My name is Ann(ie). I am a video and performance artist currently pursuing my MFA. You may recognize me as YouTube "cewebrity" Scandalishious, aka "Caroline".
You may also recognize me from Vh1 and 51 Minds latest attempt at facilitating (or perhaps simulating) romance for audience pleasure: Frank the Entertainer…In a Basement Affair. Basement Affair places fifteen women in a house vying for the attention of Frank “The Entertainer” Maresca, a thirty two year old contestant from I Love New York 2 and I Love Money who still lives in his parent’s basement. The kicker was we all had to live in a house with him and his parents.
(I'm the skinny awkward girl in a pink tank top in the back row trying not to have a nervous breakdown)
Originally, I went on the show to do a wacky performance piece, attempting to play up the ridiculousness that is reality television and the characters it produces, a satire on a genre that is already a satire of itself. I was interested in the way reality television is reproducing female stereotypes at an alarming rate—using “real” people to validate these stereotypes’ existence.
But ultimately, I wanted to become a Famewhore. I've been drawn to Famewhores for as long as there has been trashy reality television, socialites releasing sex tapes, since the first woman shook her ass on YouTube. I was there, watching and wondering. What is not only my, but also many of ours, fascination with the Famewhore? Where did she come from? And what effect does the Famewhore have on us? I felt the only way I would find out would be to become one myself and surround myself with them. In doing so I would need to get over my self consciousness about my awkward body, eccentric demeanor, large nose, shyness around new people and just say "Hey, this is me. I’m super. Love me and/or hate me please. All I ask for is your attention."
Of course, none of my family or friends wanted me to become a Famewhore (although I was already a Camwhore, via Scandalishious, the Famewhore demands a larger audience). For myself, the Famewhore persona is ridden with a self-imposed shame. Most educated, upper middle class people (such as myself) tend to look down upon the women on these dating shows as desperate, slutty and stupid. Most people, especially production, assume that one must be a complete moron to subject themselves to being humiliated and to be judged solely on their sexuality.
I believe there is more to the Famewhore than sheer stupidity. It is this something more that is important to understand how female stereotypes are currently being validated by reality television. It is precisely the belief that it is purely stupidity and vanity by both production and viewers at large that allows for the continuing negative representations of women. Despite my inclination to not be viewed as a stupid slut, I had to become a Famewhore in order to shed my own assumptions about what it means to be one.
But first, I had to get on the show. I performed in character during my audition and my pre-house interview. I knew I had to make a completely clueless yet outrageous idiot of myself in order to get on the show—aware that I lacked the typical "look" of the reality starlet. I told them about the inner most secrets of my sex life and my attraction to Frank's perfectly proportioned neck. They loved every second of it. I was cast. It was all so easy….
I knew I would not be prepared for what being on the set of a reality show would actually be like but I thought I could handle it. I was wrong. I hid in a corner as often as I could and avoided social contact. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. The first morning I wanted to give up and go home. The cameras freaked me out. For the first three days I couldn’t ignore them and the pressure to perform (both for my own artistic goals and for the entertainment of the show itself) crippled me. My original plan fell apart.
I took my nervous breakdown as a sign. The "wacky performance art piece" was too easy. Performing a character is more or less what many contestants are doing anyways, just not under the guise of art critique. What I believed would be contradictory to the reality television model would be for me to be my awkward, shy, cynical and bashful self—the person production never would have cast-- even if that meant putting my dreams of famewhoriness on hold (or perhaps my new “real” persona would just hide those desires more effectively).
In the house setting—this was easy. The girls were nice overall and once they saw I was “being real” and didn’t particularly give a crap what they thought of me, were respectful of my presence. I began to feel more at ease and could ignore the presence of the cameras. However, in the interview setting, I found it harder to be my normal self. The camera demands the performative and I found myself hamming it up constantly. Thus, I found the performance became one that combined my "real" self with what I believed my "character" should be—what I call, my "reality TV self".
I could not have taken the production of this show as seriously as I did if I did not have a genuine interest in Frank. While I had thought he was good looking from television and had genuinely admired his character from the shows I had watched (yes, I am a reality television junkie and I found his refusal to play dirty on I Love Money endearing) I was surprised by how much I liked him and his parents. Frank is far more attractive in person and is very charming. I liked him. I wanted to legitimately compete in a game for his affections (rather than camera time) because I believed that would be the most ridiculous thing to do. And that was what no one else was really doing.
And why would they be? It's television! Maybe some of the girls came to like him as I did but ultimately everyone was there to be on television. To subject oneself to being on reality television (albeit fun and exciting at times, it is a more or less traumatic experience, whether you are conscious of it or not, that takes away all your adult freedoms and places you in a constant state of confusion and distrust) for reasons other than wanting to be on television seems fairly unbelievable.
