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Jennifer Pozner talks reality TV

Media critic breaks down the dangers on screen

Photograph by Thomas Lascher

Jennifer Pozner is a media critic, author and journalist. She will be speaking at MU on March 14 for Women's History Month

March 8, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Brooklyn native Jennifer Pozner is not a zombie for television. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t watch some shows. She says we can help protect ourselves from the damaging commercial and ideological messages promoted on screen by watching critically.

Pozner is a media critic and feminist speaker. She is founder of Women In Media & News, editor and author. In 2010, BizTech Day named Pozner as one of top 25 businesswomen of New York to follow on Twitter. She has almost 10,000 followers.

Her 2010 book Reality Bites Back describes the need for media literacy and suggests fun ways to become more fluent in the language of awareness. She has toured the nation and media circuits including The O’Reilly Factor with Bill O’Reilly, The Daily Show and CNN. Her next stop will be at MU on March 14 during Women’s History Month.

We decided to ask her what we should be watching, what we shouldn’t waste our time with and how to watch reality TV with a critical eye. Spoiler alert: She mentions The Bachelor, America’s Next Top Model, Toddlers and Tiaras, Community and her top model drinking game.

Where is the reality in reality television?
There is very little reality in reality TV. The depth of deception in this genre is completely hidden. Most people do not know there are teams of writers, casting directors, video editors and psychologists whose goals are to use real people as props. They create master narratives often based on deep gender, race and class stereotypes.

Why should we all be well-versed in media literacy?
It is extremely important for people to understand that entertainment is not just entertainment but also a powerful information distribution device. Media literacy is one of the best tools that we have against propaganda and manipulation in a media-saturated culture.

What shows should we stay away from?

Shows like Toddlers and Tiaras or Dance Moms
border so closely on child abuse that I think it makes the audience complicit. It is media exploitation. The kids involved have zero ability to comprehend or consent to what is being done to them and their images.

What are some positive, Pozner-approved shows?
I definitely think that when you are talking about positive television, it’s out there. Some of it is canceled: Roseanne, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Community is a very well-written show. It’s not only that they have a diverse cast in terms of gender and race, but it also actively snarks at and breaks down gender and race stereotypes that other shows use as a basis for what they think comedy is.

*Pozner recommends this video from the Christmas episode of Community. The character Annie sings a song that Pozner says breaks down almost every stereotype we see on TV.

The Voice focuses almost entirely on talent. It doesn’t emphasize humiliation as most talent shows do. It is also very diverse as far as race, gender presentation and sexuality. For a scripted show, The Good Wife is a well-written drama in which varied female characters are portrayed with nuance.

In your book and on your website, you include an America’s Next Top Model drinking game. What should we watch out for while watching this show and others?
There are extreme gender, body image, and race biases and stereotypes in America’s Next Top Model that are often really damaging to girls’ health. You see skinny girls who are being hatefully broken down in a military-style psychological set of attacks. Even Madison Avenue-approved girls are being told they are not good enough. Without media literacy, girls at home watching this [America’s Next Top Model] are likely to feel worse about themselves.

What tools can we use while watching reality TV?

All the strategies I recommend are found on realitybitesbackbook.com. My goal is to give people the analytical savvy they can apply while also allowing them to have fun while watching. I want to banish the phrase “mindless entertainment” from their vocabulary.

What damaging racial stereotypes should we watch out for?
Black and Latino men are consistently portrayed as either thugs and pimps or the minstrel court jester buffoon. Black and Latina women are constantly portrayed as the angry black woman or the promiscuous video vixen. Asian American women are extremely under-represented, but when they do show up, it’s as the submissive Asian girl or the dragon lady Asian woman.

Why has reality television exploded on the networks over the last few years?
The high presence of reality television has to do with low production costs, but it also has to do with extremely high rates of product placement revenues. Many reality shows have been kept on the air with much lower ratings and scripted shows have been canceled with much higher ratings.

What made you decide to write Reality Bites Back and how did you go about your research?

I wanted to help people understand the really dangerous gender and race biases packaged into reality television under the guise of reality. I wanted to get people to think more and buy less, which is the opposite of what reality TV wants you to do.

For research, I recorded well over 1,000 hours of reality TV and transcribed most of that. It’s not enough to just watch one or two shows. I monitored shows for 10 years. I don’t watch reality TV now. I occasionally check in with offenders, but it’s not entertainment for me.

How do you hold your own on TV against Big Cable? Bill O’Reilly, for example.
I have a little trick with myself, which is just the more that someone pisses me off when I’m in a debate, the more I smile. The usual narrative about women especially for feminists is that ‘they are so angry’ and television is such a visual medium that I smile to counteract that. At the end of The O’Reilly Factor I look like a grinning idiot, I am smiling so much.

Is there hope for television?
Yes, there is hope for the future and for the medium to change, but it’s not going to change like the weather. It’s not going to change without active effort and collective community response. It will change if we work actively to create an environment that values the quality of art and the accuracy of news and public affairs programming.

When: March 14, 7 p.m.
Where: Stotler Lounge
Cost: Free
Website: womenscenter.missouri.edu

*Still feeling like a zombie while watching TV? Try Pozner’s specific tips on her book’s website such as her reality TV drinking games, reality TV mad libs, bingo games, a deconstruction guide, tips on how to write a protest letter, a resource guide and videos.

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