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June 10, 2004


Quick: Which Reality Show Contestant is This? UK version

There isn't a photo of the UK version of the generic female reality show contestant, because the mode of conformity promoted by their reality shows is behavioral, not so much physical. [sorry for ripping off your post title, Em. I thought I'd make a statement about the international pervasiveness of reality show socialization, and plus it was easier than coming up with my own idea.]

The Guardian also decided to publish a piece on women and reality shows today, and while the examples probably aren't familiar to a US audience, the descriptions of how different kinds of women are treated on these shows sounds pretty familiar. The writer contends that "there is an obsession within reality television with finding the appropriate limits for women's behaviour." Sure, looks matter too (the recent winner of Pop Idol, Michelle, was a heavy woman who got a lot of ridicule for her weight, but hey, at least she won the freaking contest) but the boxes that women are squeezed into on UK TV focus mostly on conformity of speech, decorum, and behavior.

The current season of Big Brother just featured an ejection of lesbian contestant Kitten, who sounds pretty typical of most Real World roommates in recent seasons. Kitten's brash attitude earned her a lot of harsh abuse from the press: she's been called a "loudmouth lesbian", the "anarchist whinger", the "attention-seeking brat", "hell's kitten", the "sinner", "staggeringly thick Kitten." Sure, I heard some complaints about Trishelle last year on Real World Las Vegas, but not in national media.

Other shows that feature celebrity contestants also celebrate those women who sweetly stay in line--and it doesn't hurt if they're small and cute and have straight blonde hair (sound familiar?) The writer of the article describes a perfect Stepfordian ideal in these contestants: "As far as I can see, the only sort of woman who gets positive reinforcement out of participating in reality television is one who pulls off the trick of being both sexy and demure." A show called Hell's Kitchen, which is sort of like if The Restaurant was staffed by B-list celebs, features 20 year-old soap star Jennifer Ellison, who was praised in the Daily Mail for being so "perky" and "cheery" and "industrious", which - along with her "Barbie doll figure" - apparently "endeared her" to the public. Pop star and ex-Atomic Kitten Kerry McFadden won the US failure but UK hit show I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and got kind press for behaving "like a trouper" with her "bravery" and "cheeky smile" and being a sweet blonde in a bikini.

UK reality shows that focus exclusively on looks rather than behavior, such as makeover show What Not to Wear, are less radical (so far) than their US counterparts, sticking to outfit and style advice rather than plastic surgery. The "tips and tricks" section of the website offers clothing advice on how to minimize what's too big (referred to as "boobs" and "bum") maximize what's too small, and how to hide your ugly fat ankles or your chubby face. On the show, the two makeover hostesses suggest new outfits for a variety of women, but move all of them towards the same ideal look: "All their subjects end up looking much the same, in their mauve cardigans and burgundy bootleg trousers and highlighted shoulder length hair. Is this really the box that we now long to fit into?"

Yes, conformity in looks or behavior is boring. And it makes for boring television too. The fact that we all keep watching these shows, repeated in endless iterations with slight variation from season to season, just shows how obsessed we all are with trying to figure out how women are supposed to look and act.

A new show called Ladette to Lady that will be broadcast in the UK this fall features a group of loudmouthed, bawdy, hard drinking girls who will be molded through the show into refined, polite, ladies who know how to act correctly. They will go through tests in important areas of knowledge for today's woman, including dressmaking, party hostessing, and cooking. The show's website says the lessons will reveal in the young women "a true female sensibility." Hopefully, hair-straightening techniques and robot CPU installation sessions will also be included in the series.

categories: Culture, Gender, International, TV
posted by amy at 2:19 PM | #