(WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s intellectual inferiority is among reality TV’s basest notions. Time and time again, we learn that the female half of the population is cringe-inducingly stupid.
In embarrassing scenes across unscripted subgenres, women are portrayed as "the dumber sex." For women, we learn from one bridezilla, "Thinking is a waste of time. Thinking is for people who have no brains."
Before we learn a thing about their personalities, we’re predisposed to deem them inane, idiotic or, at best, naive for signing up for reality TV humiliation in the first place.
Producers build on our derision by careful casting. Once selected, editors play up their every ditzy interaction, leaving any expressions of intellect or clarity to the annals of unaired tape.
When the genre’s gender templates were first being created, reality TV taught us that "dumb blonds" exist for our comedic pleasure.
In 2002, E! encouraged us to snicker at addle-brained former Playboy Playmate (and former trophy wife of an 89-year-old oil billionaire) Anna Nicole Smith. The original reality TV train wreck, "The Anna Nicole Show" mocked the steady mental and physical decline of the buxom and seemingly stoned Smith, whose slurred speech and erratic behavior fueled the show’s tagline, "It’s not supposed to be funny. It just is."
The cover of the first-season DVD described Anna Nicole–whose eventual drug overdose and death could have been forecast by this opportunistic spectacle–as "America’s Guiltiest Pleasure."
One year later, MTV introduced another reality option for those who wanted to laugh at "a clueless, rich blond bimbo" with none of "The Anna Nicole Show’s" tragedy-waiting-to-happen aftertaste.
Playing Up the ‘Dumb Blond’
Welcome "The Newlyweds" star Jessica Simpson, who boggled our minds with how little seemed to be in hers. She told the secretary of the interior, "You’ve done a nice job decorating the White House."
She believed Buffalo wings were made from Buffalo meat, not chicken. Her logic was always getting fouled up by fowl. In the series’ debut, the pop star picked at a meal made from a can of Chicken of the Sea and asked her hubby, Nick Lachey, "Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it–it says Chicken by the Sea." From that infamous moment on, her every confused quote became proof that, as "Dateline" put it, "Saying something really dumb was now ‘pulling a Jessica.’"
Her presence on television was heralded as proof that the stereotype of the "’dumb blond’ won’t go away" because "maybe it’s true." Her father went so far as to suggest that his daughter’s queries were typical of silly broads everywhere. "Jessica represents all the questions that women across America want to ask their husbands but are afraid to," he told the Arizona Daily Star.
At the same time, Fox was unveiling their Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie vehicle "The Simple Life," which, for five seasons, reveled in the "rich bitch" heiresses’ simpleminded ignorance (contrasted with their haughty elitism).
Both Hilton and Simpson have said that they were just "playing characters" on that show and "The Newlyweds." That’s likely true. These media-savvy young women have intentionally played up their airhead images to heighten their fame and their already-overflowing bank accounts.
It’s a time-tested bait-and-switch: smart, professionally independent women become more successful by playing the part of the silly, dependent dimwit in the media. The phenomenally accomplished "I Love Lucy" star Lucille Ball, the first woman to head a Hollywood production company, is probably the most famous TV example.
Reality producers may have cut their teeth on "dumb blonds," but they want viewers to believe female stupidity knows no racial limits.
Helpless at Homework
Five years after Joe Simpson told the press that his newlywed daughter represented all American women, "The Real Housewives of Atlanta"–which features a predominately African American cast–revived the theme of husbands imparting knowledge to imbecilic wives. In one of the most talked-about scenes of the first season, NeNe Leakes futilely attempted to help her 9-year-old son with his math homework.
Since she was cowed by basic fractions, her husband, Gregg, had to step in to tutor his spouse right alongside their son. Alas, not even his helpfully drawn pie graphs and patient tone could bring her comprehension up to sixth-grade level:
GREGG: Three thirds make a whole. This is the pizza. Three thirds. If John ate one, Cole ate one, do you have half of it left?
NENE: Yeah. He said yeah!
GREGG: No, you have a third of it left.
NENE: No you don’t!
GREGG [gently reads a line from the math textbook to underscore his point]: Sure you do, honey.
NENE [confused]: Okay . . .
GREGG: Would you rather have one third of something or one half of something?
NENE: It just depends on what that something is. Still, I’m just, Gregg, I’m just–can we get a tutor?
While NeNe couldn’t pass grade-school algebra, we were to understand that Kim Zolciak, the sole white woman on the show, couldn’t pass elementary English. When she was asked, "How do you spell cat?" Kim’s matter-of-fact reply was,
"K-A-T." Producers pounce on such moments to portray "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" as fundamentally ignorant.
During its entire first season, viewers never learned about original cast member DeShawn Snow’s postgraduate divinity studies. Why? Because filming a competent, intelligent African American woman pursuing a master’s degree would have broken producers’ preferred narrative: that black women (and their wealthy white lady friends) are gossipy idiots.
Excerpted from "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," by Jennifer L. Pozner. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright copyright 2010.
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Jennifer L. Pozner is a media critic, journalist, activist and founder/executive director of Women In Media and News (WIMN), a women’s media analysis, education and advocacy organization. A noted public speaker, Pozner has conducted interactive multimedia presentations and participated in panels and debates at dozens of high schools, colleges and conferences across the U.S. She has been published in Newsweek, Newsday, Chicago Tribune, Ms. Magazine, Bitch, Feminist Response to Pop Culture, In These Times, Alternet, and Salon, and has appeared on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, ABC News Now, GRITtv, PBS, NPR, and The Daily Show. Pozner lives in Brooklyn, NY.
For more information:
Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV