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Women in Surreality TV

So there’s this persistent issue we have to talk about.

It’s difficult and its social ramifications are deep and far-reaching.


I’m talking about the issue of sexism and the disrespectful and violent treatment of women in a male-dominated society.  I am talking about this one, this society, the United States of America, in particular and I’ll be presenting some of the dominant themes in so-called “reality” television or, better yet, surreality television, to provide a lens toward suggesting why some of these sexist ideas about women and men are so persistent and ubiquitous.

Most of the shows mentioned below are on the Vh1 channel.  Vh1, though known for some very socially retrograde television programming, is not the only purveyor of surreality television and clearly not the best….or worst.  These shows are representative of narratives told in many places about women and their relationships with men and each other.  Similar narrative dynamics can be found in programs on the major broadcast networks, MTV, Lifetime, Bravo and other channels, in addition to popular and populist magazines and websites.

These shows, in and of themselves, do not necessarily represent direct emergent concerns for the safety of women in society, but as representatives and influences of popular thought and behavior, they represent pernicious elements in our inability to rid ourselves of the violent nature that characterizes so many relationships with women, giving rise to domestic violence, sexualized violence and emotional abuse that many times goes unchecked or unchallenged in our “enlightened” society.  As consumers and producers of these kinds of backward programs, we have a lot of work to do to shift, not only the dominant televisual narratives, but the ways we respond to the dehumanization of women, the cultivation of gendered and violent thought and action – and each other.

T.O Show/Vh1

"T.O. Show" website image “T.O. Show” website image 

Terrell Owens,  a star football player, is the focus of this homage to immaturity.  Vh1’s official show website describes Owens as follows:

His explosive speed, superb physical conditioning, and dynamic competitive spirit should seemingly translate to off-the-field success in love, family and life. But even at the top of his game, something is missing, and this off-season Terrell Owens finds himself a man in transition.   (
I agree wholeheartedly…well, with the “something is missing” part.  The part that seems to be missing is Terrell’s development as an emotional grown-up adult.  Owens comes across as an immature, though somewhat well-behaved, teenager who has held on tight to his own lack of self-esteem just enough to be a debasing, nice-and-smoothly sarcastic control-freak (freak might be a bit strong of a descriptor, but let’s keep it for now).  Even though T.O. is an offensive player, he seems to display defensive behaviors with startling clarity.  Now that I think of it, offensive is a good word for his type of play.

the "controversial", popular image behind the website logo...something may be "missing" here, too...I charge the crime of Photoshop! the “controversial”, popular image behind the website logo…something may be “missing” here, too…I charge the crime of Photoshop! 

In episode six,  Monique, one of Owen’s handlers is having a bachelorette party thrown for her and the men-folk, led by the financially well-endowed T.O. decide to throw a bachelor party for her male partner at the same Las Vegas hotel, showing up at the pool while the women are just about to get their grooves on.  The narrative describes the women as incensed that the guys would intrude on their woman-space.  Though the show’s description reported that they showed up at the same hotel without any forethought, the show itself displayed much more intention on the part of the men to disallow the women their own independence.  Owens’s power as not only a man, but a financially empowered man (read “rich”, assumed “entitled”) comes into play strongly as he gets to intrude easily and with no remorse into the plans that the women made to support their friend, Mo’.  It felt like a high-rent panty raid or a slumber-party spoiler done by eight-year-olds toward their older, more mature sisters.

Terrell Owens displaying one of his loci of power Terrell Owens displaying one of his loci of power 

In another episode, Owens goes to dinner with a womanfriend (grown-up terminology for “girlfriend”…these women are not girls) who is a self-proclaimed independent woman, financially and emotionally secure.  At the end of the meal, Terrell gets into a very boyish tug-of-war with the check after his date clearly says that she is paying for the meal.  It wouldn’t have been important if he had been able to literally ‘let it go’ after the first and second bandying, but he again persisted in getting his way in grand and glorious style.
In yet another episode, we get introduced by one of the women to the term “RAC” (Random-Ass Chick) with regard to yet another of the women that Owens struts across the screen.
In other moments, Terrell is shown trying to make decisions about which woman (of the many) to keep in his life.  And though some of these women are portrayed as being sensible, smart and self-aware, Owen’s laid-back kid-in-the-candy-store narrative comes across in true chauvinist form.

