The number of reality television shows in the United States has skyrocketed in the past few years and is now becoming as, if not more, popular than traditional programs. These shows both subtly and inconspicuously demonstrate the norms of American society, thus convincing the viewer that what they are seeing is how the world is “supposed to be”. Issues such as gender, race, class, age, and ethnicity are frequent topics in reality television because the characters supposedly have no scripts and are voicing their own true feelings and thoughts, which can also be a recipe for disaster. As Pozner states in “The Unreal World”, “Viewers may be drawn to reality TV…because these shows frame their narratives in ways that both reflect and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women, men, love, beauty, class and race” (Pozner 97). The Girls Next Door, featuring Hugh Hefner and his three playboy girlfriends, is a perfect example of how gender norms are played out in TV. The character that I decided to take a closer look at was Kendra, the sportiest of the girls. Kendra reinforces, yet at the same time defies hegemonic norms of what it means to be a woman in this society.
In one episode called “Dangerous Curves” from season three, Kendra was asked to race in a celebrity car race to raise money for charity. She was ecstatic to hear the news and quickly agreed. Because Kendra enjoys activities commonly seen as “manly” she is deemed a tomboy by society. As Newman puts it, “We have a tendency to identify people in ‘either/or’ terms-as white or black, rich or poor, man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual” (Newman 37). This is why Kendra might bring some viewers a bit of uneasiness because they cannot easily categorize her as either man or woman since she is somewhat androgynous. She also disrupts the norm that girls are quiet, polite, caretakers; by the way she speaks alone. In this episode Kendra curses over and over, mainly during the scene where she is talking about wanting to win the race. It almost seems as though the person videoing draws extra attention to this behavior since it is “unladylike”. However, her character is multidimensional and it would be unjust to only look at this side of her.
Kendra on the other hand, also serves to represent the slutty type of girl who is not ashamed to show off her body to anyone. She is the typical white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, thin girl that is the most common ideal of beauty seen in American society. While Kendra was waving the flags at the racetrack she decided that she would get the drivers’ attention her own way by pulling up her shirt and exposing her breasts to all who drove by. This severely contrasts her role as a tomboy because she is using her female assets to gain attention from the opposite sex. Kendra reflects her femininity through the skin-tight, low-cut tank tops she appears in from time to time, as well as her barely-there skirts. Although Kendra is a female who engages in “masculine” activities, she is still seen primarily as a female sexual being and her womanhood is hardly questioned, possibly because her body still reflects the typical sexy girl on the outside.
Although most people might take The Girls Next Door as a light-hearted type of show, this is not to say that there is nothing notable to be taken away from it. One with little knowledge of American culture would pick up on the fact that beauty is important, and that the definition of beauty is to be blonde, skinny, and white. They would also get the impression that men dominate women in everyday life. According to Newman, “The status of one group is always defined in terms of its relations to other groups: There can be no controlling males without women whose options are restricted” (Newman 37). Hugh Hefner has the ability to date and have sex with any woman he wants, yet his girlfriends are forbidden from engaging in sexual activity with anyone else but him, in return for living at his mansion and being provided with luxuries. This accentuates the idea that America is a patriarchal society where men are the dictating sex. Reality television shows do a great job of perpetuating stereotypes according to gender, race, class, and any other categories that are used to group people and these are very obvious when they are watched through a telescope.
Not only does The Girls Next Door reflect women poorly, but it also says something about men through the behavior of Hugh Hefner. He stands for ideals of heteronormativity and patriarchy, which is seen by the way he always has at least one sexy woman on his arm at all times and is rarely even in the company of another man other than one of his staff. Although he has control over his various girlfriends, he is perpetuating negative stereotypes rather than just highlighting his dominance. Through the girls Hugh Hefner chooses to date, it is obvious that his ideal of beauty is blonde, skinny, white girls and all three of his girlfriends fit this description. He is a millionaire, yet he is attracted to seemingly unintelligent women who really don’t have careers aside from modeling in his magazines occasionally. If a man is successful one would think he would strive for a woman of equal status and success, but this is not the case. One can also assume that these twenty-something women would not typically be attracted to an 81-year-old man if he did not happen to be extremely wealthy, which makes one think that all men need is money to win women. As Pozner says in relation to this issue, “This standard not only demeans women, but thoroughly underestimates men’s inherent worth as people” (Pozner, 99). Even though The Girls Next Door’s primary focus is on the girls, Hugh Hefner’s behavior, when examined, reveals a lot about the stereotypes and norms associated with men in American culture.
Reality television, whether it is truly “real” or not, has a way of dispensing cultural norms and stereotypes to its viewers by convincing them that what they are seeing is how people just like themselves do or should behave. This in turn makes the audience compare themselves to the characters they see in order to justify their own actions, looks, and personality traits. According to Ouellette and Hay, “…reality TV circulates informal ‘guidelines for living’ that we are all (at times) called upon to learn from and follow” (Ouellette and Hay 2). Characters like Kendra therefore act as models of gender norms for the rest of society to look after. However, Kendra is unlike many women typically seen on reality television since she is heterosexual, yet she encompasses characteristics that both reinforce and defy the unwritten codes of how women should act.
Dodgers. [Online image] Available http://i.a.cnn.net/si/2007/sioncampus/02/16/ghostriding/p1_kendra.jpg, May 28, 2008
Hay, James & Ouellette, Laurie. Better Living Through Reality TV. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
Hugh and his girlfriends. [Online image] Available http://img.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2007/03_02/hefnerG150307_468x544.jpg, May 28, 2008
Kendra peace signs. [Online image] Available http://upload-gdc.mtv.com/onair/celebrity_rap_stars/meet_the_cast/crs_ep101_kendra_281x211.jpg, May 28, 2008
Kendra sexy. [Online image] Available http://i185.photobucket.com/albums/x297/melsworth88/4b97.jpg, May 28, 2008
Kendra Wilkinson Racing . [Online image] Available http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://cache.viewimages.com/xc/73888804.jpg%3Fv%3D1%26c%3DViewImages%26k%3D2%26d%3D17A4AD9FDB9CF1934AEA4ECF4B436E77061A6407E68DA571284831B75F48EF45&imgrefurl=http://www.viewimages.com/Search.aspx%3Fmid%3D73888804%26epmid%3D3%26partner%3DGoogle&h=594&w=473&sz=42&hl=en&start=4&tbnid=RCZZmFv6EqFV9M:&tbnh=135&tbnw=108&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dkendra%2Bwilkinson%2Bracing%2Bcar%26gbv%3D2%26hl%3Den, May 28, 2008
Newman, Chapter 2, p. 37
Pozner, Jennifer L. "The Unreal World" p. 97, 99
The Girls Next Door Calendar 2008. [Online image] Available http://laist.com/attachments/la_jessicap/girls%20next%20door.jpgeason_2, May 28, 2008