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#UrsinusSummer: What Do Reality Shows Say About Women?

Summer at Ursinus is when selected students pursue research with faculty mentors. Summer Fellows work on projects they can truly own. Meet Summer Fellow Erin Klazas ’16.

Are we what we watch? Erin Klazas, a senior biology and media and communication studies major, spent much of her summer studying reality television with that question in mind. She gained a better understanding of what the shows say about women in our culture.

As a Summer Fellow, she had the time, and the support of faculty mentor Dr. Alice Leppert, to delve into what she admits is a guilty pleasure: Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Combined with her interest in social theorist Michel Foucault’s theory of biopolitics, the result was the project “Selfhood, Citizenship … and All Things Kardashian: Neoliberalist and Postfeminist Ideals in Reality Television.”

“I am a feminist and a member of this culture today,” she explained during the eight-week program. “Reality TV is what everyone watches. The dynamic with post-feminism is that women can use sexuality as power. They can be an individual but reassert their gender role and use it to an advantage.”

Using not only the Kardashian family, but The Bachelor; Botched; Love, Lust or Run; and other reality shows, her presentation described the tendency of these reality programs to fashion women into “incessant consumers, but calling on the neoliberal mode of reinventing the self, or ‘making over’ the body to conform to governing standards implemented by society that dictate the meaning of prosperity and achievement.”

As an example, she referred to Love, Lust or Run, a show in which two women, one considered attractive and other considered frumpy, switch personae and in the end are made over to achieve a balance. “The host then reassures the contestants they can be successful with the chosen look. The Kardashian brand, she added, is “based on looks but it is a reassertion of the gender role and results in power.

“The way we talk, biologically develop, grow and exist – fundamentals of society – are controlled by the establishment of new technologies that directly influence personal behavior,” said Klazas. “As Americans, many of us develop some of our societal ideals regarding gender, appearance and race from television programming.”

Many reality shows, she says, are post-feminist, with the common themes of a liberalist, individualist mind set and those ideals exemplified by women. In post-feminism, women use sexuality as power; they use their talents, and yes, looks, to empower themselves – a resurgence of how women use looks for power. The Kardashian brand, for example, is based on looks but it reasserts a gender role, used to be powerful.”

Foucault’s theories of power and politics explain how ”historical reconstructions of our biological influences, our attitudes and senses of understanding, have an effect on how we see the world and subsequently develop governing guidelines—thus effecting how we live our lives,” she said.

At the end of the program, Klazas said she gave a lot of thought to what makes one powerful, and looked at the shows in a different way. “Reality TV has a lot to do with how we function as young women. It has a direct effect on how we see ourselves.”