Women in Reality TV Promoting Self-Denigration, Study Finds

The results of a new study from the Parents Television Council suggest that women in MTV's top reality shows are communicating messages of self-denigration to female viewers.

“After many years of pursuing equality for women, the findings of today’s study suggest a glamorized, but grossly distorted view of what it means to be feminine,” said PTC President Tim Winter in a statement. “Compared to men, women were far more denigrating to themselves and other females. With so much at stake, teen-targeted reality television is doing little more than ‘empowering’ young girls to be overly negative.”

The study, which was released Wednesday, examined the language content of four shows, including “Jersey Shore,” “Real World,” “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom 2,” which were all top cable shows in 2011 for young people ages 12 to 17.

According to the findings, females on the shows spoke about themselves in positive terms only 24 percent of the time, and only 22 percent of the overall language directed toward them from all sources was positive.

Of the four shows studied, 47 percent of the negative remarks and 59 percent of all sexual references came from “Jersey Shore.” Among all the shows, 88 percent of the sex-related dialogue was focused on intercourse and “preliminary activities leading to intercourse,” while topics like STDs, virginity, and contraceptives were discussed just four percent of the time.

Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for PTC, explained to The Christian Post on Wednesday the impact that this type of reality programming could potentially have on girls and young women who watch it.

“We have this underlying foundation that girls exist on television shows primarily as an object of sexual interest for the male characters, and to have no value in their own right. And then you have these reality shows where women are so mean and so nasty to one another that it further undermines their value in society. It further diminishes who they are as people in their own right,” said Henson.

“I think it can contribute to an atmosphere where girls have very negative feelings about themselves – about being a female and about other females – where every woman is a potential love rival and therefore no true friendships can exist between women."

The males in the shows were not much more positive either about themselves or other males, but it was found that, with the exception of “Real World,” when men weren't being positive they generally used more neutral language. When women weren't being positive they were generally being disparaging toward other women and themselves.

The terms males used to describe each other in the shows were also found to be more positive than the terms females chose. Males called each other things like “winner,” “big man,” “dawg,” “superhero” and more, while women chose to call each other things like “skank,” “slut,” “ho,” “trick,” “b*tch” and more.

The study also raises some questions about what these shows communicate about romantic relationships to young viewers. Ronnie and Sammi, two “Jersey Shore” cast members who “clearly define themselves by their long-term commitment,” according to the study, together accounted for nearly 21 percent of the disparaging language between all the shows.

"It's a very disturbing picture,” Henson said. “Men are not learning to treat women with respect, or to value them, treasure them, cherish them as we would hope our daughters would be loved and valued and cherished. And that's not the message they're getting from these reality shows. Instead, what you see is a lot of fighting – a guy calling the woman he supposedly loves a 'slut,' and worse. It's a very distorted kind of view of what a romantic relationship is.”

In the study's conclusion, it expresses the need for everyone – parents, television studios, advertisers, journalists, policymakers and even teenagers – to take responsibility for what is being watched by the younger generations. Henson says parents should ultimately be held most responsible for what their children watch, but also acknowledges that monitoring them can be hard to do in such tough economic times, when both parents in many families are working outside the home.

An MTV spokesperson declined to comment on the PTC study.