waddle). As with most reality television producers, the producers of the Real World use the show as a way to reinforce gender stereotypes of society. The producers cast for category- only putting those whose actions can be molded into something dramatic or stereotypical on the show. This ensures a more interesting and dramatic season on the show and it guarantees that more viewers will tune in each week to catch the new episode. These same producers portray the women of the show as whiny, emotional, and backstabbing whereas the men are portrayed as tough and interested in women, sex, and drinking. This is portrayed throughout the twelfth season of the Real World throughout the interactions of the member of the house and the editing techniques used by the producers.

Reality television often teaches society as a whole that women are to be viewed as sex objects, and this is reinforced when they depict the men of reality television sleeping with women for their enjoyment and treating them as though they were objects rather than human beings. When they portray women acting in the same manner as men, treating men as sex objects, the women are portrayed in a derogatory manner. Women and girls are often represented as hypersensitive and superficial. They are also portrayed as someone to pity or someone who is unable to solve problems on their own.
This is supported throughout the various seasons of Real World. In Real World: Las Vegas, Trishelle is portrayed as an emotional woman who falls in love with Steven after their relationship grows into one with a sexual agenda. As she continues to be portrayed as a sex object, the producers only show Trishelle’s various reactions to situations that she is faced with during confrontations with Steven. Instead of showing an entire scene between Trishelle and Steven, the producers use a “cut and paste” technique, portraying Trishelle as an emotional sex object once again and Steven as the innocent bad boy who made his intentions clear from the start. The show depicts Trishelle’s emotional reactions to Steven’s seemingly empty actions.

By using the same “cut and paste” technique, the producers of the show also reinforce the stereotype that women are hypersensitive. In episode 11, we see Trishelle reacting to Steven’s passes at a group of sorority girls and although she denies that she has any real feelings for Steven, as an audience, we are aware that she is falling for him. Later in the season, Steven drunkenly tells Trishelle that he “loves” her, the producers make it seem like it was not something to be taken serious in the first place and portray Trishelle’s reaction to realizing that Steven does not love her as “overreacting” or hypersensitive. The producers play segments where we, as an audience, hear Steven tell Trishelle that he does like the sex, but just wants to be friends- but then are left with nothing other than Trishelle’s emotional outbursts and misguided feelings. The audience wonders if there is something else that happened that we are not aware of, but the producers choose not to show anything else.

Not only are women portrayed as hypersensitive regarding emotional matters, they are shown to overreact in a heated or passionate manner regarding situations that are downplayed by the producers of the show. When Arissa believes that Irulan has been talking about her personal business with the other members of the household, the two women confront Frank, another member of the house. He then apologizes for the drama that he has caused by opening his mouth; however, he reveals to Steven later that he wasn’t sorry at all, but just didn’t want to get into a confrontation with the two “dramatic” women. The producers portrayed the women as overreacting to the situation; however, viewers are not privy to seeing the conversation that spurred the original drama and are unable to come to their own conclusion about the situation.

The producers of the show also depict an emotional and jealous Brynn. When Steven and Trishelle first begin their sexual relationship, Brynn was a bit jealous simply because she was attracted to Steven since they first entered the house. However, after Trishelle and Steven’s relationship grows and the roommates are continuously subjected to their relationship, Brynn loses her temper and becomes emotional and violent. After throwing a fork at Steven and pushing him, the fight is portrayed as an overreaction by the producers and the hurtful words that Steven has said to her are downplayed and disregarded when referring to the fight throughout the show. Although Brynn did have a violent reaction to the situation, situations similar to this happen in real life on a daily basis. The producers chose to focus on the reaction by Brynn rather than the overall situation and the possibility that the situation may have incited this scene.

Just as society maintains that women are emotional, hypersensitive sex objects, society also says that men are tough, aggressive, and unemotional. When men exhibit emotional sides of their personalities, they are called said to be acting like a woman. “Men on television are rational, ambitious, smart, competitive, powerful, stable, violent, and tolerant, while women are sensitive, romantic, attractive, happy, warm, sociable, peaceful, fair, submissive, and timid” (National Institute of Mental Health 73). The producers of the Real World reinforce the male role in society throughout the show. Throughout the exchanges between Trishelle and Steven, Trishelle is depicted as someone to pity, whereas the producers portray Steven’s actions as understandable and rational.

As the men on the show engaged in sexual encounters with various women, they are portrayed as “studly” and their actions are not deemed in a derogatory manner. However, when the women on the show engage in similar behavior, it is seen to be “unladylike” or disgusting. This is a common theme throughout reality television and unfortunately, society seems to back up the double-edged sword that says that what may be okay for a man is not for a woman.

Reality television has become a large faction of everyday life. As society continues to tune in to the dramatic scenes unfolding on a weekly basis, producers are inspired to continue the manipulation of gender by reinforcing gender stereotypes. For as long as the gender stereotypes are continuously manipulated, it will be impossible to move away from the stereotypes as society continues to grow. Real World: Las Vegas is just one example of how people behind the scenes, such as producers, manipulate what really happens into situations that are more entertaining to the audience, rather than showing the audience what really happens. Until producers represent the cast members in an impartial way and stop manipulating their footage to create a more interesting episode, society will continue to reverse its progress as a nation that treats all people equal.

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