Says Michael Hirschorn: "If women didn't want these shows, they wouldn't get made."
That's Michael Hirschorn, mastermind behind reality shows like Flavor Of Love, Paris Hilton's My New BFF, Gone Too Far, TI's Road to Redemption, A Shot Of Love With Tila Tequila, and Celebrity Rehab. He agreed to sit down for an evening to talk about what it all means, in particular for the ladies. (Whiskey was involved).
It's a line of questioning to which few in his business have been willing to submit. But then, Hirschorn, who headed programming at VH1 in its golden age of celebreality and now has his own production company, Ish, says, "I don't feel that the shows that we did at VH1 were particularly about female objectification, or a certain kind of female sexuality."
On the other hand, the argument that these shows represent some sort of diverse and multilayered portrait of female sexuality is one even Hirschorn isn't trying to make – not that he thinks that's his job, or that of the business in general. ("Entertainment is not supposed to give us our moral values," he says. "It's supposed to make life livable.")
Not long ago, an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times criticized the women of reality shows, where "dancing like a stripper and decking costars are the encouraged routes to landing one's dream guy." The author, David Kronke, said he wasn't able to get any of the producers or channels responsible for such shows on the phone. And in any case, it was easier to blame the (female) cast members for their exhibitionism and its purportedly corrosive effect on society — rather than say, the producers. Or those of us who watch.
By then, I'd already sat down for a couple of hours with Hirschorn, whose peculiar role in the business is both as participant and on-the-record observer. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he began in magazines (Esquire, New York) and founded a dot-com boom-era startup; until recently, he wrote a media column for The Atlantic. At VH1, Hirschorn helped invent television's ironic-nostalgic approach to pop culture, seen in shows like Best Week Ever and I Love The Eighties. On his watch, celebreality became a wildly profitable and signature genre at VH1, starting with "The Surreal Life" ("really I Love The Eighties as a reality show," he says).
"I think my whole career I struggled with reconciling those two sides — you know, the kind of grad school side with the Flava Flav side," he says, when pressed. "I definitely don't look down on it. I own them both, but I don't know how to put them together." In fact, the way they've come together onscreen looks a lot like the average educated viewer's consumption of shows like Hirschorn's – there is some talk about farcical send-up (Flavor Of Love, he says, was a parody of The Bachelor — a "commentary... on the transactional nature of erotic relationships"), but the line between mockery and full embrace of what was once shamefacedly regarded as trash is sometimes hard to find. If there still is one.
Which brings us back to what women want...from television. "I've tended to be more successful with coming up with stuff that women want to watch more than men for whatever reason," Hirschorn says. "I grew up entirely around women so I'm always attuned to female reactions more than male reactions."
But then, most reality show audiences, including those for Hirschorn's shows, are overwhelmingly female. "I think generally, culturally it's harder to figure out what men want because what they want is still kind of basic," says Hirschorn. "It's like, porn money porn. So to come up with some general entertainment for men would be hard…. Especially in reality. There's not that many reality shows that men like." (As for what men do want to watch, he offers The Apprentice and Jackass as examples.)
So let's say television has figured out what women like to watch. Here's the promo for the second season of Flavor of Love, which broke basic cable records at the time with 7.5 million viewers for its season finale.
It's part of a now-familiar parade of the shrewish, the pneumatic, the hot-tub-wriggling, and the money-grubbing. (If you're been in hiding for the past decade, there's a convenient breakdown here.)
"That sort of soft-porn female sexuality is something that women manifestly want to watch," Hirschorn argues. "And back when we would do like, you know, The Hundred Hottest Hotties, no men would watch that."
I ask him if the shows aren't still overwhelmingly produced by men. Probably, Hirschorn says, but, he insists, it's not that relevant: "The thing about being a really commercial medium is that you are in a direct feedback loop. You get ratings right away, you respond accordingly."
"Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. Instead, it was time for us to join the frat party of pop culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along. If Male Chauvinist Pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and be Female Chauvinist Pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves."
Of course, Levy is ultimately critical of that reasoning, but Hirschorn is among those who looks at these images and behaviors and sees something liberating.