Terrell Owens with his grandmother Terrell Owens with his grandmother 

T.O., our financially and physiologically-gifted hero, is yet another man throwing around his weight in the lives of women.  The dominant narrative reveals a man with little pathos (even with the seemingly popular and possibly touching episode featuring his relationship with his grandmother afflicted Alzheimer’s disease) easily playing with his toys, some of which end up being women, MANipulating his world and her (collective) world with no referential insight or perspective beyond his own sense of satisfaction shown in his ready and flawless smile.
More power to people who can make their life work through their own skills, talent and/or luck, but less power to those who also use that endowment to frustrate the motives, aspirations and spirit of women in their lives.

My Antonio/Vh1

"My Antonio" cast “My Antonio” cast 

Named after Antonia Sabato, Jr., a soap opera star and Calvin Klein model, this show charts some troubling moments in the male/female “romantic” storyline.  Described by Vh1 as “one of the most devastatingly handsome men in the world”, our Antonio reveals himself to be yet another control freak (freak actually seems to fit much more comfortably here).  Early in the series, Antonio spent an inordinate amount of time literally chasing down a particularly emotionally compromised contestant who spent even more time displaying anxiety so deep and raw that was even uncomfortable for this veteran television hound to watch.  Antonio did not so much seek to comfort her as much to assuage his own feelings of why she might feel as such in his megalomaniacal little, tropical dungeon of masculine delights.

Ah, season premieres.  I remember him riding in on a horse….a high-horse, I might add.

Antonio Sabato, Jr. on his high horse. Antonio Sabato, Jr. on his high horse. 

No, that was yet another episode.  The Vh1 website reports (as I now sadly remember) him as having sailed up close to the beach on his luxury sailboat, diving hunkily into the water, then walking seductively onto the beach, dripping wet with gleaming six pack (all be they sixteen ouncers).

Our Antonio rising from the sea...ok, his six-pack IS the 12-ounce variety. Our Antonio rising from the sea…ok, his six-pack IS the 12-ounce variety. 

The first episode sent the semi-diverse group of women scurrying up a stony hillside after he so kindly provided them with a pile of new sneakers that they could wear along with their flimsy, revealing clothes.  It felt like another adolescent prank when he announced that they had to race up the slippery slope in clothes more worthy of a night out on the town to prove themselves worthy of his attentions.  Episodes later, he was still testing their dignity and will by asking them to submit to hypnosis (real or fake, one can not be sure, but the narrative stunk to high heaven…or low hell), having them raft onto a deserted beach to rough it for an impromptu 24-hour stranding and subjecting them to a physical work-out challenge (hey, a guy wants a healthy woman, right?…especially followed by a romp on a slip-and-slide).

Wet t-shirt contest reprises notwithstanding, the love letter “challenge” presented some interesting, insightful and troubling moments in a narrative sense.  While one of the contestants questioned her ability to write a love letter to ANYone so soon (hell, it’s only episode three!), another questioned her own ability to be honest and share her heart’s inner workings and another leapt in deep and quick, saying, “I wanna spend the rest of my life with Antonio…He’s the man of my dreams…all I want is your happiness more than mine…I would walk mountains for you and swim across oceans for you….” (“Writing Love Letters”, Episode 3 Show Clip,  Mind you, that last respondent is an adult (or, at least, the pictures made her look like one)!  The suggestion that any woman might be so smitten as such at such an early point in their “relationship” is misleading, if not sickening (love at first sight, also, notwithstanding), but is more vexing due to the fame/celebrity/class/gender empowerment that Sabato is given by the female contestants and the larger society outside of the narrative.  There is an expectation that any of the women, or any woman in general for that matter, would love to love a man such as Antonio.  He embodies all of the stereotypes and codes  that popular culture values.  It must be understood that inner ethics and strengths are not necessarily part of these pop cultural codes, though, at times, the women do question their place in that environment and, to some degree, Antonio’s behavior.  This latter dynamic is a positive element, but the larger narrative, of course, cannot serve to question deeply Antonio’s intentions, actions or values or the show will debase itself (even further).

