While quality television programming may provide positive role models and educate as well as entertain, popular television shows can also resort to the lowest common denominator and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Reality TV, with ordinary people taking the place of scripted actors, may create an even stronger bond with audiences, proving more likely to influence cultural aspects such as gender roles.
Gender roles are outward expressions of an individual's femaleness or maleness. Society tends to dictate what people view as being feminine or masculine, and anything falling outside the agreed-upon standards will often be considered strange or abnormal. For instance, in the United States, society has long seen men as strong, tough leaders who provide financial stability for the family. Meanwhile, the female gender role used to be seen as the loving, subservient housewife concerned with looking pretty and maintaining domestic harmony. Popular entertainment, such as reality TV, is one of the factors that may influence perceived gender roles.
Reality dating shows reinforce traditional gender roles, often pitting several women against one another to win a handsome, successful man's heart. ABC's "The Bachelor" employs the formula to great success. The show's female contestants compete for one man, occasionally resorting to deceit and questionable tactics to gain an edge. Even when the man chooses his would-be bride, the connection is more about being "TV hot" than “looking for love,” according to Ash Adams of the Anchorage Press. ABC also airs "The Bachelorette," which reverses the formula and features several men competing for one woman. However, as Adams points out, the same gender roles get stressed and "Women are looking for 'the perfect guy,' and men want to 'protect' their women, even though women are supposed to also be educated, independent professionals."
Reality TV also influences cultural views of motherhood and the gender roles associated with parenting. The ABC show "Wife Swap" and the FOX program "Trading Spouses" both involved mothers switching families for a period of time to demonstrate how important each mother is to her respective family. Yet author Jennifer Pozner in On the Issues magazine argues that the shows further damaged gender roles by "generally portraying women as bad wives and mothers if they pursued professional or political interests outside the home (and demonizing dads as wimps or poor role models if they were primary caregivers for their kids)."
The Parents Television Council, a non-partisan organization advocating responsible entertainment, studied the four most-watched reality shows on MTV during 2011 -- "Jersey Shore," "The Real World," Teen Mom 2" and "16 and Pregnant" -- to examine how the programs depicted women and gender roles. According to the study, the women on the four shows only spoke about themselves in positive terms 24% of the time, and any positive dialogues between females focused primarily on physical appearance and emotional resilience. Such portrayals may tell young women they have little value beyond their physical appearance, a message Pozner also sees in "America's Next Top Model," which the author claims teaches "young women that their bodies are valuable only as decorative props for advertisers -- the skinnier and weaker the better."
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