The desire to be on television and to be a Famewhore is not a negative thing necessarily. It seems like a fairly reasonable desire-- stemming from our culture where a woman’s self worth is based on the attention she receives from others. My writings to come about my experience on the show will further explore not only my own performance on the show but also how production casts Famewhores and then shames them for their innate and reasonable desires. By placing the blame of any potential disingenuousness of the show onto the female contestants, production is able to obscure their own presence and give the show a more believable illusion of "reality." It is precisely this "reality", which obfuscates production's hand in the show, that works to continually perpetuate negative stereotypes of women.
In Part I of Shaming Famewhores I discussed going on the reality TV dating show Frank the Entertainer…In a Basement Affair, currently on Vh1, as a performance art piece. I performed as myself rather than as a typical wacky performance artist in hopes to deny what I believed was production's expectations of me. I also went on the show to do research on the stereotyping machine that is reality television. To do so, I needed to challenge my own assumptions about the women that go on these shows and accept my own inner Famewhore.
To my astonishment, and most likely everyone else's, I survived six eliminations. I can only credit my survival to a genuine connection with Frank, and my presence being a complete anomaly on the show. My original shyness of the cameras turned to indifference and I was able to interact with the people on the show at a relatively normal, although still extremely guarded, level. I wasn't the best Famewhore I could be, but my reticence, or perhaps inability, to conform to the typical model allowed me to stand out. To be a successful Famewhore, and also the winner of the show I found that one needed to command and desire attention while appearing oblivious of that fact.
To stay on the show you needed to have both Frank and production on your side. Production acted as a big brother to Frank, able to enlighten him with information and fabricating drama with some women while allowing others to fly under the radar to continue a courtship.
I developed a genuine relationship with Frank that was rooted in friendship and I wanted our interactions to be real and not just for television. I began to compare my interactions with Frank with the interactions he was having with the other girls. And certainly the difference was a lack of a sexual chemistry between us. Frank was not attracted to me.
In my attempt to unleash my inner Famewhore I was unable to cultivate the most important feature—sex appeal. Whether it is subtle or overt, a woman who can demand a large audience's attention usually must have large amounts of sex appeal. My own brand of Famewhore tended to use humor rather than sexiness to get attention. However, that sort of behavior typically renders women romantically disabled.
I knew in some way I had to perform my sexuality not only to entice Frank but also to be able to stay on the show. My previous experience attempting to be sexy in a public forum was as my internet persona Scandalishious. I used this character to speak about the ways young women have come to imitate sexiness. My performances as Scandalishious, mirroring a phenomenon in which young women attempt to be sexy based on popular culture's definition of sex appeal, demanded that I too attempt to be sexy. My performances showcased my own awkwardness as a way to speak to a defunct definition of female sexuality. Aware of my own inability to master a sex appeal that could be deemed socially acceptable, I knew any attempt on television to master it would be awkward and disastrous.
I found this predicament to be damning and frustrating. While originally being cast on the show as a zany mess, once in the house my character was reshaped to be the shy, sweet girl—the "realest" girl in the house, as I was often told. My character as the nice girl was also devoid of sexuality, and the non-sexualization of my character, both through my own doing and through careful editing (i.e. clips of me staring mysteriously at a bikini top or awkwardly pulling a bra out of my dress contrasted with the blatant objectification of some of the women's jiggling asses or strutting legs) rendered me an inadequate partner for Frank. To give both Frank and production what they wanted from me in terms of sexiness would have only ended in humiliation. To be unable to perform sexiness would be seen as a failure.
These are societal pressures that in the real world are much easier to ignore. However, on the set of a reality television show, they are intensified. I realized the effect that production's expectations were having on me and decided to come out of my perfomative shell. For a moment I stopped being the “Annie” character in order to break the role that had become determined for me—one that kept me bound so tightly.
So, at a "crooning" challenge, instead of singing the song I had carefully constructed with my partner Dana, I rapped (well, really yelled) a song about getting freaky with Frank, spouting out expletives about Frank cumming in my mouth not only in front of Frank, but also in front of his supposedly "horrified" parents.
I was sure that I would be sent home. No longer at the point in the show where everything was fun and games, the competition was beginning to become real in that connections with Frank had to become more substantial than just a few moments of dialogue and a kiss. I was feeling the pressure to further entrench myself in a stereotypical character and allow myself to be used for production's ends or suffer the consequences. This was a game I could not play since I was not willing to engage in a faux romance with someone I cared about. Nor was I willing to play a role as a woman I did not feel comfortable in. While originally willing to play along with reality television, I found I could play along no longer.
