When a guilty pleasure starts to hurt

by Keith Barber

I have a confession to make. I didn’t watch the final episode of “The Bachelor” on March 14. Despite having watched every episode this season, I tuned out the finale. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But I have my reasons.

The penultimate episode, which aired March 7, featured a reunion of former bachelorettes who were at one time or another spurned by bachelor Brad Womack. This is standard operating procedure for every every reality TV show: a reunion episode where former cast members get together to dish, verbally harass and sometimes physically assault one another. I’ve seen my share of reality TV shows over the past two decades but I don’t recall two men ever getting into a fistfight during a cast reunion episode. It appears that network executives think catfights are much more entertaining than fisticuffs. And since women have been devalued and exploited in American popular culture, what’s the harm of dragging another group of semi-celebrities through the mud? Right?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary, Miss Representation, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, drives the point home that young girls in America cannot find appropriate role models in popular culture. “Media is the message,” is the overriding theme of Newsom’s excellent film.

The Roco Educational Film release best summed up Miss Representation, stating, “The film explores how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions in America and challenges the media’s limiting and often disparaging portrayals of women, which make it difficult for the average girl to see herself as powerful.”

The definition of a guilty pleasure is something you indulge in that you’re all too aware has no redeeming value. I started watching “The Bachelor” re-runs on last month as a seemingly harmless diversion. However, over time, I realized that my actions made me complicit with reality television’s exploitation of women. That point was made all too clear by the March 7 episode.

Michelle, a bachelorette clearly cast as the show’s villain, was assailed by her fellow contestants as “a spider,” a lousy mother and a manipulative, unscrupulous woman. True to form, Michelle responded to the harsh words by dissolving into a puddle of tears.

That’s when the show’s most disingenuous moment came. Host Chris Harrison self-righteously chastised the bachelorettes for being too hard on Michelle. But it was Harrison who put her in the “hot seat,” and there’s little doubt the show’s producers hoped for something just shy of a public stoning. The bachelorettes were more than happy to oblige. But what does their behavior say about women and their ability to treat one other with respect rather than desperately compete for the affection of men?

On a wide variety of shows from “Bad Girls Club” to the “Real Housewives” franchise to “Jersey Shore,” women are typically portrayed as shallow, petty, dishonest and of questionable moral character. And viewers of those shows reinforce those stereotypes by simply watching the train wrecks.

Most of us don’t necessarily think about what happens behind the scenes. There is a casting process that is no different from that of a Hollywood film. Women and men are cast based on types that producers want to see on the small screen. They assume their viewers wish to be pandered to in the most demeaning way. That’s the business of television, but the problem arises when you realize how these shows are shaping the attitudes of young people about women. Young girls model the behavior of these semi-celebrities and young boys develop a warped sense of what women are all about. Just watch a few episodes of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

For female fans of “The Bachelor,” a season of watching that show will ultimately convince them that women are nothing more than life-size accessories for men.

The one or two bachelorettes who appeared to have a modicum of confidence and intelligence were sent packing in the first episode of “The Bachelor.” The question arises: How many talented, confident, accomplished women were eliminated during the casting process? There’s no telling.

Miss Representation contends that most network television is geared to entertain adolescent boys, which is the mindset of most network executives. Across the board, women compose a virtually insignificant percentage of corporate boards, including media companies. So it’s no wonder that depictions of smart, competent, selfassured women are nearly non-existent in reality TV. Network executives like to say they are giving the people what they want, but in reality, they are portraying women the way they want. Perhaps intelligent, sophisticated women intimidate those in power.

The impact on young women is staggering. Women make up 51 percent of the US populuation but only compose 17 percent of Congress; women make up just 31 percent of the nation’s top wage earners; one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime; and women compose only 11 percent of global corporate boards. The son of a single mother, I grew up to understand that women represent what is best in all of us. That’s why current depictions of women in the media are so disturbing to me personally.

Miss Representation helped me see how a seemingly harmless act — watching reality TV — can contribute to a culture that fails to embrace women as the equal of men.