|Posted by Jennifer L Pozner|
July 28th, 2009
I’ve been twittering about Fox’s new plus-sized dating show, “More To Love,” at @jennpozner and @RealityTVBook (and will livetweet it tonight), and I invite you to join me at Twitter tonight with questions and comments about the debut episode.
Ironically, I haven’t had time to blog about this show — or much else — lately, because I’m hard at work on the beauty and body image chapter of my book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth Behind Guilty Pleasure TV. I’ve been writing about the ways that, with few exceptions, reality television promotes an advertiser-centric, white, Western, cosmetically altered, uber-skinny “ideal” as the only true definition of women’s beauty. Worse, dating shows, modeling shows, fashion makeover shows, cosmetic surgery shows and even toddler and baby beauty pageants none-too-subtly teach viewers that this very limited version of beauty is the primary — sometimes the only — true measure of women’s worth. Feminists have been talking for decades about how limiting and dangerous these sorts of media images can be (think: Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and Jean Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly” series of documentaries and book about advertising). But I argue that reality TV carries these beauty myths further and may be even more damaging than traditional forms of media. Why? Because these dangerous and degrading notions are offered up as if they are representative of “reality,” as if “real people” “really believe” and “really behave” as they do in these shows… as if the “real world” is governed by the core values promoted by this advertiser-driven medium in which content is often produced in partnership with integrated sponsors.
This is the backdrop through which we need to understand tonight’s debut of “More To Love.” Representation in media, as we who do media literacy and media criticism know, is often key to people’s ability to feel confident about themselves. To believe they are worthwhile. Images of strong, confident, sexy women of a wide range of shapes and sizes have been missing from reality TV, aside from voyeuristic weight loss competitions such as “The Biggest Loser” and “Dance Your Ass Off.” That has left many of us understandably longing for more body and appearance diversity in the genre. But I cannot stress this enough: where reality TV is concerned, visibility is rarely a blessing. When a constituency often marginalized in media is the subject of a reality show, that usually translates to gross objectification, reinforcement of egregious and outmoded gender, race, class and sexuality stereotypes, and as Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes at Feministing, “fetish spectacle.” Case in point: the way women (and men) of color were turned into characters of modern-day minstrel shows on VH1’s “Flavor of Love” and the spinoffs “I Love New York,” “Real Chance of Love,” “Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School.“ When the only major media presence a community has consists of mockery, misrepresentation or demonization, that community would be better off with invisibility. As Ludovic Blain often says on Twitter, #KeepRealityTVWhite!
My fear is that average-sized women would be better off invisible on reality TV, rather than being visible in a show brought to us by these particular Men Behind the Curtain. Context is king, and while I would love for a reality show to treat larger women as deserving of love, affection and sex, I don’t believe that Mike Fleiss (producer of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette“) and Mike Darnell (Fox’s reality sleaze king) would ever actually make that show. “More To Love” reunites these two bottom-feeders, who literally created the misogynistic mold for the entire reality TV genre when they teamed up to produce Fox’s “Who Wants to Marry A MultiMillionaire” eons ago. After it came out that the guy they wed a woman to on air not only wasn’t rich but had a restraining order against him from a former girlfriend (he allegedly beat her up, and worse), they laid low for a while. Not long after, Fleiss sold “The Bachelor” to ABC — repackaging the same sexist values of MultiMillionaire under the new guise of earnest “fairy tale” lingo. And Darnell then followed by lowering the bar with the “women-are-all-skanky-golddiggers-let’s-laugh-at-them-together-shall-we?” show, “Joe Millionaire.” I wrote about this repackaging a bit in the current issue of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture magazine.
These two men are not the ones to bring us a show that respects women. And without respect built into such a show at every point in the process — from casting to editing to promotion — a plus-sized dating show doesn’t stand much chance of doing anything beyond reinforcing horrid notions of who does and doesn’t deserve to be considered beautiful, deserve to be desired and adored, deserve to be happy… and who should, inversely, be considered unattractive, desperate, pathetic. After all, even the ultra-skinny, advertiser-approved-”beauties” of most reality TV dating shows have been portrayed as desperate and pathetic — that’s what women are in the reality TV universe. When we add the visual element of “fat” into the dating show subculture (within a dominant mainstream culture) that only considers that word pejorative, we have all the elements needed to reinforce the very ideas Fleiss, Darnell and Fox claim this show aims to contradict.
“More To Love” is advertised as offering us an empowered and compassionate look at plus-sized daters’ quest for love… but as we all know, advertisers’ promises rarely match what their product delivers. Remember: Fleiss and ABC promoted “The Bachelor” as a genuine, heartfelt search for “true love,” and advertised “The Bachelorette” as a show in which “the woman has all the power.” As anyone who has watched either series has seen, those promises are diametrically opposed to the series’ actual content. If Fleiss and Darnell’s initial repackaging of women-as-chattle dating shows in “fairy tale” garb was infantilizing and insulting, their current cooptation of “liberation” and “fat acceptance” language to play on the emotional trauma of fat women in a fat-hating country is even worse.
One final thought: in the multimedia lecture I do on women and reality TV for colleges, I show a clip of Fleiss saying, on air during an episode of “The Bachelor,” that the single most important thing women need if they want the chance to compete to marry some dude they’ve never even met, is: “Most important…they have to look good in the hottub.” Immediately after this quote, “The Bachelor” cameras cut to an extended video montage of bikini-clad waifs entering and exiting pools and hottubs, droplets of water dripping from their teeny-tiny bods (and enormous breasts), with — I kid you not — one of those cheesy, soft-porn style chicka-chicka-pow-wow soundtracks playing in the background.
Mike Fleiss has been the reality TV industry leader in keeping healthy women of a variety of body sizes out of dating shows. He is among the primary reasons why reality TV has pretended that only thin women could ever be considered attractive. Now that Fleiss sees an opportunity to draw in a new audience of plus-sized viewers, he wants us to believe that he believes America should consider plus-sized women to be sexy, datable, lovable? I don’t buy it. And I hope none of you do, either. After all, why would he promote the show as “inspirational” if he really believes larger women are actually sexy? Seems to me that “inspirational” is his patronizing code for “we think it’d be a freaking miracle for any of you Fatty McFattersons to get a date, so we’re giving you a dating show fantasy in which some dude actually makes out with people who look like you. Ew. And, you’re welcome.”
I’m not against the idea of a plus-sized dating show — I’m against the idea of producers with two of the smarmiest, most offensive, most misogynistic track records in Hollywood co-opting women’s desire for images of physical diversity in media, in order to give us… what? Large women crying about how they’ve never had a date, and if they’re eliminated from this show they’ll be doomed to a loveless life? No, thanks.
I haven’t seen the premiere episode yet, it airs for the first time tonight. My skepticism thusfar is based on brief promo clips/trailers, as well as what I know from having monitored the reality TV genre for the last nine years, and my research and analysis for my book. I usually don’t like to write about a show before having seen it, because as I said above, context is king. There may well be some positive representations on this show, and I will write about those, happily, if they materialize. If it turns out that the show does actually treat the women as self-aware, confident, sexy, desirable and desired people, I will be surprised — but pleased. And I’d happily offer Fleiss and Darnell an apology. I doubt I’ll have to pay up.