Popular Culture: Reality TV

Reality TV as a Pop Cultural Phenomenon & The Bad Girls Club Season 4

Posted on: April 20, 2010

It’s a matter of taste to what we choose to watch. Whether it is a classic soap opera like All My Children or a home cooking show such as Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals – it is our choice.

Quite obviously, our unique “tastes” allow networks such as ABC and The Food Network to typecast its audiences and caters to their definition of entertainment. For example, Rachael Ray’s show would naturally attract busy moms who find the idea of delicious 30-minute meals enticing. The Food Network is aware of this and that is why they continue to slot in such a show.

Which leads me to ask – so what about reality television?

What is it about reality television that holds viewers’ interest and makes them watch an entire season they often claim to not like too much? Where is the “taste” or preference in this?

REALITY TV AS A POP CULTURAL PHENOMENON

Camera Crew on the set of a Reality TV Show

Consider the fact that the very same people who watch All My Children or 30 Minute Meals could also derive amusement by watching reality shows such as MTV’s Rock of Love or ABC’s The Bachelor series. Even though Rock of Love doesn’t correlate quite well with 30 Minute Meals.

The answer could lie with the fact that reality television is meant to portray a highly modified version of reality by utilizing spectacle and other forms of sensationalism to attract viewers. This parallels with the entertainment of soap operas like All My Children, however, reality TV differs in the sense that one is watching non-professional actors – people “like us”, with our lifestyles – self-destruct, fall in love, compete, fail, win, etc.

The immense, and almost absurd, popularity of reality television has made many people question why audiences favor watching shows like Real Chance at Love 2, Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab, I Love Money or the Bad Girls Club.

On an interesting note, Marcel Danesi claims reality television popularity lies with the “blurring of lines between the imaginary and the real”. 1 She goes on to explain that current reality television employs  the principle much like the one in The Truman Show, “that contemporary people can no longer distinguish, or no longer want to distinguish, between reality and fantasy”.

Indeed, Danesi’s point explains why reality TV has become so popular. However, I believe there are other factors to consider that make reality TV a pop cultural phenomenon.I believe the main reasons lie with the concepts of money, instant fame and the guilty pleasure feeling.

Fight between the cast of I Love Money

The first factor, money, attracts audiences for the fact the people competing on these shows usually don’t have the set of acquired professional skills to allow them to accumulate that much on their own. A perfect example of this would be the I Love Money Cast, (of whatever season, take your pick) VH1 merely handpicked this fine selection of people to compete for $250,000 from their previous shows like Flavor of Love, I Love New York, Rock of Love, Charm School and Real Chance at Love. The cast members believe the premise of the show is to win a quarter of a million dollars (which at face value it is), however, the real goal for the producers are to try and get them to fight pettily with each other for our entertainment and in turn their bank accounts. Lovely isn’t it?

The second factor, instant fame, is a major attraction for young audiences. After all, getting on a random reality TV show is an easier access to fame than being called back to act on a show like Gossip Girl. This is what drives many to continue to apply for America’s Next Top Model after being rejected eight times or appear on different reality shows like Megan Hauserman did (she appeared on Beauty and the Geek, Rock of Love, Charm School, I Love Money and Megan wants a Millionaire).

Megan on I Love Money elimination night

Megan H. Being Eliminated on Rock of Love

The last factor, the guilty pleasure feeling, is the main type of entertainment we derive by watching reality TV. It’s okay to admit, there’s been scientific study behind these phenomenon. Audiences get a delight in seeing the misfortune of others (kind of like laughing at someone slipping on a banana peel – hilarious, huh?) yet we feel guilty for feeling so and continuing to watch what some call ‘crap’.

It’s safe to say that reality television is lowbrow type of programming. Regardless of the fact, people – including myself – can’t help but be drawn in by it. Major corporations and advertisers know this, which is why shows like American Idol or The Biggest Loser have an abundant amount of product placements on their shows.

Danielle Evans (ANTM 6) promoting Cover Girl

Even Tyra Banks, host and executive producer of America’s Next Top Model, admitted she works “closely with brand partners to deliver a seamless advertiser integration that’s “almost a subliminal message””. It’s feasible to see this, after all, how many times does she mention that Cover girl Deal or mention products by famous fashion designers?

We as the audience soak this all in, and the more impressionable people will go out and by the hairspray or makeup they saw being put on one the contestants in America’s Next Top Model in hopes of appearing more model-like or whatever they thought they would look like. Others will remain apathetic and restrain themselves from purchasing those pricy items. It all really depends on the person of how successful product placement can be, but with such a large audience via reality TV – such advertisements will reach enough to make a successful profit.

Case in point, the purpose of this blog is to explore the popular culture phenomenon that is reality television with a specific focus on Oxygen’s infamous “The Bad Girls Club” Season 4. Furthermore, the exclusive question being asked is: Regarding Oxygen’s The Bad Girls Club Season 4, what is the relationship between reality television and specific representation? In other words, this blog will attempt to research The Bad Girls Club Season 4 through a popular culture lens of representation. After all, in this day and age the influence of reality television on audiences (primarily 18-34) is something not to be ignored due to its strong – yet often flawed – representation system of people.

