In Part I of Shaming Famewhores, I talked about going on Vh1’s reality dating series Frank the Entertainer…In a Basement Affair as a performance art piece to explore firsthand this decade’s “famewhore” phenomenon. In Part II of Shaming Famewhores, I discussed how my attempts at being a famewhore ultimately failed. In an effort to rupture production’s veil of realism and to expose their narrow portrayals of women I decided to break my sweet and quirky character through a profane rap song. This was reality TV suicide, as production knew they would be unable to reconcile my character, ensuring my elimination.
An appearance of reality is upheld by the production team’s ability to create an environment for their cast that obscures the boundaries between fact and fiction. What is authentic versus what is artificial is at times unclear to all participants involved (including the production team themselves). Therefore, when asked, no cast member can clearly describe to you whether or not reality TV is “real” or not. This is the best way I can describe the experience:
Imagine being a prisoner. In your prison, you can’t trust your fellow prisoners because you don’t know what crimes they have committed, or what crimes they are capable of committing. You can’t trust the guards, the authority within the jail, because they have another agenda that you are not aware of, to ensure cooperation. The guards are rarely coercive; they just engineer situations in which desired outcomes may occur. The bachelor and his family functioned as privileged prisoners, enlisted by the guards to act as their hand within the jail. As a participant, I could either try to decide what was real or not, or accept that I would never know.
What ends up happening is that the layers of reality become so convoluted that it is impossible to distinguish between genuine or staged actions, which is production’s intention. A planned or facilitated action may spur fifteen different legitimate reactions, which in turn spawns fifteen over-exaggerated reactions and fifteen other sincere ones.
During the taping of the show, production’s agenda for eliminations seemed arbitrary. However, after watching the show, their contrivances became clear. In the interests of creating a show that would appeal to a broad audience, production reinforced sexist and racist stereotypes.
Production often accomplished this by being able to fall back on the idea that some of these women may not have “really been there” for Frank. The entire cast came on the show to be on television. However, the women came under the most scrutiny for being famewhores, and the successful contestants were just better at cloaking this.
Out of the original fifteen contestants, there were only two black women, one Asian woman, and one woman of mixed descent. The remaining eleven women were white. The four women that were finalists were of Italian heritage, like Frank.
The first few episodes were spent weeding out the women who didn’t fit Frank racially (all non-whites had been eliminated by the fourth episode). Jenny, the last of these eliminations, was by far the most shocking and telling of production’s biases. At the elimination ceremony, Frank exposes slightly risqué pictures of Jenny that he found on the internet. He says to her, “The bottom line is Jenny, I just don’t think you’re here for me.”
Jenny is unbelievably beautiful, kind, smart and educated. Despite all these positive qualities, Jenny could not have been an appropriate match for Frank because she is black. However, Jenny couldn’t have been visibly eliminated for this reason, nor was it really possible for production to find anything else wrong with her (such as with other girls: a ditzy demeanor, lack of chemistry, Frank’s mom doesn’t like her etc). For production to be rid of her and claim her as an unsuitable match for Frank, she had to be exposed as a famewhore. Some of the final contestants had equally racy pictures of themselves on the internet, and this was not used against them during eliminations.
Tammy, a Vietnamese woman whose second language is English, took a rough beating as well. In her last episode, Frank claimed that he had trouble communicating with her and eliminated her. Tammy was spared the shame of being called a famewhore, but was blatantly stereotyped as the show’s only Asian woman. In an interview, another contestant proclaimed that Tammy was a Cup of Noodle while Frank was spaghetti and meatballs and that these two dishes don’t mix. With these interview interludes, production worked to reinforce ingrained notions of what kind of people belong together. For starters, people of different races shouldn’t mix.
After the removal of the women of color came the elimination of women who were sexually lacking and/or immature. There was Christi, who was eliminated for being “too young,” and for supposedly still “hooking up” with her ex boyfriend, Renee, who failed to capture Frank’s attention with a whipped cream surprise and tacky saloon girl costume, and myself, who was lumped into the “just friends” category.
Then there was also an extrication of women who didn’t fit with Frank culturally. Within the final six women, one woman from Minnesota was eliminated for being too “white trash” and another woman from Tennessee was eliminated for being “too nice.” Neither a supposedly culturally backwards Midwestern woman nor a genteel southern woman would be right for a brash Italian boy from New York.
The final two women were two native New York Italian women who also happened to be friends before the show, Cathy and Kerry. Kerry had received a glowing edit the whole way through. Kerry knew how to carry herself; how to be sexy but not slutty, how to be kind without appearing fake, how to be smart without seeming pretentious.
Kerry was also the good girl. She helped her friend Cathy when she got too drunk one night. Kerry also refused to go all the way with Frank in the basement. Cathy on the other hand received the “slut” edit. Half way through the season we learn that Cathy was sneaking into the basement to have sex with Frank. She may be the only woman on a reality dating show to admit to having sex with the bachelor. Time after time, we heard about Frank and Cathy’s “amazing” physical connection. The viewer was left to wonder if that was all they had.
I saw Frank form a bond with both of these women. However, Frank could only choose one, and like Brett Michaels and Flavor Flav, he chose the good girl over the slut.
The slut tag is incredibly detrimental. Cathy didn’t have sex with Frank to stay on TV or to make him like her. Cathy had sex with Frank because she wanted to. The show reinforced the idea that women should save themselves for the right man, and that women with strong sexual desires are inadequate life partners. Instead of being viewed as the self-assured and sexually powerful woman that she is, Cathy was merely viewed as a slut.
This is made explicit by the over-emphasis given to the sexual side of their relationship. In the final episode, Frank’s parents confronted Cathy about her behavior in the house and asked her if her parents would be proud of what she had done.
Cathy is someone who is more open about sex, and honest about her own desires. This is one of her most refreshing characteristics. However, in the eyes of many, this is seen as trashy.
I am not advocating for Cathy to have beaten Kerry in the end to send a big win to all the women out there who like to have sex with whomever they want whenever they want, but rather, I am advocating for the dichotomy between the slutty girl and the good girl to be dismantled. Cathy and Kerry were purposefully kept until the end, not only to capitalize on the drama of them being good friends, but also to illustrate this simple dichotomy to viewers.
From casting to editing, production reinforced preexisting negative stereotypes of women as a device to uphold an illusion of reality. Production asserted itself to weed out the “famewhores” from the genuine women. Ironically, production made artificiality the subject matter of the show, masking their own manipulation. Viewers focused on the fakeness or the easily consumable stereotyped behavior of the women on the show rather than the way production controlled their viewing experience.
Ultimately, this was impossible for the viewer to know, because of production’s orchestration that creates sincere, false and over exaggerated actions and reactions from its contestants. Viewers are left to rely on what they do know, stereotypical judgments of people based on limited information.