Reality TV Turning Young Girls Into Fame Monsters?

The new film The Ides of March is getting criticism for how it's portraying a female reporter. Also, the Girl Scouts' new report looks at how 1,000 teen and pre-teen girls across America feel about reality TV. How may all these images affect women and girls' self-percerptions? Michel Martin speaks with the Beauty Shop ladies: Girl Scouts USA's Kimberlee Salmond, The Detroit News TV Critic Mekeisha Madden Toby, and Linda Holmes, who writes and edits NPR's entertainment and pop culture blog.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for a visit to the Beauty Shop. That's where we go to get fresh perspectives on some of the stories we are following.

Today, we want to focus on how some women are portrayed in movies and television and we want to consider the effect that this may have on how women and girls see themselves. We'll talk about a new report on how reality television could be shaping what girls want, and why is it that so many women journalists in movies and television shows right now are depicted using their sexuality to get ahead?

With us to talk about these stories are Mekeisha Madden Toby. She's a TV critic and media writer for the Detroit News. Kimberlee Salmond is a senior researcher at Girl Scouts, USA. And Linda Holmes edits NPR's entertainment and pop culture blog, MonkeySee.

Welcome to you all. Thank you for joining us.

MEKEISHA MADDEN TOBY: Thank you.

KIMBERLEE SALMOND: Thanks for having us.

LINDA HOLMES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Kimberlee, I'm going to start with you just because of this, I think, very interesting research that you did. You surveyed a diverse group of more than 1,000 teenaged and preteen girls across the country. They were aged 11 to 17. Important to note, not just Girl Scouts. And you wanted to find out how reality TV shows may influence them.

I'll just play a short clip from one of the shows that is popular with girls, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." For the seven people who aren't familiar with it, here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS")

KIM KARDASHIAN: I'm not going if I'm not having a suite at the (unintelligible). I want the $2,500 room, the best room that they have. I don't think it's asking for too much to stay in a nice hotel, in a suite. Thank goodness I'm not asking for a private plane.

MARTIN: Me neither, Kim. I don't think it's too much either. Now, Kimberlee, first, why did you - what motivated this survey?

SALMOND: Sure. So we know that reality TV is everywhere and this was really our effort at the Girl Scout Research Institute to better understand how this impact is affecting girls and how girls are experiencing this phenomenon. And it's really a part of our general effort at the Girl Scout Research Institute to become the leading expert on girls.

MARTIN: Well, you know, just some of the findings - I'll just keep my opinion to myself about what frightens me about this to say half of the girls in the study watch reality TV. Seventy-five percent say competition shows and 50 percent think that reality shows are, in fact, real and unscripted. So that's that piece of it, but tell us about some of the other findings about - did you find that the girls who watch these shows a lot, that it did have an effect on what they think?

SALMOND: Sure. Well, I think you hit the main point of the study, which is that many girls think that reality TV reflects real life. They're consuming it as real and unscripted television, and because we know that young people in general tend to pattern themselves after what they see in the media, they're really using these examples of how to be in their own lives.

And what we actually saw was a huge difference between those girls who consume reality TV regularly and those girls who do not in terms of their expectations around peer relationships, their expectations around how the world works, and around the importance of physical appearance, specifically.

MARTIN: Well, let's break it down a little bit more. What did you actually find?

SALMOND: Sure.

MARTIN: You found that - what? Gossiping is normal.

SALMOND: Yeah. So the girls who watch...

MARTIN: They thought so.

SALMOND: Girls who watch a lot of reality TV are much more likely to say things like gossiping is normal between girls. They're much more likely to say that it's in girls' nature to be catty and competitive with one another, and they're less likely to trust other girls.

MARTIN: And the added emphasis in value on physical appearance. Now, Linda, your blog is called MonkeySee, which comes from the phrase, monkey see, monkey do.

HOLMES: Sure.

MARTIN: Right? And this is an age old question. Is it monkey see, monkey do? What you - is what you see - do you have an opinion about - is there data on whether what we see does affect our behavior? What's your take on it?