My lyrical outburst was an attempt to illustrate and also poke fun of my frustration and inability to perform my own sex appeal in a socially normal way. Rather than sing romantically, dance sensually or even act respectably, I wanted to throw these expectations of me out the window. I wanted to break character in a forum production would not be able to edit out. I wanted everyone, both people on the show and viewers at home, to see the ridiculous game of expectations we were all playing. I didn't want to allow production to be rid of me for not fulfilling the role of the “accepted” female mate. I wanted them to be rid of me for making a mockery of them to increase ratings rather than the other way around.
Production, using Frank as a proxy, attempted to use the "friendship only" feelings he had towards me as an excuse to let me go. But in fact production wanted me gone because I had stepped out of the role I was assigned in a significant way. Production could not reconcile this difference in character for an audience and now being uncertain in the role I would be able to fulfill for them, had to let me go. By showing my true colors as a performer rather than a potential mate, I temporarily disrupted the illusion of reality production carefully crafts.
I would still call myself a Famewhore. The desire to be desired by many is a quality that exists in many women. It is cultivated within us from a young age while we are simultaneously shamed for it. Reality television didn't invent this predicament; it simply exploits it to hide its own hand in perpetuating stereotypes. Production claims to be on the side of the bachelor on these shows by purporting to help him sort out who is there for television versus who is "real". This is production's mask of seeming genuineness, which occurs by taking the stance of the savvy viewer in acknowledging that reality television can be fake and people on reality television can also be fake. Therefore, production's supposed job is to sort out the fake from the reality to provide viewers with the most "real" experience possible. But of course production tends to cast women who they know they can expose as being fake or not, depending on how they believe they can cast each woman to fit society’s notions of an acceptable female partner.
As viewers, we are only able to place the blame on the women in these situations because our position as viewers will never allow us to truly see production's hand in the show. Even as a contestant on the show, I was not fully able to see this, although production's methods of fabrication did become much clearer than if I had not gone on the show. The construction of reality television is not a simple binary between the real and the staged but rather a far more complex system, which involves a lot more facilitating, composing, simplification and imitation. This will be explored further in my final blog. For now, by beginning to learn to reevaluate how women are viewed in general we can begin to uncover the mask reality television production hides behind. Rather than shame the Famewhore we must learn to accept her.
In Part I of Shaming Famewhores, I talked about going on Vh1's reality dating series Frank the Entertainer…In a Basement Affair as a performance art piece to explore firsthand this decade's "famewhore" phenomenon. In Part II of Shaming Famewhores, I discussed how my attempts at being a famewhore ultimately failed. In an effort to rupture production’s veil of realism and to expose their narrow portrayals of women I decided to break my sweet and quirky character through a profane rap song. This was reality TV suicide, as production knew they would be unable to reconcile my character, ensuring my elimination.
An appearance of reality is upheld by the production team's ability to create an environment for their cast that obscures the boundaries between fact and fiction. What is authentic versus what is artificial is at times unclear to all participants involved (including the production team themselves). Therefore, when asked, no cast member can clearly describe to you whether or not reality TV is "real" or not. This is the best way I can describe the experience:
Imagine being a prisoner. In your prison, you can't trust your fellow prisoners because you don't know what crimes they have committed, or what crimes they are capable of committing. You can't trust the guards, the authority within the jail, because they have another agenda that you are not aware of, to ensure cooperation. The guards are rarely coercive; they just engineer situations in which desired outcomes may occur. The bachelor and his family functioned as privileged prisoners, enlisted by the guards to act as their hand within the jail. As a participant, I could either try to decide what was real or not, or accept that I would never know.
What ends up happening is that the layers of reality become so convoluted that it is impossible to distinguish between genuine or staged actions, which is production's intention. A planned or facilitated action may spur fifteen different legitimate reactions, which in turn spawns fifteen over-exaggerated reactions and fifteen other sincere ones.
During the taping of the show, production's agenda for eliminations seemed arbitrary. However, after watching the show, their contrivances became clear. In the interests of creating a show that would appeal to a broad audience, production reinforced sexist and racist stereotypes.
Production often accomplished this by being able to fall back on the idea that some of these women may not have "really been there" for Frank. The entire cast came on the show to be on television. However, the women came under the most scrutiny for being famewhores, and the successful contestants were just better at cloaking this.
Out of the original fifteen contestants, there were only two black women, one Asian woman, and one woman of mixed descent. The remaining eleven women were white. The four women that were finalists were of Italian heritage, like Frank.
