Our time is one of social reform. Liberal governing policies are being implemented and privatization is being stressed. The government is taking a laissez-faire approach and trying to transform its citizens into independents. One way this is played out is through reality TV. As Ouellette and Hay say, “At a time when behaviors, personal responsibility, and consumer choice are promoted as the best way to govern liberal capitalist democracies, reality TV shows us how to conduct and “empower” ourselves as enterprising citizens” (Ouellette and Hay 2). However, this is not the case with all reality TV shows. Some of the programs exist as pure entertainment and may actually succeed in perpetuating or reinventing negative stereotypes. Such is the case with The Girls Next Door. I intend to analyze the ways in which The Girls Next Door both maintains and challenges popularly held hegemonic beliefs about femininity and sexuality.
The Girls Next Door features the everyday lives of 3 women living in the playboy mansion under the watch/ownership of Hugh Hefner. The show opens with a quick clip of Hugh with the 3 girls on both of his arms. Right away it’s apparent that the show is exemplifying the submissiveness of women. All of the playmates are at least 18 years of age and therefore considered, for all legal intents and purposes, grown adults, and hence, women. The fact the show is titled The “Girls” Next Door and opens with Hugh having his arms around the girls as if he owns them, leads credence to the devaluing of women as people; that they should be submissive to men and treated as (sexual) objects for men to own.
Another hegemonic belief that is ever-present and almost never challenged in the show is that women should be thought of primarily as sexual beings and focus mainly if not solely on their outward appearance. Yes, the girls are playmates. Yes, it’s their job to dress slutty. But that’s just it, it’s their job, it’s not supposed to be their lives. However, one would be hard pressed to find any episode of The Girls Next Door in which the girls don’t appear in low cut shirts, really high shorts or skirts, or just plain wearing bathing suits around the house. Rarely, if ever, are the girls encouraged to or facilitated in using any sort of intellectual talent or skill whatsoever. It appears as if the girls’ brains and personality don’t mean a thing; as long as they have big boobs, big asses, slim bodies, and attractive faces, they will live in the lap of luxury.
Perhaps this belief is not challenged in this particular scenario because “one class exercises hegemony to the extent that the dominating class has interests which the subaltern classes recognize as being some degree their interests too” (Lull 63). In this case, Hugh is the dominating class and clearly his interests are keeping a ton of young, hot women around his house that bring him billions of dollars and all the sex he wants. On the other hand, these girls are certainly interested in doing whatever it takes (looking good, often through surgery) to remain in a huge mansion being catered to and given whatever they want. Although this may seem like a compelling and legitimate reason to want to remain in the mansion, the problem lies in the fact that the girls’ stay at the mansion is at the cost of exploiting their own bodies; their stay is determined by their appearance and their appearance alone.
Something I noticed while watching episodes of The Girls Next Door is that it seems to send paradoxical messages about femininity. While, for the most part, the program typically shows the girls doing traditionally ‘feminine’ activities such as dancing, strip teasing, shopping, the audience also witnesses the girls doing some traditionally ‘masculine’ activities. However, when the girls appear to be breaking the mold and doing these ‘manly’ activities, there is usually some sort of mockery-toned music playing over the scene. For instance, in one episode the girls are at a bar and one of the playmates rides a mechanical bull. While this may seem to ‘empower’ women by showing the public that “girls can do it too”, there is a silly, almost circus-like music being played while she is riding the bull. Watching the episode, it’s clear that the producers of the show are making a parody out of the playmate riding the bull; as if to mock the woman for performing a traditionally ‘masculine’ act.
So while reality TV may seem to be beneficial in that most shows promote self ‘empowerment’ through personal governing practices, this is not always the case. Some shows, like The Girls Next Door, simply document the daily lives of people for viewing pleasure. However, the problem (or benefit) of such a program is that it may establish and re-establish (or break down) widely held negative beliefs about gender. Perhaps this is because of the heteronormative culture we live in. If taking advice and learning life values and ideals from reality television is what our society has come to, then hopefully it will further advance to a stage in which biases and stereotypes are not so prominent.
Ouellette, Laurie, and James Hay. Better Living Through Reality TV. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2008.
Lull, James. Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach. New York and Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press, 1995.