Pop quiz: Do you remember the story of Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger? If you’re under 30 or burdened with a short memory, here’s a refresher. Way back in the year 2000, Conger and Rockwell were contestants on Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, an early reality show in which Conger, a former ER nurse, beat out 50 women for the prize of an unknown millionaire (Rockwell). They wed live on the air, with 23 million people watching. It was a fairy tale come true (or something like that) for about five minutes, until it was revealed that Rockwell had a restraining order against him for threatening to kill his former fiancée. Oh, also: he wasn’t actually a multimillionaire, but a B-list comic.
Fox canceled the Multi-Millionaire franchise when the scandal broke (go figure), but the success of the show—commercially, anyway—was critical to reality TV’s future, showing just how popular a flock of desperate women competing for a loser could be. Ten years later the “mail-order bride meets Miss America” genre, as Jennifer Pozner, the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, calls it, is worth more millions than any bimbo reality-TV star could possibly count. And Conger, who auctioned off her ring for charity, might as well have been the secretary of state compared with today’s reality-TV divas, who are portrayed, at least, as money-grubbing, plastic-surgery-plumped fame whores—a cadre of women who seemingly can’t resist a good catfight (or eating disorder).
If your main source of knowledge about women came from reality TV, this is how you’d see the world: a place where your mom is a conniving, deceitful gold digger, your sisters and girlfriends vicious and catty. You would learn that “sisterhood” is a thing of the past, as Pozner puts it—and that girl friendships are not powerful but spiteful. And you’d understand that women were put on this earth to compete for male attention—when, of course, they’re not busy pulling each other’s hair out or lounging half naked in a hot tub.
It’s worth a laugh, except that the implications of that imagery can be serious, as even the trashiest, most scripted reality show can influence how we see the world. Pozner, a journalist and media critic, has devoted much of the last decade to watching, transcribing, and dissecting hour after hour of reality programming, from the desperate waifs on America’s Next Top Model to the gold diggers competing for a washed-up rap star on Flavor of Love. (Transcribing that one, she jokes, was a “particular kind of hell.”) Yet while these shows’ portrayal of men is nothing to write home about, what Pozner concludes is that their portrayal of women doesn’t just reflect outdated stereotypes—it resurrects them. “With few exceptions, [these] shows have framed women as unaware that there is anything more to life than tossing back martinis, lounging in hot tubs, and as Bachelorette Christine suggested, meeting their husbands at the door with dinner and a foot rub ready,” writes Pozner. “I think it’s hard to have this be part of your fundamental years and not have it influence you.”
In the real world, the state of today’s women actually looks something like the opposite. Women in 2010 make up the majority of the workforce for the first time. They are waiting longer to get married, and their husbands are taking on more responsibility at home. But that doesn’t make for good reality TV, of course—especially when 75 percent of creators, executive producers, directors, and writers on the majority of these shows are men. So instead, women are cast to fill specific, sculpted roles that are morphed and manipulated by producers. Which is why the year that Condoleezza Rice is named national-security adviser (in 2000), we end up with Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? on Fox; or that in 2003, as Michelle Kwan and Serena Williams scored record-breaking sports wins, UPN decided to unveil America’s Next Top Model. Last year, as the median age of a woman’s first marriage rose to an all-time high, VH1 premiered Tough Love, whose host begins each episode by saying, “Nobody knows single women like I do. They’re lonely. They’re clueless. They’re needy.” We could go on, but you get the point: so-called reality programs don’t actually jibe with reality.
None of this is to say that reality TV is not entertaining—because, let’s be honest, it is. And to get pleasure from these shows can be OK: as any psychologist will tell you, reality TV’s appeal is often its absurdity; it beckons an escape, or fantasy, that real life can’t provide. But just because we’re talking about “entertainment” doesn’t mean the implications of such television can’t be real—or harmful. “If we start to believe what these shows tell us, that women are stupid, incompetent, and can only succeed by using their sexuality to get ahead, then why would we want to hire women, or promote them at the same rate?” Pozner says. In the end, the solution may be in exposing the “reality” for what it really is: a whole lot like fiction.