I am a proud “Bachelor Nation” fanatic. From “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” to the spinoff “Bachelor in Paradise,” you can count on the fact that I will be seated in front of the TV live-tweeting and silently judging the romantic decisions of complete strangers. I love the sweet dates and the formal dresses, but I especially feed off of the drama — miscommunication, deceit and betrayal are the heart behind these shows, drawing in an average of 3.26 million viewers for just the recent season of “The Bachelorette.”
From reality TV programs like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” to new-age Netflix original productions like “Love is Blind,” these shows rake in high viewership and social media presence. These programs bring people together over animosity toward certain “characters” and admiration for heartfelt love confessions, creating an important sense of community in the digital age. Still, reality television has the ability to create division as well, much further than choosing one love interest or sister over another; it has created a falsified account of how certain people are meant to behave, communicate and love, and the majority of the victims to these production tactics are women.
The primary demographic for reality television programs is women aged 18 to 34. Statistics show that women enjoy these programs because of the drama and the “mindless” nature, and they are more likely to consume them than men by 3% when it comes to dating programs and by 8% in terms of docuseries viewership. Women are the primary targets for the advertising of these shows as well, along with the brand partnerships and the oftentimes highly sexualized love interests shown via promotion methodologies. This amount of marketing care emits the false impression that female stories and situations will be factually shown when these shows air, but in reality, women are stereotyped and misrepresented in disrespectful and borderline sexist ways on reality shows.
Rackham student Enrica Bridgewater is studying communication and media and psychology with a focus on the representation of minority groups in entertainment media. When I asked her about her perspective on gender stereotypes in reality television, she said there is a lot of “nuance” to them, but there are certain ways in which women are portrayed in these programs, especially as personalities like the “overly emotional” or the “sexually promiscuous” one.
These social labels are not negative in theory but tend to have more negative connotations when attributed to women, whether they be reality television stars or average members of society. Bridgewater said that “stereotypes are socially constructed but ingrained in our lives,” so it’s “hard to turn off our brains to not see them.” These stereotypes tend to become especially destructive when shows driven by them are rapidly gaining popularity and influence.
The representation of women in reality television goes much further than harmful stereotypes. Too often in these programs, women are pitted against one another in romantic, social and professional conflicts, and their suffering is treated as a marketing and drama-fueling tool. Even when women are depicted as strong and independent in these series through their goals and actions, which are usually considered positive traits, social media tends to perceive them as a “mean girl” or the “villain” of the program. When it comes to representation in the media, women can’t seem to win, which proves negative for the female viewers of these programs — especially the young ones.
This negative portrayal of female personalities in reality television creates a dilemma: can we consider ourselves to be feminists while also being active enjoyers of such misrepresentative and harmful media? Bridgewater tells me that we can: “People who want equality for women can watch reality TV,” she said. “You can dissect the things you like and the things you think are problematic.” Feeding off of sexist tropes and pure sexual objectification, there is national debate over whether or not reality television can be “feminist” or not, and there are multiple perspectives. Many argue that these programs promote toxic standards and misogynistic online spaces, while others, like Bridgewater, say that they have the power to open dialogues about gender stereotypes.
As a feminist and reality television obsessor myself, I am under the impression that you can do and be both. Reality programs like “The Bachelorette” and “Too Hot to Handle” may rely on stereotypical tropes, but by being mindful and critical of these practices, we can maintain both the entertainment value of the content and contribute to the feminist conversation. Being a feminist means having the ability to notice and find fault in the damaging stereotypes that target women in media but also see the good that comes from these programs.
In “The Real Housewives” franchise, for example, women (although filthy rich) have messy and realistic friendships and professional partnerships; they don’t change themselves or their personalities despite the millions of viewers. We, as viewers, need to analyze reality television as a space where women can be authentic, while criticizing problematic portrayals when disapproval is necessary.
For Bridgewater, the responsibility is much heavier, though, on the shoulders of television producers to eliminate these harmful stereotypes from the media. The producers behind these successful programs have profited off of female suffering and misrepresentation for decades, so it is up to them to be more conscious about how they script, edit and advertise their programming.
For instance, the most recent season of “The Bachelorette” was the first season where two women would be featured as the titular role at the same time. Framed as a strong female relationship initially, the production team slowly turned the two against one another for the sake of increased viewership. Favoring drama and profit over a friendship between two driven and bubbly women is a production error that relies on stereotypes, a problem that could easily be fixed in the writer’s room with more care and consideration.
It is absolutely possible to enjoy reality television series and maintain a feminist disposition. It all comes down to how we think about these series. We have to ask ourselves questions as we watch, start conversations and hold producers responsible for the years that they have made a living from destructive gender stereotypes. Women are consistently the punchline in these drama-filled programs, so we need to create a culture as a coalition of entertainment viewers and producers that values women as their own agents, not as stereotypes.
Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.