Talk about a case of reality TV hitting close to home: students at a beauty college in Alameda, California, found out that the owners of the college had been shopping around the following reality TV proposal:
"The students are mostly inner-city, unwed mothers taking advantage of government subsidies for a better life. The instructors can't find any other job that offers 'bennies' [benefits]. The new owners are white, naive suburbanites bleeding cash and trying to keep it all under control."
I live in Alameda, approximately 1.1 miles from the beauty college. I know one of the students there. Her name is Amanda; she was an honors student through high school in Alameda, and for the last two years of high school, she balanced a full courseload with the occupational training the beauty college provides. One night as we were lifeguarding together (after her day at school and then beauty college), Amanda explained that she had decided to become a certified hair professional because the skill was portable and would allow her to make enough money to ensure that she didn't have to rely on government-subsidized student loans to pay for college.
Under the terms of this reality show, Amanda would, I suppose, be left out of the careful "mostly" in the pitch. But she's not atypical at the school. I've gotten my hair cut there plenty of times, and if any of the polite and professional young women who have taken my name, shampooed my hair or listened patiently to my dithering directions are "inner-city, unwed mothers taking advantage of government subsidies" -- well, it's not apparent on the job. But this is what they'd be reduced to if this TV series were ever made.
And it's not like these women would have a choice. Although one of the school owners claims, "If we were to do a reality show, everybody would sign a release," do the students would have a choice? Sign a release and get the education you need to get an employable skill ... or don't sign it and good luck trying to get the classes you paid for. In this case a release would be an ass-covering move on the part of the owners; it protects the students -- the putative "inner-city, unwed mothers" not one whit.
I am so disgusted by this news because it is such a blatant example of the sexism, racism and classism that permeate reality TV. Everything about that pitch -- a "nice" white middle-class lady and her husband versus a phalanx of black welfare queens with sinister motives -- is designed to titillate the sensibilities of status-anxious suburbanites. And because it's a "beauty college" -- never mind that the people who graduate these schools are trained, skilled businesspeople -- there's the extra angle that oh, these women sure are dumb for dreaming of a career doing permanent waves.
Reality TV is an excellent way to reinforce political tropes about the honest middle class, the deserving poor, the harmless rich. It's a great way to slot genders into hateful roles -- women are sexual cheats and marginally employable.
But it's not an excellent way to get a nuanced look at anyone's realistic situation. Trading in racist, classist, sexist stereotypes may make for saleable entertainment. But is this really the product any of us want to be consuming?