"I think that hypersexualization was also a response to women feeling equal if not superior," he says. "Women felt liberated to do whatever they wanted to, to flaunt themselves however they wanted to, and that a certain kind of fear was gone." He compares it to hip hop lyrics in the 90s, which for him "felt liberating, and I found it notable that it felt liberating for a lot of women, too…I grew up it being a given that women were victims and men were aggressors, so women could embrace this music. So that that felt to me like that was a victory. And that's what the women were celebrating—no longer being victims. It didn't threaten them."
This kind of liberation takes place on a stage almost exclusively reached by successfully acting out what, it is thought, men want – an image still mostly sold by men and bought by women.
But Hirschorn wants to say that this is a phenomenon that doesn't discriminate by gender, that these characters are just part of the overall story of reality television: The shows refract extreme behavior to viewers who don't necessarily see them as a prescription for living, but rather as a first entertaining, and then ultimately cathartic, experience that draws boundaries between them and the "characters." Nancy Franklin made a similar argument in this week's New Yorker review of Jersey Shore:
Our ability to take any pleasure, or even interest, in shows like this—in which participants are depicted as energetic but essentially aimless, oblivious of their own deficits, and delusional about their attractiveness and their importance in the world—hinges not on our ability to identify with them but on our ability to distinguish ourselves from them. Unless the show manages to make us feel as though we were anthropologists secretly observing a new tribe through a break in the trees, it hasn't done its job. [With Jersey Shore], MTV…can give itself a pat on the back for enabling viewers to feel superior to at least eight other people.
Or, as Hirschorn puts it, "If more people in reality were ideal, we wouldn't watch them because it wouldn't provide the function that reality serves, which I think is a really visceral one, which is the desire to look at other people and judge them."
He adds, "The people most successful on reality shows are not necessarily the most attractive, but they are the most emotionally naked. And with that comes the kind of exhibitionism, the emotional exhibitionism, the sexual exhibitionism, that if you look at in the cold light of day, you can take a lot of issue with it, and you can criticize."
Given the proven record of extreme behavior, nuance of any kind can be a hard sell. Says Hirschorn, "We did a show with incredibly brilliant design students, like shockingly brilliant design students, who were very unconventional and surprising and bohemian, and gay and straight and male and female, not even remotely sexualized. And we were not able to sell that… And there's a show we're developing now in the fashion world, and the guy is unbelievably talented, unbelievably good looking, but he's nice and normal. In the couple weeks we've had, I've actually had to apologize in front of him for how normal he is."
If this guy, whoever he is, is anything like his successful peers in the space, he'll shape up and act out -– these days, potential subjects (previously famous and otherwise) willingly self-produce, as daily life becomes a public, recorded performance even for the reality-indifferent.
"I think the conventional wisdom is that there's the evil reality TV producers who are manipulating everything, and there's probably a little bit of truth to that," says Hirschorn. "But I think the reality, so to speak, is that…we just have our nets out and we're catching a lot of dolphins. People are really crazed and obsessed with fame, fans, and that kind of validation, and they'll do anything."
Of course, for the women of reality TV, "anything," follows a particular script, and as long as shimmying, spitting, and slapping will make you famous, volunteers will abound. And Hirschorn doesn't necessarily object. "I don't think society's broken," he says. "I don't think it needs to be fixed….Like all successful populist creative forms, reality doesn't really care about quality. It's a kind of mongrel medium. And it has bad values and it has good values. And some of it is good, and some of it is just absolutely horrible. But that's part of a creative turn that I think ultimately will lead toward something that is constructive."
I tell him that when I mentioned the interview to a mutual acquaintance, the prompt response was that Hirschorn must hate himself. He shrugs it off — he sees his career as a response to a "haute-bourgeois" Manhattan upbringing in which he wasn't allowed to watch television — but does say that there are "moments" where he stops and considers things to have gone "too far."
Such as? "I had a moment two days ago where I woke up and I said, 'I should really do a show called Mistress House, where all of Tiger Woods' mistresses get in a house together…I sent all the people I work with emails saying ‘Tell me not to do this'. I said, 'I don't really want to be that guy.'"
This being television, someone else is perfectly willing to be that guy.