HOLMES: I think, you know, it's fair to say that probably the culture that you consume has effects on behavior. I don't question that. I think it's always difficult to know for sure when you're looking at the culture affecting the person and when you're looking at the person's personality affecting what culture they choose to take in, because these girls obviously don't come to their television preferences as blank slates. They come with their own personalities. They come with their own experiences already, and I think it's - you know, it's also believable to me that some of these girls who believe gossiping is normal and that kind of thing - that they are - you know, everybody knows that some kids are more sort of dramatic in their personality than other kids and those kids might be more drawn to reality TV. So it's hard to know always what effect(ph) .

MARTIN: Mekeisha, what about that? What's your take on this?

TOBY: I think there's some truth in that too. I also think that, when shows are as popular as "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" or, say, a "Jersey Shore," you know, other girls might want to be in on the conversation. You don't want to be the uncool person who doesn't know what the show is about and then you watch it and you get sucked in and you think this is real. You think that people get drunk and hook up and do all kinds of wild things and fight with each other in bars and do dance-offs and do strange...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TOBY: ...talk strange and wear horrible clothes. And that's that world. I mean and on one hand, as adults, we know it's entertainment but if this is all you see it's easy to start, you know, thinking that this is how it's supposed to be and this is how - this is good television.

MARTIN: How dominant a force are reality shows in the television landscape today, Mekeisha?

TOBY: Well, that's the thing. I mean they're so cheap to make that networks are going to keep making them until people tell them to stop, and they aren't going to stop because, as you said, there's a whole new generation now that not only is watching this all the time unfortunately, but they think this is real and they don't realize that these are created, you know, manufactured situations and manufactured, you know, setups and relationships.

MARTIN: But, you know, what about, you know, Linda makes the point that, you know, which is the chicken and which is the egg? Is it the people who already have a lot of drama in their lives are drawn to these shows, or do these shows encourage people to think that drama is normal?

One data point that African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely - girls in the survey - more likely to watch reality TV and were affected more by it. But we also know that African-American and Hispanic girls were more likely to spend more hours watching television...

TOBY: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...than the other than the general population. So it's you know, it's again, what's the chicken and what's the egg here? Kimberlee, do you have an opinion about this?

SALMOND: Well, we're definitely not saying that there's a causal relationship to Linda's point, but there is a correlation here. And we did see that those girls who consume more reality TV are more likely to say they relate to the scenarios, relate to the situations. So I think it is the classic chicken and egg scenario.

MARTIN: Does this - Kimberlee, I want to ask you so - and Linda, you may have an opinion about this or not. Does this worry you? I mean do you feel that there is something to be learned about this? Because traditionally, the people who have been very interested in this whole question of content have very often been people who are on the conservative side of the political aisle who have been, or parent groups which lean conservative to say, look, I don't want my kids exposed to this because you're validating a set of behaviors and values that I don't share and I don't want this. And then you've got other people, of course there is, you know, the free-speech people, people who say, you know, this is just - they'll say that though this is reflecting reality so don't shy away from the reality that people are experiencing.

SALMOND: Sure.

MARTIN: So do you have an opinion about this, Kimberlee?

SALMOND: Well, one of the - yes, everything that I just spoke about is troubling. But I just want to make the point abundantly clear that we're not saying that all of reality TV is bad. And actually our study came out with some very inspirational and motivational findings around reality TV.

MARTIN: Like what?

SALMOND: Specifically, that many girls, for instance six in 10 girls, say that reality TV has helped raise their awareness of important issues and causes and almost seven in 10 girls say that reality TV makes them feel that they can achieve anything in their life. So there are definite good things, coupled with the bad things.

MARTIN: But you - one other finding: one in four girls expects to be famous.

SALMOND: Yes. Expect to be famous.

MARTIN: The question was...

SALMOND: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: The question was: In your life do you expect you will be famous?

SALMOND: Yes. And one in four girls expects, and so I think that is a direct result of this reality TV phenomenon. Girls are consuming TV where they see people like them, especially on these competition-type shows, like the "American Idol" shows, they think that that might, that is going to happen to them. So I think that is a huge cultural shift in the last 10 or 20 years, because we're not talking about aspiration - I want to become famous. We're actually talking about their expectation around that.

TOBY: Well, look at...

MARTIN: Mekeisha?