Antonio posing nude for his adoring love-sculptresses Antonio posing nude for his adoring love-sculptresses 

Worse yet is the implication of the elimination process and the play on words that validate the covert and overt sexism and male dominance of the show.  After having waiters hand out covered dishes, Sabato informs them that underneath will be a lei, the “Hawaiian symbol for love” for those that are being continued into the next episode.  He goes on to say, “unfortunately, two of you will find nothing”.  At least a couple of episodes revealed Sabato making the statement that someone will not get “lei-ed”.  “Ladies (at least he doesn’t call them girls…in that moment), please uncover your just desserts” (Episode 2, Full Episode,  The accompanying melodramatic, suspense-soaked score would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragically overplayed. Sabato’s sincerity, if any is even present or possible, is submerged all but fatally by his inability to act at all  (the Screen Actor’s Guild may yet have an active contract out on his life).

That women are used as the pawns in this sexualized game is abhorrent, even with the nod of the women’s presence and their concomitant neurotic uber-passions for Sabato.  Our Antonio is nothing more than another developmentally pre-adolescent man playing with human “toys” in his Hawaiian toy box more commonly known as a television production set.

That said, a respondent on the Vh1 “My Antonio” webpage said the following:
“Antonio, you are beautiful! I’ve thought so for a long time! I love what I see. The way you are with the girls on the show is so cute to me. Your facial expressions, the way you speak, everything about you. You deserve someone just as nice as you are. If you don’t find it this season, I’m signing up for season 2.”

Real Chance at Love 2/Vh1

Chance and Real Chance and Real 

Real and Chance are singer/performers of sorts, which never becomes a focus of any of the observed episodes, but their fame must have preceded them as I never saw a sign of it being deserved.  Nonetheless, women become double-teamed with this duo in their second season of running women through their paces, seeing if they are “there for them”.  Along with the elevated level of physical objectification comes the nicknames bestowed upon the female contestants for the hearts of Chance and Real, names like Junk (a la “in your trunk”), Spanish Fly, Sassy, Classy, Kitty, Apple, Doll, Wiggly, Pocohantas and Blonde Baller.  Their real names are referenced on the website, but never on the television show, suggesting another level of the power play, however subtle.

Real and Chance spend some time during the show talking about the women and which ones are really “there for them”, checking their sincerity and dedication.  At the end of the show, they don their intended “love” interests with large chains hung with a gigantic ‘R’ or ‘C’ to literally tag their women.  Of course, those that do not come up to the men’s (and I use that term loosely) requirements do not get a chain and are sent home with an unhealthy dose of criticism.

Blonde Baller fighting with Junk Blonde Baller fighting with Junk 
Junk fighting with Blonde Baller Junk fighting with Blonde Baller 

The women spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing and fighting with each other, overly concerned about the problems and foibles of their competition and the happiness of the men.  This focus is a poor message to girls and women and terrible, still, for boys and men.  Real and Chance’s expectation of blind devotion to them is an unrealistic one given their superficial sense and embrace of “relationship”, value and love.  There are numerous opportunities for the women to be wearing as little as possible or to highlight their mammary assets at the very least, parading around in the “candid” scenes in the bedrooms talking and arguing with each other or during the challenges and contests, such as acting and dancing in a music video (didn’t see THAT one coming, did you?) or running aimlessly through the woods in search of a yeti creature, ultimately played in costume by Chance’s brother.

Spanish Fly about to get her lounge on with Chance Spanish Fly about to get her lounge on with Chance 

Real and Chance primarily bask in off-screen fame/celebrity dynamics as they never actually “do” anything on-screen save for their mindless banter and expositions about how they feel at any given moment about one or more of the women.  They are often seen lounging or relaxing as the women jump through numerous hoops to gain their affection and attentions and thwart the romantic plans of each other.

"Real Chance at Love 2" cast “Real Chance at Love 2” cast 

On it’s own, as with any of these shows, Real Chance at Love represents an almost innocuous, if not inert, presence in the media in general, but in the context of numerous programs that ascribe such power, control AND the right to indifference to men with regard to the domination of women’s lives and realities, this show along with so many of the others, becomes a powerful validation of many of the negative ways of looking at male/female relations, women’s self-esteem (or lack thereof) and the sexist and heterosexist assumptions that are made about human relational dynamics.  The constant “catty” nature of the women’s conversations and on-camera, but behind-the-scenes dishing on each other demean the importance of the struggle of women to find common, organized ground upon which to stage the and give foundation to the changes that must happen for women at this late day and time.