ABOUT THE BAD GIRLS CLUB

The Bad Girls Club (BGC) is a reality television show first premiering on the Oxygen Network in December 2006. It should be noted that the producers  – Bunim/Murray Productions – who created The Real World also constructed the BGC.

Original Bad Girls Club Cast

Original Bad Girls Club Cast, Season 1

The basis or premise of the BGC is that if follows seven women (who often have personal, behavioral, and psychological problems) that are deemed “bad girls” as they live together for four months. Oxygen’s official website states the following as a description of the BGC Season 4:

“Bad never looked so good on Oxygen with the fourth season of the hit reality series from the producers of The Real World. This season takes bad behavior to the next level with a cast of young women who are independent, spirited, and endlessly entertaining.

Bad Girls Club brings seven self-proclaimed “bad girls” together in a beautiful Los Angeles mansion, and drama reigns supreme. All the girls have a unique story, point of view and attitude — as well as some kind of personal issue that makes them far from perfect. Will living together help them move forward and turn their lives around — or will chaos rule?” 2

If one were to ever watch the BGC, he or she would never guess the “purpose” of the show is to actually to “help them [the girls of BGC] move forward” with their lives. In fact I myself never actually knew this fact. I figured the point was to watch these girls self-destruct with each other since there was no real effort to make these women actually grow as a person. However, this show’s reality television genre is listed as a self-improvement one – ironic isn’t it?

Especially since the women often attack each other physically, verbally and emotionally daily.

Point in case, in every season there are early departures by cast members due to physical violence or a leave on their own personal accord. Of course, the way this goes is for every member that is kicked out (or has left) a new one is added.

An important aspect of the BGC is its ratings. If you didn’t know, it happens to be the most-watched Oxygen original series ever with an average of 595, 000 viewers per episode– a 31% increase since season one. According to Wikipedia – everyone’s favorite source of info – the show averaged 439, 000 among women between the ages of 18-49 and 321, 000 of those women are aged 18-35.

The third season also was a breakthrough because it set records for Oxygen. The premier of the BGC Season 3 averaged 807, 000 total viewers or a 0.8 household rating. However, when season four premiered it once again broke records. The below paragraph is from Wikipedia:

Season 4 broke the record once again, after the third episode titled “No More Mr. Nice Girl” aired, the show became the network’s most-watched telecast among women 18 to 34 and the most-watched non-finale program among viewers and adults 18 to 49. The show averaged a 1.35 household rating and 1.42 million total viewers, a total that included 527,000 females 18 to 34. The show also marked only the second time the NBC Universal service surpassed the seven-figure mark with that key group, when measured on a live+ same-day basis. It also pulled in some 744,000 females 18 to 49. 3

THE BAD GIRLS CLUB: SEASON 4

From Left to Right: Annie, Kendra, Flo, Natalie, Kate, Portia, Amber

The fourth season of the BGC premiered on Oxygen on December 1, 2009. The exotic location of the show was set in Los Angeles, California in a luxurious Beverly Hills mansion.

The Cast

Like previous seasons, each of the women chosen are type casted into a specific persona and are from different walks of life and ethnic backgrounds. Here are the seven women of the BGC Season 4 with their bios, courtesy of Oxygen Network’s official site.4

Amber McWha (“The Backstabber”): A true rags-to-riches story, Amber is a beer drinking girl next door from Morgantown, WV, who aspires to be a personal trainer. Known as “the backstabber,” Amber’s scheming nature makes her a pro at pulling sneaky pranks.

Florina “Flo” Kaja” (“The Tough Big Sister”): With her tough talking, “born to be bad” style, this bisexual party girl refuses to be the Albanian Muslim ideal of a passive, obedient female her family would hope for. Staten-Island girl Florina always encourages women to stand up for themselves and is prepared to fight for the underdog at the drop of a hat

Kendra James (“The Double Standard”): Kendra’s a boy crazy, rule breaking opposite of her perfect and obedient twin sister. She’s also a pretty pageant girl from Charlotte, NC, pursuing a degree in political science.

Natalie Nunn (“The Gold Digger”): A spunky self-proclaimed socialite, Natalie enjoys cruising in her sugar daddies’ expensive cars and painting the town red with her cool celebrity friends. With a degree in Sociology, Natalie operates her own fashion boutique in Northern California. This flamboyant rebel proclaims to “run LA.”

Kate Squillace (“The Prima Donna”): As the daughter of a prominent former politician in Gloucester, MA, Kate grew accustomed to life in the spotlight. Pursuing her degree at Boston College, Kate has traded in her small town ways to live life in the fast lane. This spoiled school girl is making sure all eyes are on her whatever it takes.

Annie Anderson (“The Control Freak”): Her sweet innocent demeanor is a cover for her bad behavior. A true Jekyll and Hyde character from Valencia, CA, Annie works as a phone sex operator at night while pursuing her MBA in marketing in the day. She’s a control freak with a life goal of bodily perfection.

