Is reality TV toxic for girls? The off-camera impact of fights, finger-pointing and fakery.

Piper Weiss, Shine Staff
The latest brawl on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. (Courtesy of Bravo Network)
The latest brawl on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. (Courtesy of Bravo Network)

"I didn't come here to make friends." It's never a surprise when reality stars drops that bomb to explain away their anti-social behavior. More surprising is who's listening to them.

A recent survey, conducted by the Girl Scouts Research Institute, suggests reality showsare drilling negative messages-like winning trumps friendship-into the impressionableminds of girls.

Women have an undeniable monopoly over air-time since reality programming hit its stride, but their influence hasn't always been positive.

Of the 1,141 American girls, between the ages of 11 to 17, who participated in the survey, almost half were regular reality show viewers. Out of that number, 37 percent agreed with the statement: "You have to lie to get what you want," versus 24 percent of non-reality viewers. Another statement, more reality show viewers than non-viewers agreed with: "You have to be mean to others to get what you want."

Is television responsible for building an army of 'mean girls'?

"The point in the survey that girls who watch reality TV are more likely to think that being catty is just a normal part of being a girl, makes absolute sense," says Jennifer Pozner, Executive Director of Women in Media & News and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. Since 2001, she's conducted anecdotal research with over 1000 students, most of them girls, and has watched the influence of shows like American Idol and America's Next Top Model grow.

"Somewhere around 2007, girls I interviewed who had been watching shows like 'Top Model' from its first season, stopped being critical of the way Tyra attacked her contestants' looks," says Pozner, "and started saying things like 'how much weight do you think I should lose before I try out for Top Model?'"

If you've ever watched a reality competition show, you know the person of power-be it Tyra Banks or Simon Cowell-is celebrated for their ability to cut a contestant down to size. As cringe-worthy as it can be to watch someone's dreams dashed, the bully in the situation always seems to be the richest, most successful member of the cast. She or he also seems to be the most right. At least, by the time we have a winner-the mini-me Trump or Tyra-in-training sculpted in their image.

As these shows spin out success stories, clawing your way to the top by any means necessary becomes the takeaway, the applicable self-help message to surviving and winning at life.

Tyra lashes out at a ANTM contestant. (Courtesy of the CW)
Tyra lashes out at a ANTM contestant. (Courtesy of the CW)


Even on non-competitive series like Real Housewives or Teen Mom, conflict at the expense of others is rewarded with a renewed contract for a second season. After New Jersey's Teresa Guidice tipped a table, she became the focus the next season and a bestselling cookbook author. But other cast members who don't hold up their end of the cat-fight bargain (see all the women dumped from New York next season) don't stick around very long.

In order for someone to win, in essence, they must become the bully. And because it's television, even reality television, winning isn't just channeling your inner-sociopath, but finding your outer beauty.

In the Girl Scout survey, 72% of reality viewers said they spent more time on their appearance compared to 42% of non-viewers, and 10% more reality viewers than non-viewers said they'd rather have their outer-beauty praised than their inner-beauty.

We've all watched the cast of Teen Mom evolve into surgically-enhanced blonds over the course of two seasons, and even the Real Housewives who already came from the Botox culture to land the series, plumped and 'perfected' their assets between seasons. As reality continues to go off the rails of real life scenarios, its stars-Kendra Wilkinson, the Kardashians-are increasingly less real looking and more made-over even before the camera start rolling.

Makeover shows don't help with the beauty as success fixation. Neither doThe Millionaire Matchmaker and The Bachelor series-both suggest the only way to get a guy is to under-play your originality, in favor of a homogenous, non-diverse, generically Caucasian look. (Men don't like curly hair, according to Patti Stanger.)


Young men aren't immune to the messages either. "On most reality shows, men only have value if they're rich, or if they're the a macho violent d-bag," says Pozner, no doubt referring one or more members of the cast of Jersey Shore.

But are reality shows any worse than scripted series like Law and Order: SVU (a cracker jack box of sexually assaulted female victims), or Two and a Half Men (no explanation needed)?

Definitely, says Pozner. "The reason reality it's more impactful is because young viewers don't get all the manipulation producers make behind the scenes. They actually think this is real people in real scenarios."

Millionaire Matchmaker's Patti Stanger and co. break down why a woman is still single. Hint: it has to do with her looks. (Courtesy of Bravo Network)
Millionaire Matchmaker's Patti Stanger and co. break down why a woman is still single. Hint: it has to do with her looks. (Courtesy of Bravo Network)

Even if you know a show is massaged and semi-scripted, the primary conceit is that it's real. So the messages the players send, particularly the stars or winners, seems more practical.

But if reality programming is wrong, I'm not so sure I want to be right. Though diversity is limited on many programs, it's still a better physical reflection of Americans than the average sitcom. It's also a lot less violent than the litany of sex crimes shows that dominate the Neilson ratings. Plus it feels so good to watch.

In fact 68% of reality-viewers from the Girl Scouts survey felt bolstered by the messages reality shows sent and 59% said it exposed them to things they've never seen before.

A show like Amazing Race, for example, provides a glimpse at other cultures, team work, and a moderate level of diversity. The Biggest Loser puts an emphasis on nutrition, and calls attention to one of our country's major health epidemics.

"As a format reality, theoretically, could be positive-if producers could get into real issues. What if we had an America's Next Top Community Leader or a show that tackles education?" suggests Pozner.

Sadly, Top Activist doesn't seem as enticing for a young female viewership as Top Model. And that education show? They made it, but someone decided it would better if it starred Tony Danza. There may be no saving reality TV from the trenches of guilty pleasures, but is it too late to save the girls watching?



Related:
Beyond catfights: TV that's good for girls
America's Next Top Model: bad for women?
What can we learn about love from the Real Housewives?
Why are we so obsessed with reality TV?