TOBY: ...Kim Kardashian. I mean she has no like tangible talent and really no one in her family does, but they created a whole, you know, career and spinoff shows and all this other stuff based on her doing a sex tape. So, you know, why wouldn't a girl - an average girl - look at her and say I can be her? Because she can't sing, she can't dance, she's not a writer or a poet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: She looks really cute in high heels, though.

TOBY: She looks, she has great clothes and she's pretty.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: She's very pretty. I'll just say one thing before we move on from this topic. One of the things that bothers me - and I don't know that the survey spoke to this specifically - is relationship behavior, is that they're validating a kind of way to speak to people that I just find very disturbing.

SALMOND: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Because if you were to talk to the people in your life that way, I'm sorry, I just think that, you know, this like just basic manners like not, you know, look at people when you speak to them, let them finish. You know, like, you know, not like don't take phone calls in the middle of a serious conversation with your significant other. I mean what, you know, and I just look at that and I think...

HOLMES: Or a text message.

SALMOND: Okay. Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Texting your girls and the middle of a conversation with your husband. Excuse me?

HOLMES: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, it's very, I think it's really important - and this was one of the things that was so that I did appreciate about the study is there was some separation between what kind of show you're talking about, because any conclusion that you draw that's supposed to be a conclusion about the effects of both "Project Runway" and "Jersey Shore" is going to have inherent problems because they're so very, very different. But I absolutely agree with you. The shows that just involve people wallowing in their own grievances and petty arguments all the time...

MARTIN: And shopping.

TOBY: That's what really, those are the ones that really bug me. And that's not all reality TV, that's a slice.

MARTIN: If you're...

SALMOND: Exactly. It is a slice. But it is the most popular slice of TV for girls. So when you look at the different genres, real-life shows are either number one or number two, depending on the age range of the types of shows they're watching.

MARTIN: So "Extreme Makeover" is not as popular with these girls as...

SALMOND: Not as popular, although shows like that are the ones that tend to confer the most benefits.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our visit to the Beauty Shop. We're talking about topics that we think could use a fresh take. Our guests are Kimberlee Salmond. She's senior researcher for the Girl Scouts USA. They just sponsored a survey of girls and how reality TV may affect their expectations, perceptions, relationships. Linda Holmes writes and edits NPR's "Monkey See" blog. And Mekeisha Madden Toby covers TV and media for The Detroit News.

Now I'd like to talk about - you know, maybe this is a little self-obsessed. But I am interested in the female characters that we are seeing recently who are journalists. You know, it used to be that these girls were like, these women were heroes, like Lois Lane from "Superman," Mary Richards from "Mary Tyler Moore." Not, you know, heroic, but just - but now, you know, we've seen a lot of female reporters depicted who basically use their bodies to get ahead or use sexuality to get ahead. And I'll just play a short clip from the new George Clooney political thriller "The Ides of March."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IDES OF MARCH")

MARISA TOMEI: (as Ida Horowicz) So Paul, tell me something I don't know. Tell me what's going to happen on the 15th.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Paul Zara) Us by nine.

TOMEI: (as Ida Horowicz) So you're certain you're going to win here.

HOFFMAN: (as Paul Zara) Certain, no. Confident, yeah.

TOMEI: (as Ida Horowicz) You just said you win by nine.

HOFFMAN: (as character) And I think that we will.

MARTIN: Now that's Ida Horowicz played by Marisa Tomei, the character Ida Horowicz by Marisa Tomei. Now that scene doesn't really express what I'm talking about here. But I'm thinking about like "Thank You for Smoking," for example...

TOBY: Right.

MARTIN: ...where Katie Holmes plays a character who sleeps with - has, is intimate with, you know, a source to get ahead. And so I just, I don't know. Linda, tell me, do you think this is a trend here or...

HOLMES: You know, one of the things that's depressing to me is that there are so few professional women in a lot of TV and movies that any, that blips are easy to confuse with trends just because there are so few examples to draw from. There's not a huge population of women journalists on television and in movies. There's not a huge population of women, you know, with professional jobs who aren't presented primarily as being, you know, yeah, pretty impersonal relationships. So I don't know whether it's a trend. And it's not something that I've necessarily noticed, but when you point out individual examples, I say, yeah, you know, I understand why that's sort of obnoxious. But there's so little to draw on, unfortunately.

