Combating the negative impacts of reality TV on girls' sense of self

Published: Saturday, May 26 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

Lt. Andy Baldwin holds a single rose before the last remaining contestants Tessa and Peyton, right, during the reality series "The Bachelor."

Adam Larkey, Associated Press

In early 2003, Elyse Sewell was a relatively anonymous 20-year-old research assistant at a biology lab. She aspired to attend medical school, having recently graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Mexico with a double major in Spanish and biology.

Instead, Sewell found herself in Hollywood starring in the debut season of the reality TV show "America's Next Top Model." Her 5-foot-10, 114-pound body was a perfect fit for the competition; Sewell effortlessly advanced to be one of the final three contestants competing for a $100,000 modeling contract from Revlon.

Then, unprovoked, show host Tyra Banks ushered Sewell off "America's Next Top Model" with a jaw-dropping dig.

"Elyse, your look is very strong for the fashion world — for the hard-core, die-hard fashion world," said Banks, herself a supermodel. "I admire your intelligence — I think you are so smart. But one thing with that intelligence is it can intimidate people. And there's a way to use that intelligence in a way that doesn't feel like you're maybe putting down other people or sounding derogatory."

Translation: while you look anorexic enough to work as a model, there's really no place on my reality TV show for an intelligent and self-assured woman.

As media critic and journalist Jennifer Pozner watched this scene unfold on TV in the summer of 2003, it set her mind racing. What would girls watching the show take away from the comments — that a mind is a terrible thing to use?

By that time, a couple years had already passed since Pozner founded Women in Media & News to increase awareness about women's portrayal in media. In 2010 she also wrote a book, "Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV," that examines the societal implications of reality TV and offers practical tips for improving media literacy.

"I kept noticing more and more deeply problematic, regressive ideologies packaged on reality TV as if they were a reflection of just who we happen to be as Americans today," she said.

Pozner's perspective is increasingly relevant in light of the fact that millions of Americans are watching reality TV each day. Consider, for example, that a typical episode of MTV's "Jersey Shore" — the most-watched reality TV show for children age 12-17 during the 2011 television season — attracts about 5 million viewers. Additionally, in recent weeks the Fox franchise "American Idol" attracted a combined 34 million viewers for a pair of shows on back-to-back weeknights.

New research indicates that a growing cadre of this reality programming is especially detrimental to girls because of what the Parents Television Council, a non-partisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment, calls "a disturbingly unrealistic portrayal of 'reality' with harsh, demeaning, degrading and sexualized dialogue." For example, according to the Girl Scout Research Institute, girls age 11-17 who regularly watch reality TV are much more inclined than reality TV non-watchers to agree with statements like "Gossiping is a normal part of a relationship between girls" and "Being mean earns you more respect than being nice."

Because reality TV really started gaining a major cultural foothold in 2002, it follows that the girls who are now teenagers have never known a media landscape that didn't prominently feature reality TV.

"It doesn't surprise me that preteens and teenagers wouldn't be overly critical about this genre," Pozner explained. "They have grown up with TV that tells them that this is reflecting real people and real life, without telling them that this is a highly edited, manipulated surreality that only seeks out people who can be turned into caricatures."

And yet, despite the potential pitfalls reality TV poses younger viewers, effective strategies exist for parents to shield their teens from the most unsavory content today and, in the long run, prepare those impressionable minds to become tomorrow's savvy and informed consumers of media.

An indelible impact

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