Is reality TV really real?

The Girl Scouts of America asked teen girls about the “real” in reality TV, and found that 50 percent think all reality shows – including “real life” shows like Jersey Shore and The Real World – are completely unscripted. Seventy-five percent think that competition shows like American Idol and Project Runway are unscripted.

Make a video of YOUR life

The Girl Scouts want you to make a video of your life. The prize
could be a featured role in the Reality Check Film Festival in
2012.

What to do: Make a short video (two minutes or
less) that answers one of the following questions:

  1. If you could change one thing in your world, what would it be
    and why?

  2. What is the best part of your day? Tell us about it and why it’s
    the best.

  3. In your experience, what makes being a teen harder than being a
    kid?

When you’re done, head up to girlrealitycheck.com to submit your video, and
learn more about the contest. Deadline is Dec. 15.

And yet, says Kasia Pilewicz, who was a contestant on last season’s America’s Next Top Model, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The scenes people see aren’t necessarily written, but they’re not necessarily real, either.

“They’re not getting how much of it is edited, and how much of it is scripted and staged – almost like it’s fictional, but you’re just playing yourself,” Pilewicz said in a phone interview, just after the Girl Scout statistics were unveiled.

“I worry that a 10-year-old might try to emulate this and think this is how you should live your life and this is how you should treat your friends,” said Pilewicz. “There’s all this fighting and backstabbing, and those aren’t healthy relationships.”

The Girl Scout report clearly shows that more girls who watch reality TV have a more cynical view of the world when compared to teen girls who don’t watch reality TV. But the results aren’t that cut and dried.

For instance, 74 percent of girls who watch reality TV think gossiping is a normal part of a relationship. But 50 percent of girls who don’t watch reality shows agree. This is hardly something to cheer about. Sixty percent of reality TV watchers think “it’s in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive with one another.” But again, 50 percent of girls who don’t watch reality shows agree.

The biggest disparity in the numbers came in the self-image category. Seventy-two percent percent of girls who watch reality TV report spending a lot of time on their appearance – versus 42 percent who don’t watch. OK, this might be meaningful. And 38 percent of reality show watchers think that a girl’s value is in how she looks, while 28 percent of non-reality show watchers agree.

So what does this mean? Well, while 38 percent is a disturbing number, it’s also not a majority. I take heart in the fact that 62 percent of girls who watch reality TV don’t think their self-worth is based on their looks. I take heart in the fact that an overwhelming majority of all teen girls in the study don’t think their self worth is based on their looks.

“Part of what they may be finding with their research is that reality television is amplifying something that already exists,” says Sharon Ross, associate chair in the television department at Columbia College, who points out that girls get these messages from a variety of media. “The numbers are still problematically high for girls who don’t watch reality TV.”

But it’s not all bad. The Girl Scout report also found that reality TV watchers were more confident, and more likely to think they could succeed. They say reality shows have sparked conversations with their parents. Sixty-eight percent said that reality shows “make me think I can achieve anything in life” and 48 percent say the shows “help me realize there are people out there like me.”

“If you look at it thematically,” says Ross, “the idea of competition and competence often go hand in hand.”

But, Ross warns, “They’re getting a very skewed view of what competing means.”

That’s Pilewicz’s warning, too. She points out that 40 hours of filming goes into one weekly episode, so of course the editors focus on what they see as dramatic – cattiness, backstabbing, fighting. They don’t show the pleasant conversations that took place earlier in the day, and they edit so tightly, you often don’t see context.

She also points out that “the environment you’re in is not very realistic.” It’s a crucible, she says, with not a lot of alone time or down time. In short, the producers often do everything in their power to put reality show stars on edge, out of their game. They end up snapping at each other like one would an annoying little brother. But you don’t see the crucible, you just see the snapping. It doesn’t help that producers cast with meticulous care – looking for people who they know will clash with one another. Girls in real life, Pilewicz points out, would never go out of their way to friend someone they don’t like. Yet people who have conflicting personalities are often thrown together in reality TV.

So what can parents do? Watch TV with your kids. Use the shows you watch to spark a conversation about what you’re watching.

And, remember, says Judy Schoenberg, director of research and outreach for the Girl Scout Research Institute, which did the report, “TV watching may be the number one activity for girls, but they don’t necessarily want it to be this way. Ninety percent of girls would rather spend an hour hanging out with friends than watching a TV show.”

This is worth repeating. “Even though girls communicate profusely through their mobile devices, they prefer to be with friends,” Schoenberg says. “In person.”

Now that’s pretty real.

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