Porita Beaman (“Sugar and Spice”): Sugar and spice epitomized, Portia’s notable characteristics include vindictive behavior, a sharp tongue and a “try anything once” mentality. Urban living and a painful adolescence in Columbia, MO toughened Portia’s skin.

As always, the girls often don’t get along and the result is usually physical violence. Portia Beaman was kicked off the BGC for fighting Natalie Nunn (because an incident revolving Natalie calling Portia a bad mother), Flo Kaja left on her accord (after the girls drove her the breaking point) and then finally Natalie herself was booted because she fought both Kendra James and Amber McWha.

Hence why these three girls were introduced into the show to take the places of the girls who left:

Lexie Marie (“The Wild Child”): Known as “Sexy Lexie, ” she is a self-described “Barbie,” complete with blonde hair and blue eyes. An Army brat, Lexie has lived everywhere from Germany to Kentucky. Along the way, she has acquired a tendency to combat authority and become a strong independent woman. She lives by her own rules and likes to manipulate people for her own gain.

Amber Meade: Originally from Montevideo, Arizona, Meade grew up poor and sheltered. She has a personality that thrives on attempting to steal the spotlight from others. In her personal life she looks for fun and sexual escapades. Meade also enjoys insulting other women.

Amber Buell: Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Buell considers herself “ultra competitive.” She has stated that she does not want to be around other women who are conceivably “prettier, smarter or wittier” than her. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

It should be noted Amber M. and Amber B. were more of guest stars on the BGC Season 4 rather than two new cast members. Originally from the BGC Season 3, Amber M. and Amber B. were asked to appear on the final episodes of Season 4’s season due to their popularity. Lexie Marie, of course, was simply a replacement for Portia who was kicked off the show quite prematurely.

Lexie Replaces Portia

Left to Right: Amber Buell & Amber Meade on their "Amber Show"

On their Season 3’s debut, Amber M. and Amber B. were instantly two of the more controversial members (and thus, more popular and recognizable) due to their verbal and physical altercations with the other women on the BGC.

Quite ironically, on Season 4 both Amber M. and Amber B. chose to be like “Switzerland” and didn’t pick deliberate fights with any of the women. In fact, they tried to separate Amber Mcwha and Lexie away from Kate at the end of one episode.

Representation

All the seven original girls, and the three new additions, have been either in their early or late twenties. This specific age range of the BGC cast, of course, correlates to the prominent age range of the viewers who watch the show (18-34). Therefore, it’s easy to conclude that the producers of the BGC desired to attract a female audience who is anywhere from a young college student to a stay-at-home mom.

Regarding ethnic background, on this season of the BGC there were only three different ethnicities represented. Of the original cast, these are their following ethnicities:

  1. Caucasian/White: Kate, Annie and Amber
  2. African-American/Black: Natalie, Kendra and Portia
  3. Albanian: Flo

By observing their ethnicities, there was originally an equal balance between “White” and “Black” cast members. It raises questions as to whether this was the intention of the producers of the BGC Season 4 or if it was simply a coincidence or fluke. Either way the equal distribution is something not to be ignored.

Flo’s ethnicity of Albanian most likely added a sense of exoticism to the show. Almost like a buffer to the typical formula of having both Caucasian and African-American cast members, Flo’s Albanian roots gave the BGC a little ethnic flare (it should also be noted Flo was the only bi-curious cast member on Season 4).

Moving on, the social classes of the original BGC cast members’ range quite widely. For example, Kate comes from a rather well off family of a political background while Portia is a single-mom from a working-class family.

While I do not have exact information of cast members’ tax information, here is a perceived grouping of their social classes:

  1. High Class: Kate
  2. Middle Class: Amber, Kendra, Annie, Flo, Natalie
  3. Working Class: Portia

From the information above, the producers of the BGC Season 4 obviously expertly formulated a cast with whom audiences can find at least character to like or who holds similarities to their own personal life. In fact, the women on the BGC themselves add to this calculated formula by the way they dress and express their personality.

For example, Kate is “white”, from a wealthy family, educated and expresses herself with the typical “valley-girl” persona. (Her nickname was actually “Malibu”, as a reference to the Barbie). Throughout the show she sunbathed by the pool, never allowed herself to be shown without her blonde hair curled or makeup on, preferred not to hang out with Annie (whom she called nerdy often) or anyone with the house really after a one point in the season.

The most realistic approach to Kate is that audiences who watch the BGC would either perceive her as another (I’m being blunt here people) conceited, spoiled blond girl or think she’s really cool because how she looks/acts.

All in all, the BGC Season 4 is a prime example of how reality TV has become a pop cultural phenomenon.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

REFERENCES

1 M. Danesi. “Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives”. (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), 200

2 “About the Bad Girls Club”, published online at http://bad-girls-club.oxygen.com/about-the-bad-girls-club.

3 “The Bad Girls Club”, published online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bad_Girls_Club

4 “Meet the Cast of the Bad Girls Club”, published online at http://bad-girls-club.oxygen.com/meet-the-cast-bgc

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