The first few episodes were spent weeding out the women who didn't fit Frank racially (all non-whites had been eliminated by the fourth episode). Jenny, the last of these eliminations, was by far the most shocking and telling of production’s biases. At the elimination ceremony, Frank exposes slightly risqué pictures of Jenny that he found on the internet. He says to her, "The bottom line is Jenny, I just don't think you’re here for me."
Jenny is unbelievably beautiful, kind, smart and educated. Despite all these positive qualities, Jenny could not have been an appropriate match for Frank because she is black. However, Jenny couldn't have been visibly eliminated for this reason, nor was it really possible for production to find anything else wrong with her (such as with other girls: a ditzy demeanor, lack of chemistry, Frank's mom doesn't like her etc). For production to be rid of her and claim her as an unsuitable match for Frank, she had to be exposed as a famewhore. Some of the final contestants had equally racy pictures of themselves on the internet, and this was not used against them during eliminations.
Tammy, a Vietnamese woman whose second language is English, took a rough beating as well. In her last episode, Frank claimed that he had trouble communicating with her and eliminated her. Tammy was spared the shame of being called a famewhore, but was blatantly stereotyped as the show's only Asian woman. In an interview, another contestant proclaimed that Tammy was a Cup of Noodle while Frank was spaghetti and meatballs and that these two dishes don't mix. With these interview interludes, production worked to reinforce ingrained notions of what kind of people belong together. For starters, people of different races shouldn't mix.
After the removal of the women of color came the elimination of women who were sexually lacking and/or immature. There was Christi, who was eliminated for being "too young," and for supposedly still "hooking up" with her ex boyfriend, Renee, who failed to capture Frank's attention with a whipped cream surprise and tacky saloon girl costume, and myself, who was lumped into the "just friends" category.
Then there was also an extrication of women who didn't fit with Frank culturally. Within the final six women, one woman from Minnesota was eliminated for being too "white trash" and another woman from Tennessee was eliminated for being "too nice." Neither a supposedly culturally backwards Midwestern woman nor a genteel southern woman would be right for a brash Italian boy from New York.
The final two women were two native New York Italian women who also happened to be friends before the show, Cathy and Kerry. Kerry had received a glowing edit the whole way through. Kerry knew how to carry herself; how to be sexy but not slutty, how to be kind without appearing fake, how to be smart without seeming pretentious.
Kerry was also the good girl. She helped her friend Cathy when she got too drunk one night. Kerry also refused to go all the way with Frank in the basement. Cathy on the other hand received the "slut" edit. Half way through the season we learn that Cathy was sneaking into the basement to have sex with Frank. She may be the only woman on a reality dating show to admit to having sex with the bachelor. Time after time, we heard about Frank and Cathy's "amazing" physical connection. The viewer was left to wonder if that was all they had.
I saw Frank form a bond with both of these women. However, Frank could only choose one, and like Brett Michaels and Flavor Flav, he chose the good girl over the slut.
The slut tag is incredibly detrimental. Cathy didn't have sex with Frank to stay on TV or to make him like her. Cathy had sex with Frank because she wanted to. The show reinforced the idea that women should save themselves for the right man, and that women with strong sexual desires are inadequate life partners. Instead of being viewed as the self-assured and sexually powerful woman that she is, Cathy was merely viewed as a slut.
This is made explicit by the over-emphasis given to the sexual side of their relationship. In the final episode, Frank's parents confronted Cathy about her behavior in the house and asked her if her parents would be proud of what she had done.
Cathy is someone who is more open about sex, and honest about her own desires. This is one of her most refreshing characteristics. However, in the eyes of many, this is seen as trashy.
I am not advocating for Cathy to have beaten Kerry in the end to send a big win to all the women out there who like to have sex with whomever they want whenever they want, but rather, I am advocating for the dichotomy between the slutty girl and the good girl to be dismantled. Cathy and Kerry were purposefully kept until the end, not only to capitalize on the drama of them being good friends, but also to illustrate this simple dichotomy to viewers.
From casting to editing, production reinforced preexisting negative stereotypes of women as a device to uphold an illusion of reality. Production asserted itself to weed out the "famewhores" from the genuine women. Ironically, production made artificiality the subject matter of the show, masking their own manipulation. Viewers focused on the fakeness or the easily consumable stereotyped behavior of the women on the show rather than the way production controlled their viewing experience.
Ultimately, this was impossible for the viewer to know, because of production's orchestration that creates sincere, false and over exaggerated actions and reactions from its contestants. Viewers are left to rely on what they do know, stereotypical judgments of people based on limited information.