I'm not sure male journalists on television and movies come off that much better. They also tend to come off kind of like scumbags. I don't know.

MARTIN: Good point. Mekeisha, now remember, some of the blogs like "Think Progress" and "Pointer" and "Mediaite" have pointed this up. What's your take on it?

TOBY: Well, it's funny that you mention the male journalists don't come off much better too, because I always think of Ray Romano on "Everybody Loves Ray," and it's like when does this guy write? And when is he going to a sports game? How is he a sportswriter that never actually goes to games?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TOBY: But, yeah, you know, I don't think it's - I don't think we have to worry about it too much. I mean it's just so it's so rare that we see journalists on shows or in movies and when you see them, you know, they do come across as scumbags. And I thought what was interesting about on one of the blogs that was mentioned, that the reporters in these movies, the women in particular, are depicted as reporters and/bloggers. And the blog part is the part that was like oh, well, that's not real journalism. It's like what year is this? How can you, what are you talking about?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TOBY: It's just as real as any other form of journalism but the way they sort of betray it makes it seem like it's a less than. So that's the part that was a little I thought was...

MARTIN: Kimberlee - yeah, you make an important point, you know. Kimberlee, what about this? Do you think portrayals like these are, you know, in keeping with the conversation we were having a few minutes ago? Do you think that young women see these movies and then draw a conclusion about what women journalists are all about from watching them? And I'll just confess that I, you know, I may be a little sensitive about this because, you know, I'm of that generation that people did feel that, you know, of course, that, you know, they should be able to flirt with you, go out with you, you should flirt with them, you know, even cruder advances because you are a woman professional. And, you know, so maybe I'm a little overly sensitive...

SALMOND: Sure.

MARTIN: ...about it. So I'll just put that out there. But Kimberlee, what do you think?

SALMOND: Well, I think it is troubling in the sense that, as Linda eluded to, we have so few women portrayed in TV and if we had a greater representation of portrayals then girls and women watching this wouldn't necessarily think that there is one female character had to represent how all female journalists are. It's kind of a ridiculous assumption that any one person could represent an entire gender or an entire race. And yet, when the representations are so few and far between, that's what we tend to do. And then as so much as these characters fit into narrow stereotypes already of how women and girls should be and should look, I do think that it is it is problematic.

MARTIN: And finally, before we go, Linda, I'm just going to ask you this. We only have about a minute and a half left, Beyonce...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I don't know. The blogs are going crazy this week about the Beyonce baby bump. As you know, she announced to the world that she's pregnant at the MTV Awards. It was quite a dramatic moment that apparently the tweeting about this set records for Twitter. What do you take? Now there's the backlash developing where people are saying, why do we care? You're not the first person to have a baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What's your take on this?

HOLMES: I got to tell you, the celebrity baby bump thing is as big a mystery to me as it is to you. If I'm supposed to be able to explain why people love baby bumps, I got no idea. Baby bumps to me are a pregnant lady, I don't know why that's such a big deal other than that when you see an incredibly glamorous famous woman all of a sudden with a baby bump it sort of has this weird, you know, a transformative moment where all of a sudden you're seeing a mother instead of a hottie. And that's sort of the, that's the only thing I can think of - that it kind of spins people's brains in a funny way when Beyonce starts to caress this big baby bump, they're seeing something different than "Single Ladies."

TOBY: I think it's also a sense of...

MARTIN: Mekeisha? Mm-hmm.

TOBY: ...a general trend that we see which is this blurring again with reality TV of what's considered public and what's considered private. And things that you wouldn't expect - that girls never expected to see growing up are now, you know, everywhere.

MARTIN: Well, maybe it's just an equivalent, it's like the visual equivalent of people thinking they can touch you because you're pregnant.

TOBY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: People you've never met thinking they can rub your belly. Experienced that. Don't love it. Just letting you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Mekeisha Madden Toby is a TV writer for The Detroit News based in Los Angeles. She was with us from NPR West. Linda Holmes writes and edits NPR's entertainment and pop culture blog "Monkey See." She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks for taking the long trip down the hallway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Kimberlee Salmond is a senior researcher at Girl Scouts of the USA. She joined us from NPR New York. Thank you all ladies so much.

HOLMES: Thank you.

SALMOND: Thank you.

TOBY: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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