Inside the Reality of TV

Shows open important discussions but generate dangerous stereotypes

By Lois Elfman ’80

It was an animated evening of conversation as Barnard students, faculty, and alumnae discussed the perils and benefits of reality TV—and admitted they enjoyed shows such as The Bachelor and America’s Next Top Model —at a panel discussion during the spring semester on “Not-So-Guilty Pleasure TV: The Highs & Lows of Reality Television.”

Jennifer Pozner, the executive director of Women in Media & News and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV , says reality TV devalues women and often exploits them for entertainment.

“Girls who watch reality TV are significantly more likely than girls who don’t watch to think they’ll be judged or valued primarily on their looks. They are more likely than other girls to think that is normal,” Pozner says. “My concern is what millions of people see every week and how that impacts their ideas.”

Barnard Professor of English and Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is a consultant and cast member on the show I Am Cait , sees benefits in the juxtaposition of views presented on the program, which chronicles the transition of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner. “I think I Am Cait is the most subversive, progressive show on television right now,” says Boylan, who moderated the event, which was produced by the alumnae group Barnard Women in Entertainment and the office of Alumnae Relations.

During season two of the show, Boylan and four other transgender women accompanied Jenner on a cross-country bus trip. At times, producers asked Boylan to steer the participants into meaningful conversations, she recounts. Jenner, a conservative, butted heads with the other women over political issues.

“The most radical show on television has a Tea Party Republican as its star,” Boylan says. “The show is about a question the country is now trying to wrestle with—how do we talk to each other when we hate each other? What this group of women had to learn was how to have a conversation about the most important issues. In fact, we did it. I hope it will serve as a model of how the rest of us can treat each other.”

Model Kelly Killoren Bensimon, GS ’98, a former cast member on The Real Housewives of New York City , says reality TV shows produce “genuine, organic feelings and emotions” among the participants off-camera, but often force situations on-camera for dramatic effect.

Also on the panel were Ronak Kordestani ’96, head of development at Trium Entertainment, and psychologist Jacqueline Schatz ’90, who advises producers on Newlyweds: The First Year about interpersonal dynamics. Most of us think about the “fantasy of how an interaction could have gone,” says Schatz; reality TV can manipulate situations to achieve that emotional impact. What we see, Kordestani says, is “heightened reality, elevated from the norm.”

The bottom line, says Pozner, is, “I’m not going to tell you not to watch reality TV. Enjoy, but just do so with your critical filters turned on.”

Latest IssueFall 2020

In this issue, you'll read about the alumnae healthcare workers who served on the frontlines of the pandemic, Barnard women's resilience during historic crises, a personal story on protest, the 19th Amendment reexamined, and more.