The Tube: Reality television’s representation problem

Breaking Amish - Oh god, what have we done?
Do viewers often generalize groups based on reality television representations? — photo by Rachel Jessen

MTV recently debuted its newest controversial reality show: Scrubbing In. The show follows the lives of a group of traveling nurses in Orange County as they learn the ropes of a new hospital, party hard on booze cruises and “get up in each other’s grills.” Not only do these breast-enhanced and hard-muscled nurses look more like they belong on the beaches of Seaside Heights than in a hospital, but one, Tyrice, doesn’t even know how to start an IV. The drama, drinking and questionable medical knowledge not only raised concerns about Scrubbing In‘s representational accuracy of the nursing profession, but also inspired calls for nurses to boycott the show entirely.

Criticism and debate over the appropriateness or veracity of reality television programs are nothing new, but scrutiny seems to have become more common due to an increasing number of off-the-wall concepts focusing on specific groups of people. For example, when MTV’s Jersey Shore debuted in 2009, groups such as the National Italian American Federation condemned the show for its portrayal of Italian-American stereotypes and use of the ethnically problematic words “guido” and “guidette.” Backlash against the show became so mainstream that even Domino’s Pizza (you know, the essence of Italian-Americaness) pulled its advertisements.

Both Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset and Princesses: Long Island were met with similar dissention. Shahs of Sunset features a group of Iranian-American friends who must balance the demands of their traditional families with their more modern, hard-partying L.A. lifestyles. Accusations of stereotyping and racism abounded, and Persian groups called for alternative television representations of what Iranian-Americans are really like. Princesses: Long Island also portrays a group of friends, but this time the subjects are single, self-described “Jewish American Princesses” still living with their parents by day while consuming mass amounts of alcohol by night. Critics charged the show with not only promoting Jewish stereotypes in regard to marriage and family, but also anti-semitism because of Princesses‘ emphasis on money and materiality. Both programs inspired petitions for cancellation, Facebook pages encouraging public boycotts and, in the case of Princesses, an actual protest in Freeport, N.Y.

But let’s be clear: None of these programs are representative of entire groups of people any more than the crazy kids of Buckwild represent the entire state of West Virginia, or the teens on Breaking Amish represent all Amish or Mennonites. However, representations of upper-middle class, Christian, white identities have historically dominated television programming, so any depictions of cultural, racial, ethnic or religious minorities (and, I guess, nurses?) carry the unfortunate burden of standing in for large heterogenous groups.

There are inherent problems with and various reactions to every kind of representation, whether these reality shows or scripted sitcoms. Representations of African Americans throughout television’s history demonstrate the problems that arise in any kind of representation. The series Julia (1968-1971) responded to criticism of earlier problematic racial representations, such as those found on Amos ‘n’ Andy (1951-1953), by creating a seemingly colorblind world in which everyone is equal and happy. However, this “positive” representation of an African American woman lead to accusations of assimilationism and detachment from continued civil rights struggles and racism in the U.S. Later in the ‘70s, sitcoms worked to be more socially and politically relevant—i.e. “realistic”—such as Good Times (1974-1979), but were criticized for relying on stereotypes and being segregationist. This cycle demonstrates that universal happiness with the way large groups of people are visually depicted is not really possible.

So, while it’s worth striving for diverse or “positive” representations, or critically engaging with representations believed to be harmful or hateful, the ability to ever “accurately” represent any group of people is unattainable.

Plus, most of these programs aren’t as simplistic as their backlashes suggest. For example, while Princesses: Long Island does emphasize marriage as an important aspect of a young Jewish woman’s life, it also demonstrates in numerous instances a critique of that very idea. When Chanel cries to Casey about feeling weird and judged for being 27 and unmarried, Casey responds with “So what?” and tries to convince her that her single status is not only acceptable, but that it may be a good thing. In another episode, Amanda’s Mom tells her specifically not to get married, and states, “Do I look like I want to be called Grandma?” Both Shahs of Sunset and Jersey Shore also have redeeming qualities and push other boundaries despite their representational pitfalls, although it might take an entire column to make a convincing argument.

So, here’s a little pushback against these repeated representational backlashes. A backlash against the backlash, if you will. A lot of this controversy and anxiety stems from the fear that viewers may uncritically generalize what they see on TV to large groups of people or given professions, but it’s worth giving viewers a little more credit. Media scholar Susan Douglas argues that part of what viewers like about these reality shows is the feeling of superiority they give to those watching: Viewers know they aren’t being duped by these representations, and they aren’t generalizing entire groups of people based on these depictions. But, it is believed that other “less sophisticated” viewers may be doing so (when, really, those other viewers are thinking the same thing!). And if some viewers do truly believe what they see on Shahs of Sunset or Scrubbing In to be accurate representations of all Iranian-Americans or traveling nurses, then that is a problem television alone can’t fix.

Melissa Zimdars would be more concerned that all of these shows depict Americans as extreme binge drinkers, but growing up in Wisconsin convinces her of their representational accuracy. 

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