The 90’s are over and so is television at its simplest. The days are dead in which TV shows are based on groups of ordinary people living in ordinary circumstances being…well, ordinary. Today, the shows that are “in” have been known to push the boundaries on what can be considered appropriate. These shows are the ones we hear about on the news causing controversy and making us question: Is reality TV an accurate portrayal of diversity in the world? Are popular fare like MTV’s Jersey Shore, Bravo’s Real Housewives series, and TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras as “real” as some of their titles lead us to believe? Has TV come to rely on gimmicks and extremism to attract viewers, or does modern television mark a creative resurgence in what cable once was?
In recent years, cable television has done the seemingly impossible by providing a reality television show for nearly every niche group of people. Fishermen found refuge in the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. Bounty hunters have fugitive recovery Agent Dog. Until recently, one group was always on the outside looking in. Through Snooki, JWoww, The Situation, and DJ Pauly D, “guidos” and “guidettes” everywhere found their voice. But underneath the bronzer and hair gel and through all the fist pumping came a figurative shitstorm. Response from the Italian-American community was largely unfavorable, and criticism was brought upon the cast for their frequenting of tanning beds, nightly fights, and promotion of casual sex.
But did anyone truly expect the cast of Jersey Shore to serve as role models for younger teens? No one has ever looked to MTV to be the guiding light on diversity before. Overall, the media continues to perpetuate long-living stereotypes of the world’s people. In everyday life, people continue to subscribe to racial and cultural stereotypes, and the media does nothing to change or challenge this. Why should the Italian-American community be upset over how Jersey Shore cast members act? Not all Middle Eastern people are terrorists and not all women are bad drivers. These sorts of stereotypes stopped being so cut and dry several years ago. The actions of the eight New Jersey-ans speak nothing of their cultural history, but only of their own lives. Instead of looking at the cast as long-standing Italian stereotypes, it’s more important to acknowledge their diversity and the role that they play on TV.
University of Nevada, Reno English lecturer Emily Johnston believes that America is on the right track to exposing diverse groups of people to the public, but feels there is more that can be done.
“Stereotypes are based upon trends, which are not the same as absolute truth,” Johnston says, who taught a section of English 102 about identity and difference.
“Mainstream television relies heavily on stereotypes in order to exaggerate situations/characters and entertain viewers and today,” says Johnston. “[It] is increasingly exposing viewers to people who, historically, have been marginalized.” Johnston believes that the media responds to the demands from the American public for more diversity and that more “diversity of diversity” will truly expel discrimination from our society,” she said.
TV shows like UPN’s Amish in the City and TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting introduced people to the practices of the Amish and conservative Baptists, respectively. Before going off the air in 2004, Amish in the City drew considerable coverage from the press. The show focused on a group of six Amish people and six regular Americans learning and living from each other. After a few months of life away from Amish society, the six were forced to choose whether they wanted to return to their old life, or live in everyday America without the ability to return home. Meanwhile, 19 Kids and Counting centers on the Duggar family and the ever-increasing expansion of their numbers.
Freshman Chelsea Day says stereotypes are expected when it comes to television.
“[The cast] is represented fairly because it’s all about how they represent themselves. Stereotypes on TV [are] normal. I don’t think it’s either a good thing or bad thing because everyone judges one another, no matter what they say.”
More than ever before, explicit or risqué material can be shown. Only two months ago, the first sex scene between two men (ever on TV) was shown on ABC’s One Life to Live. This fact helps express how far society has come in terms of acceptance for gay people, and also shows the risks studio executives are willing to take. By using difference as a tool for bringing in ratings, audiences are able to experience a world that they otherwise would have no idea about, increasing tolerance for different demographics.