Review: ‘Reality Bites Back’ by Jennifer Pozner

by Kim on April 26, 2011 · 21 comments

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Based on page views, the most popular post on this blog is one from back in February 2009 where I commented on a literary analysis of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books. That always makes me laugh, since Twilight is almost the exact opposite of what you can normally expect to read about here, but I think the post comes up high on Google.

The post still occasionally gets comments, mostly often along the lines of, “Yeah, maybe this is right, but the books are just fluff so why bother criticizing them this way?” I find this sentiment frustrating — just because a book or television show or movie isn’t “Great Literature” doesn’t mean it is somehow protected from a critical reading. Pop culture is full of books and movies and television that deserve critical attention and a look at the messages they explicitly or implicitly share.

When I read Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back, a feminist critique of reality television, I finally felt like I was reading a book that got what I’ve been trying to say. And although the book is focused specifically on reality television, I think Posner’s methods of analysis and conclusions can apply equally well to other forms of popular entertainment.

Pozner begins the book with a long discussion of what makes people watch reality television in the first place, eventually concluding:

But while the schadenfreud and escapism factors may get us to tune in, that’s not what hooks us. On a more subconscious level, we continue to watch because these shows frame their narratives in ways that both play to and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women and men, love and beauty, race and class, consumption and happiness in America.

The book then goes on to explore different facets of reality television — drawing source material from an amazing number of shows — to look at the underlying messages the shows present and what might be a problem with those assumptions.

I think one of the skepticism a reader might have about the book is that Pozner is out to “get” people who watch and enjoy reality television. I’m not a frequent reality television watcher, but I’ve been known to sit all the way through a marathon of America’s Top Model or Top Chef or Project Runway on a boring winter Saturday, a fact I didn’t want to be judged for while reading the book. Luckily, taking on the watches doesn’t seem to be Pozner’s point. As she notes in the introduction:

My critique is aimed at the powerful entities that choose to define reality in ways that suit their interests, regardless of what is healthy or dangerous for our culture. I hope this nuanced introduction to feminist media analysis prompts you to ask questions and bring a more active eye to what you watch.

The quote also brings up another point about the book — it’s very feminist. Everything Pozner addresses is considered through the lens of gender and class divisions, which provides only a certain set of insights about reality television. If you don’t agree with feminist thinking, the book may not hit a chord for you. I also think there are other valid lenses to use, and will be curious to see what other books on the topic I can find from other perspectives.

I enjoyed this book best when Pozner was focusing on some of the less obvious problematic message of reality television than on the message I think are fairly straightforward. Her critique of the princess problem of reality dating shows, for example, didn’t really do much for me. Yes, The Bachelor and other shows play up the prince/princess dynamic unfairly, but that seems fairly obvious to me. I was more intrigued with sections that, for example, look at the culture of consumption and materialism present in otherwise well-meaning shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and whatnot. Those were ideas I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about yet.

I’ve waited to write my review of this book for awhile because I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to say about the book. Now that it’s back at the library, I wish I had a copy to refer to, not just to write this but also to pull out when I need to be reminded of the way a critical reader goes beneath the edited message of a piece of media and pulls out the biases it is built on. I admire the way Pozner is clear about how media analysis works, and reading the book left me open and excited to starting up my own critical faculties again.

I’d also highly recommended heading over to Cass’s (Bonjour, Cass!) review of the book, which I think gives a different — but equally appreciative — perspective to the book.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Other Reviews: Bonjour, Cass! |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole April 26, 2011 at 6:12 am

This is interesting, and like you said I would like to read perspectives other than a feminist one. Like you, I rarely get caught up in reality tv, but I love things that study human nature at work. I just read The Psychopath Test and it had an interesting chapter on what producers and showrunners look for when casting these shows. Crazier than the average person but not too crazy. They want people who are familiar to the audience but make them feel safe because they are not quite as crazy as the “reality” person. It seems pretty exploitative in the book.

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Nicole: Pozner does spend some time talking about the types of people that get cast in reality television, especially the types of stereotypes we get about minorities and women. It was interesting, and at least a bit related to what you mentioned from The Psychopath Test (which sounds so good!).

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Amy April 26, 2011 at 6:18 am

Ahhh Cass had me already wanting to read this book. Really want to now!

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Amy: Read it! I think you’d have a lot of interesting things to say about the issues she brings up.

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Vasilly April 26, 2011 at 9:02 am

I’ve never heard of this book before reading your review, Kim. It sounds interesting and I’m adding it to my tbr list. I do agree with Pozner is that it’s the “hook” in these shows that keeps us watching them: the supposed glamor of someone’s life or the drama.

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Vasilly: It’s a bit unsettling to go through all of the messages of reality tv — the ones we don’t notice when watching. But unsettling in a thoughtful way, which is why I liked it.

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Kailana April 26, 2011 at 11:10 am

This sounds interesting! Thanks for the review. :)

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Kailana: Yes, it was!

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Emily @ Eat the Books! April 26, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Enjoyed your review! I read this book back in December of last year and reviewed it as well, and most recently saw Pozner speak in person. First off–she is hilarious in person, and also found myself laughing throughout the book. The subject of the book is depressing, because I am a feminist AND love to watch reality TV shows, but reality TV shows really portray women and people of color horribly.

I’m not really sure why people who don’t agree with feminist thinking wouldn’t enjoy the book–yes, Pozner’s background is in feminist media analysis–but more importantly with gender-equality media analysis, and I think most people would enjoy/agree with that. Maybe some people would be put off with the use of “feminism,” because, unfortunately, it’s still stigmatized but I don’t think her anaylsis is over-the-top. I would definitely say she’s liberal though.

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Emily: You know, I thought I knew how badly the portrayals were, but the book really hammers it home. It’s pretty shameful.

The point I was trying to make with the feminist note was more of a style or political impression of the book. Pozner is very blunt, particularly in the intro, in a way that I think may not resonate with readers that disagree politically. I don’t think it’s a reason not to read the book, just a feature that stuck out to me.

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Jenny April 26, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I’m dying to read this book. I watch reality television now and again, and one of the ways I justify it to myself is, I think it’s sociologically fascinating. Which I do! I really do. And if I read a whole book about how sociologically fascinating it was, that would be an even better justification.

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Jenny: Ha — that’s a perfect reason to read the book, although it may make you think twice about some shows. I was really taken by some of the analysis of shows I thought were “good” — there’s all sorts of messages embedded in reality tv.

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Reeder Reads April 26, 2011 at 6:47 pm

A feminist approach to reality television – this sounds like a must read! Thanks for sharing!!!

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Reeder Reads: I think it’s a great read — relevant and interesting. I hope you enjoy it!

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Trisha April 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm

This sort of ideological study fascinates me; I love books which tackle questions of cultural norms and norming.

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Trisha: I really like books that do that as well. I’m glad I read this one, and I’m on the lookout for more.

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Joanna April 27, 2011 at 1:10 am

Very interesting. I’ve often wondered what gets people to watch reality tv – I don’t understand its appeal at all, I confess. And I don’t really understand why anyone would want to be on a reality tv show either… There must be something to it though, so it’s dominating our entertainment these days!

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Joanna: Well, a big part of why reality tv is on the air is because it’s so cheap to produce — much cheaper than hiring writers and producers and actors to put together television shows.

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