Review: Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L Pozner

Reality Bites Back coverTitle: Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
Author: Pozner, Jennifer L.
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Culture
Publisher / Year: Seal Press / 2010
Source: BookDepository
Rating: 4.5/5
Why I Read It: Great reviews by Cass and Kim, fellow non-fiction readers.
Date Read: 04/30/13

Anecdote one: When reality television was first beginning to be a ‘thing’ and Survivor started, I remember my mother rolling her eyes at the “reality” aspect, commenting that obviously it was fully staged. If it was “really” surviving, there wouldn’t be cameras there. She was my first educator on media literacy and critical watching. Of course, I really wasn’t allowed watching much television, so it was more critical listening to the news articles about it and what friends were saying…

Anecdote two: I had a roommate for around two years, a few years back, who loved reality television… and when I say loved, I mean: she watched it constantly. Whatever reality television show they thought of, she was watching it. And let me tell you, there were some pretty terrible shows. Many of those shows are discussed in this book; some were bad enough they aren’t even mentioned. The residual effects of that alone were enough to turn me off of television pretty much fully, even though I’d escaped the ‘no television’ rules of the parental home mentioned above…

Book thoughts: Pozner has written a compulsively readable (much more addicting in my mind than the shows she is writing about) book about the stereotypes, prejudices, and flat out lies that hide behind the reality programming taking over TV. The research behind the book included countless hours of watching reality TV, as well as advocacy work educating youth about the power of media, reading, and more. While we like to think we are smart enough not to be tricked into believing everything we see, Pozner outlines how the shows actually do have an effect on viewers.

No matter how independent we might be as adults, how cynical we consider ourselves, or how hard we’ve worked to silence external cultural conditioning, decades of sheer repetition make it extremely difficult to fully purge societal standards from our psyches. -pg 47

Each show, to succeed, as Pozner shows brilliantly both with examples and with actual quotes from producers, plays on pervasive cultural stereotypes and ingrained biases. They denigrate women, they play on racial fears, they rely on stereotypes of consumption and class, and are written around advertisers requests. Consider shows such as The Bachelor promoted as ‘fairy tale romance’… how many of the fairy tales actually last? How much diversity is in the cast members, comparative to the diversity in actual marriage statistics? How are women and men treated and shown relating to each other? Is the consumption flashy and over the top, but aimed at realistic and ordinary? When we see only short clips, how do we know that we are seeing a full truth? And etc.

Despite having only seen a few episodes of a few shows (as outlined above, *shudder*), I didn’t feel lost or left out as when shows are first mentioned enough description is given to understand the premise. While reality TV producers like to say that they are simply providing ‘what the public wants’ the truth is that many reality shows are extended despite lackluster viewing because they don’t cost much (or anything) to produce, and are often paid for by marketers and corporations to promote products. The descriptions and discussions of the industry itself, from executives to producers to advertisers, were fascinating and disturbing. The amount of say they have in shows is incredible, as is the amount of product placement and the costs paid for this airwave time; time that isn’t even billed as actual advertisement.

Pozner in this book is not arguing against watching reality television – in fact she reaffirms that she still watches it – but she is rather asking viewers to be critical media consumers. Consider what you are watching, be aware of stereotypes and prejudices, as well as advertiser messages. Educate yourself, and advocate for better shows with better premises that show life more as it is, including its diversity, equality, and respect for others. Try playing ‘Backlash Bingo’ or a drinking game when you next watch reality TV – with helpful suggestions for play included in the book! (Though you may want to consider completing the drinking game with non-alcoholic beverages, for the sake of your health, considering the shows…)

11 thoughts on “Review: Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L Pozner

  1. BermudaOnion

    I rarely watch TV but my mom has started watching reality TV lately. I keep telling her that they’re manipulated but I’m not sure she gets it. I need to get this book for her!

  2. Heather

    I get enough reality in my every day life. I don’t really need to get more of fake reality on tv. As for the bachelor, I’d want a guy who can cook, clean and wipe snotty noses, not someone who can jet set around. lets get real here.

  3. Nana Fredua-Agyeman

    First, I hardly watch reality TV. I actually don’t watch the few we have on our channels. All I will watch on a TV is a movie, after a marathon reading. And may be live football (soccer).

    1. Nana Fredua-Agyeman


      I agree with several of the things stated in here. There is a lot of junk on TV and mass promotion. I wonder why one has to sit all-night watching Big Brother Africa when the people themselves are sleeping. It’s addictive and that’s where the catch is. Televnovellas are the same. Highly addictive.

  4. Iris

    You know, as much as I know reality television is not real, any time I watch for a few minutes, I will be the one who is too naive and starts to ask questions as if what is shown is real.. Rationally, I *know* that is not the case, but I just really struggle with it. I’m easily tricked when it comes to such things anyway.. Bas always laughs at me. Perhaps I should read this to be better prepared?

    This sounds as if I watch reality TV all the time, while in reality it happens only rarely. I just felt the need to add that.

  5. Jenny @ Reading the End (formerly Jenny's Books)

    I liked this book a lot although sometimes it got a little repetitive — which I think can always happen when you’re writing a persuasive-type book. I don’t watch much reality TV although I have an unholy addiction to reading recaps of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I don’t know why. I just love them. Can’t stop reading them.

  6. Heather

    I admit, I watch way too much TV, and reality TV is definitely a guilty pleasure for me. That being said, I like to think I am smart enough to know that the “reality” I am watching isn’t anywhere close to real. I should read this, though, because while I’ll probably not give up these shows any time soon, I’m sort of fascinated by the REAL reality of them.

  7. Athira

    I enjoy some reality television, but I dislike it when they use some characters for melodrama benefits (hello, Hell’s Kitchen). it’s surprising how many themes of reality television there is.


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