The Portrayal of Women on Reality TV

*Disclaimer: Many hours were spent catching up on the likes of Real Housewives of Atlanta, KUWTK, Love and Hip Hop and trying out new shows, such as Second Wives and The Platinum Life, all in the name of research for this piece.*

Reality Television – it is a sensation that has been flooding our TV screens for almost two decades now. While it is meant to be a genre of television that portrays unscripted real-life situations to viewers, the term “reality” is now used very loosely to describe the stories and experiences often being conveyed for our entertainment in such shows. Although we all know reality TV does not always accurately reflect real life, there is something greatly intriguing about this section of entertainment. Over the last few years, I have had a love-hate relationship with Keeping Up with the Kardashians, cringed as the grown women of the Real Housewives of Atlanta insult one another and throw all kinds of shade, and found myself googling everything there is to know about the ladies of WAGS Miami. I like to think that I am too smart to be wasting my time with a lot of these shows, however just as I am critical of reality TV, I am a loyal consumer. As much as I sometimes find these shows entertaining, as a woman I find the depiction of my gender in these shows very limiting and stereotypical. So what exactly is the deal with the portrayal of women on Reality TV?

When we talk about women in media, we are often discussing our lack of representation and visibility, as well as the limitations to the roles we play. Well, reality TV embodies all of this. Firstly, there are plenty of shows that focus on women, which in terms of visibility is great. But here’s the downfall – women on reality TV are often presented as either desperate gold diggers, dependent on men, and/or catty and bitchy. For the most part, the women in these shows are regarded as the wife of such and such, or the girlfriend of so and so, ultimately confining us within the relationship we have with a man and suggesting to viewers that that is our place in society. Let’s take a show like The Bachelor for example. You have an eligible, single guy and about 15-20 young women competing to fall in love with him and potentially becoming his future wife. Inspirational, right? Anyways, this for me is just another show that heavily objectifies women and stereotypes us to being dependent and attention seeking. It also serves as a way to further stereotype women as sexual objects and teaches that being pretty will get you a man. It’s 2017, surely we can do better. After all we have female CEOs and women bosses running countries.

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Now I love to watch my girls Nene, Kandi, Cynthia, Porsha and Phaedra living it up in Atlanta on the Real Housewives, and while they are all successful business women, models, singer-songwriters etc, I find the title of the show just degrading. It screams “dependent on a man” and exudes that trophy wife mentality. There is nothing wrong with being a housewife, absolutely nothing. However from the offset, with a title like that, it just shoves these women into a box of limitations. Can we also really describe any of the women on these shows as “real housewives”? By definition a housewife is “a married woman whose main occupation is caring for her family, managing household affairs, and doing housework.” Whether it’s owning their own business or pursuing some other kind of career, all these women work, and they most certainly have the help and support of maids, personal assistants and nannies (anyone else remember Kim Zolciak‘s assistant, Sweetie?). So none of these women really fit the definition of housewife, at most they are ladies of leisure. They are forever dressed perfectly, makeup on point and never a hair out of place (well, just occasionally when the odd fist fight takes place). With their portrayal almost doll like, it is almost like they are accessories to their husbands. With 9 Real Housewives titles in the works, and with international installments, such as the UK’s very own Real Housewives of Cheshire I ask, is this what we as women should be aspiring to?

I cannot discuss reality TV and its issue with women without mentioning the misrepresentation of the black woman in this genre of TV. Reality TV has a great way of exploiting the worst stereotypes of black women to further fuel the negative way in which black women are already perceived, and I am sure to also add to ratings and entertainment value. Just look at the latest season of The Apprentice in the UK. You have a Joanna, a dark skinned black women, competing with 12 other candidates in order to win a £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar to develop her business idea. We are heading into week 8 and all I have heard her described as is “confrontational,” “aggressive,” and “difficult.” Do not even get me started on the way she is being bashed on Twitter. It’s all very familiar, right? Black girl voices her opinion, shows passion, competes like the rest of her team, and somehow she is “angry.” A few seasons earlier there was Bianca Miller, who reached the final. When it came to the final five episode, she broke during one of her interviews after being told by a previous interviewer she felt as if Bianca was hiding behind a mask and lacked personality. Showing emotion is something as black women we often have a difficult relationship with. If we show any emotion, we are deemed aggressive and angry, if we are unemotional, we are hard and unapproachable. As black women we are not afforded the same liberty to exude and express emotion the same way as our white counterparts. So where’s the balance?

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Despite my opinions on reality TV and the way it showcases women, I can’t say it’s all doom and gloom. This piece would not be complete without paying homage to the OGs of reality TV, the Kardashians. Despite your own opinion about them, you can not deny that they have come a long way in the past 10 years of their reality show being on air. They have built business empires, practically dominate E! Entertainment, and have made themselves household names. For me, Keeping Up with the Kardashians is probably one of the few examples of reality TV where women do not come across awfully and I think this is largely due to the input they have production wise. Being an advocate of everyone being able to speak their truth, I feel the Kardashians roles as producers on their show reveals that when women have autonomy over how their stories are told, they can influence the way in which they come across to the public and choose the narrative they want depicted.

Lawyers. Doctors. Engineers. Politicians. Architects. Women can do it all. Yet when it comes to the representation of women on reality TV, a great disservice is done to our multifaceted nature. We are reduced to desperate golddiggers and continuously fighting with one another. Although women are now waiting longer to get married, we are still being reduced to wives and girlfriends, and our success dependent on who we are attached to. As it is, there is a limited representation of truly phenomenal female characters on our screens today, but our portrayal on reality TV shows do affect the way in which we are viewed by all genders. With 75% of creators and producers of reality TV being men, we can not be surprised that there is still a great skew in the way in which our “real-life” stories are being told. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all very entertaining, but perhaps if we as women had a little more control, we could do a little better in our portrayal on reality TV.  

Written by Aisha Rimi

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