What do trash TV and feminism have in common? Other than the fact that I love them equally, they both explore representations of masculinity. Of course. As I’m about to start a sociology PhD on the menz, I feel like I’ve got a free pass to watch as much trash as I like. Which is fun. From a sociological perspective, it’s fascinating to watch how men on reality TV shows are represented, and how they themselves perform their masculinity.
For the ultimate portrayal of hyper masculinity on screen, forget Fight Club, watch Tool Academy. Firstly, these guys thought they were going on Britain’s biggest lad. That says it all really. Secondly, they were uniformly horrible and predominately proud of it, they even got matching tattoos and one of them proposed. How.. romantic? Thirdly, although Rick Edwards did his best to cast an ironic eye over it all, there were some genuinely worrying relationships on show. Take angry tool, the guy whose rages were scarily predictable, yet not once did you see anyone intervening in what looked like domestic abuse. Although there for different reasons, one thing all the ‘tools’ and girlfriends had in common was just how ‘gay’ they thought everything was. So that’s a side order of casual homophobia with your misogyny madam. Delish.
Tool Academy was not a fun show to watch, it was really quite depressing. If anyone needed a short course in hyper-masculinity it was all there – threatening, homophobic, overly powerful and downright nasty. Teen Mom is also a rather depressing show, but for different reasons. Not many of the dads are about, and the one’s who are live in a world of poverty, low education and stunted dreams. Last night’s Teen Mom was particularly depressing, because each story seemed be grey with hopelessness and impotency. Yes, it gives us a different side to the masculinity story which is more real than the blokey mcblokes in tool academy, but if I’m doing this in the name of academia than at least I should enjoy it. Right?!
One reality based man-fest that I love is The Only Way Is Essex. They’re often funny, they seem to actually like each other (most of the time) and as cultural texts goes it tells a pretty engaging story about the whiteness of (straight) working class lads done good and their relationships with women who have matching breasts. The neo-traditionalism* of TOWIE is fascinating. They live in a world where everyone looks like the love child of Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner, where money is no object, and where blokes shave their chests and tell birds what’s what.
Reality TV shows are often criticised but I for one think they’re actually quite valuable. When we’re shocked, they make the rules of the game visible. They also highlight what we value in our societies-just look at who wins Big Brother. But they’re also important in terms of what they don’t portray. Who isn’t in the story and why not? What does that say about whose voice we value?
This series of TOWIE ends on Wednesday and despite all the casual ‘isms it portrays, by and large they’re actually quite likeable. They may all live within the rules of patriarchy, but by god it’s funny. And let’s be honest, that’s the number one reason I really watch it. Just don’t tell my supervisor.