You’d think that reading Jennifer L. Pozner’s excellent book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV over the holidays I’d be pretty unsurprised by reality TV sexism. But even being reminded about all the horrible, exploitative shows out there, from Toddlers & Tiaras to The Swan to Bridalplasty didn’t prevent my utter disgust at coming across a marathon of the British reality show Dirty Cows this past week.
It’s not a new formula: pretty city girls are sent out to a farm, where they “get a taste of real rural life as they are chased by turkeys, hounded at the barn dance and scared out of their wits in the 4×4 midnight rally”, all while competing for the prize: to be the girlfriend of a good-looking and wealthy farmer. It’s been done in the American series Farmer Wants a Wife and farm challenges have been featured on other shows like Real Chance at Love and The Simple Life. But what struck me in the one episode of Dirty Cows I managed to make it through was the offensive title and how overt the degradation and humiliation of the contestants was through comparing them to cattle.
“Our four heiffers are getting ready in the barn,” narrates host Tara Palmers-Tomkinson. The cartoons leading in and out of commercials feature a caricature of Alexy laughing at a participant stepping in dirt or manure in her high heels (above) or participants getting mud sprayed on their faces.
In Reality Bites Back, Pozner calls humiliation the price reality TV women pay for “the fantasy of happily ever after”. Referring to The Bachelor as an example, Pozner states, “Our first introductions to these women assure us that they have no sense of self beyond a willingness to please some guy – any guy. From there, we watch women sink to sickening depths as they perform one mortifying stunt after another in pursuit of male validation.”
I found no evidence of Dirty Cows deviating from this formula. The comparison of women to meat objects is a way of dehumanizing them, minimizing their intelligence, and sometimes justifying violence against women. If women are nothing more than dumb animals, why should they be treated with respect?
The women-as-cows framework is perpetuated through shows like Dirty Cows as well as popular sayings like: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Carol J. Adams draws attention to the ways we use words like cow, as well as bitch, biddy, and sow: “terms [that] are as much critical of the femaleness of the animal as of the species they represent.”
The only small mercy in this whole thing is that Dirty Cows originally aired in 2007 in Britain and only ran for one season, so I’m hoping the re-runs don’t make it across the pond much longer.
The other thing that keeps me optimistic is that Pozner has collected lots of great suggestions in her book for increasing media literacy and challenging the offensive messages of reality shows like Dirty Cows. For great online resources check out the Reality Bites Back site, as well as About-Face and the Media Literacy Project.