Hell Date/BET

"Hell Date" website banner “Hell Date” website banner 

The “f” word now loosed upon this printed page, Hell Date provides us with an opportunity to see a situation in which feminism was attacked directly and disrespectfully in the narrative of yet another surreality show.  Markedly more “scripted” and contrived in nature, Hell Date features, again, men who get to choose from multiple women on a date, given chance through numerous activities to find fault (do notice the obvious…this and many shows are not about finding strengths within women, but about highlighting dysfunction) with two out of three.  But hell, it wouldn’t be a hell date without being able to find some kind of fault, right?

One episode in particular that aired on February 19th of this year featured clearly stereotypically characterized women.  The first woman to be cut from the date was a militant feminist character who was literally dropped off on a street corner whilst en route to an activity after being called “mannish” by the male dater.  She had made the mistake of questioning some of his chauvinistic behaviors and discourse, clearly in content, but as a caricature in form.  Clearly, if feminism was to rear its ugly head, it had to be decapitated swiftly and summarily.

The second woman to get ‘edited’ made statements about being in her periodic flow, having apologized for such and later, while performing a rap song at a studio during the date proclaimed, “hope you don’t hate me” because “I’m “on my rag”.  The male dismissed her from the date declaring that he couldn’t have had a good time with her because she was in such discomfort.  There’s a good man for you.

In his defense, he did show some sensitivity to the third woman after she reported having dealt with domestic violence in her past.  Not only did he express empathy to her, but also to the subject of domestic violence.  For as positive as this last interaction might have been, it is hard to ascribe a positive qualitative evaluation to the episode as the larger discourse was so completely negative to women in general.

an "ultra-feminist" causing "trouble" an “ultra-feminist” causing “trouble” 

Additionally, a more recent episode revealed yet another feminist character in the photo section with labeling such as “Hell Date: Ultra Feminist”, with photo captions suggesting the combative and judgmental nature of the feminist character.  She is reported to have had demanded leading during a dance class and refusing to draw a woman in a bikini while in a drawing class.  This is clearly the work of the “ultra-feminist”.  (

Do all "ultra-feminists" aspire to lead when they dance with a partner? Do all “ultra-feminists” aspire to lead when they dance with a partner? 

Yet another instance on February 26, 2009 showed the Hell Date penchant for stereotypical women as they portrayed a harmonica-playing incense-junkie hippie who the narrative “idiotized” from the beginning of the show.

Hell Date’s episodes were particularly poor in their representations of women, lacking in spontaneity, badly acted and took greater lengths to attack icons of female power.  They, at least in two instances, made sure that feminism and strong female traits, however stereotypical, would not be accepted by the man in power in the episode and, in extension, the men in the larger society.  It is this extension, a function of the cultivation theory developed and espoused by George Gerbner, that should concern students and teachers of media studies, gender politics and culture and the populace in general.   The suggestive and influential nature of mass media is a powerful validation of positive and negative concepts and behavior.  With the plethora of negative behaviors of men toward women and persistent patterns of disrespect and oppression inherent in political and social structures along with  that in our linguistic practice, these negative portrayals must be decreased, if not extinguished.

Let’s keep in mind that this genre in no way makes any guarantees that these people actually feel and act the way they are portrayed to feel and act.  The important element here is that the dominant narrative can be extremely negative toward women and, therefore, negative about and toward men.  A society which seeks to be driven by compassion, justice and intelligence can not allow it’s communicative mechanisms to tell stories supporting narratives that denigrate more than fifty-percent of it’s populace.

Let me know what YOU think.

Ukumbwa Sauti, Department of  Mass Communication
Pierce Arrow Blogger

One Comment

  1. robertmichaelson robertmichaelson October 4, 2009

    If I could stand up and applaud on the internet, I would be doing so right now. Great piece on just how disgusting this whole trend is and how damaging it is to society.

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