|Posted by Jennifer L Pozner|
June 28th, 2007
If you get past the unfortunate headline (“Cougars Vs. Kittens: Claws Come Out Again on Reality TV“) to the promising subhead (”Critics See Nothing Redeeming in the ‘Social Experiment’ of Pitting Older and Younger Women Against One Another”), you’ll find that ABC News.com writer Jonann Brady offers a stronger critique of reality TV dating shows than is usually forthcoming from corporate media outlets that profit from the lucrative reality TV genre.
Brady interviewed me at length for the article about the insulting new series “Age Of Love,” airing now on NBC (and which I previously wrote about here) and, to my pleasant surprise, quoted me almost entirely in context in a piece that doesn’t follow the usual false-balance script of “feminist critics say these shows are the devil, but these three viewers just love it, so everything’s even.”
Instead, ABC News.com notes the show’s disingenuous premise:
The network calls the show a “social experiment,” and tries for a wink and nod toward feminism and anti-ageism by asking if age really matters when it comes to love.
The first bachelorette given the boot, Jodi, a divorced 46-ear-old business woman, says in her farewell speech, “I hoped I’ve helped show that a woman in her 40s is sexy and interesting and powerful.”
And then ably dismisses it (’natch, I was happy to help):
A number of media critics and at least one self-described “cougar” aren’t buying it.
Women’s Humiliation: The Money Shot
Jennifer Pozner, the executive director of Women in Media and News who is writing a book about women and reality TV, says there is nothing redeeming about “Age of Love’s” attempt to show older women are still desirable.
The program recycles the same basic premise as so many other reality shows — pitting women against one another.
“I really believe that reality TV — these dating, mating and modeling shows — are the cultural arm of the backlash against women,” she says.
“Everything leads to the money shot — of women’s humiliation, crying and sobbing, ‘Why can’t anyone love me as me?’”
But this time, the show plays on our culture’s fear of aging and obsession with youth and beauty.
When the 20-something kittens are introduced, they “descend from the sky in a giant glass stripper box,” Pozner says. Later, the kittens are shown in their apartment hula hooping. Cut to the cougars’ apartment, where they are quietly doing needlepoint and laundry.
As viewers are reminded during the show, there’s nothing more terrifying for many woman than to be over 40 and single.
“Do producers really want to prove that he could fall in love with an older women?” Pozner says. “You brought them here because you want to humiliate a bunch of faded old crones.”
Note: That last quote may read a bit differently than during my conversation with Brady. I didn’t call the women “a bunch of faded old crones,” I said that NBC is framing the narrative to make viewers believe these women are faded old crones, juxtaposing twenty-somethings hula-hooping in bikinis against forty-somethings doing needlepoint, reading hardcovers, and washing laundry. I noted that on this week’s episode of “Age of Love,” after the younger women descend from the sky in the giant glass stripper box like something from an Austin Powers fantasy, host Mark Consuleos finally lets the older women in on the “joke,” saying, “Ladies, I’m sure you’ve been wondering what’s going on, why are we here? Well, we brought you here because we wanna see if age is ever a factor when it comes to falling in love. Jen, you’re 48. How does it feel to be dating someone who’s also dating a 21 year old?”
As I told Brady, clearly NBC isn’t actually interested in testing the concept of whether age is “ever a factor in falling in love,” because if they were, they wouldn’t make their star, the hunky lunkhead tennis jock Mark Philippoussis, expel one older woman and one younger woman from his harem each week — if they really cared about the tennis star netting some “love,” they’d let him eliminate whomever he isn’t interested in, regardless of age. But, then they wouldn’t have the built-in drama of watching “cougars” get judged against their younger, firmer-boobed romantic rivals every week, as illustrated by host Consuelos’s immediate question to 48-year-old Jen (what he really meant, what we were meant to hear between the lines, was, “How does it feel to be up against a 21 year old, you shriveled, pathetic joke?”).
Though many of the commenters to ABC News’s website miss the point, weighing in on whether younger or older women are “better in the sack” (charming, I know), commenter hwoodude posted a line I just love:
Hey,TV “reality” show viewers! Hollywood’s definition of “reality’ is about as real as Dick Cheney’s military record. “Reality” shows inevitably have writers, acting coaches, directors, and….yep…scripts plus the participants are carefully chosen with the purpose of generating conflict, drama, and viewers.
Whoever you are, hwoodude, keep beating that drum!
I was glad to see ABC News.com offer Jonann Brady’s critical look at the degrading nature of on “Age of Love.” Now, of course, the show in question is from a competitor’s network, NBC, so it’s not surprising that the piece spares ABC’s own dating shows, such as “The Bachelor,” from comparison critique.
When Brady asked me if I considered “Age of Love” a “new low” for reality TV dating shows, I said that I consider this permutation of sexism — this time, ageism — a new angle, not a new low, because reality TV dating shows always have humiliation of women as the money shot, even since ABC’s own “The Bachelor” sparked the misogynist trend. I also said that in a certain way, “Age of Love” is less damaging than “The Bachelor,” because “Age Of Love’s” cruelty and sexism are right on the surface, making it easier for viewers to see through the “quest for love” packaging to its gross, vindictive, commercial core, whereas “The Bachelor” packages the same sort of degradation under the guise of “perfect fairy tale romance” and “the quest for true love,” using so many props and coded cultural modifiers (diamond engagement rings, Cinderella ball gowns, even freakin’ pumpkin carriages) that it can become hard for average viewers to see through the backlash-induced facade.
Oh, and a related update for those of you who’ve been asking — I’m almost done with my book proposal on reality TV. I now have a working title: Bachelors, Bridezillas and Beautiful Corpses: Unraveling Reality TV’s Twisted Fairy Tales. But, I’m not completely thrilled with the title… so if you creative blogger types out there can think of a better title for a book about reality TV as the cultural arm of the new backlash against women, send them to me at info[at]wimnonline.org, or suggest them in the comments field below.
Oh, and as always, if you’re interested in bringing WIMN to your campus or community group for a multi-media discussion about representations of women in reality TV, contact WIMN using this form, or let us know at info[at]wimnonline[dot]org