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Girls gone wild on TV

Jane Austen was hardly anticipating the reality-TV phenomenon two centuries in her future when she wrote, in her 1815 novel “Emma,” “Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief.” But it’s difficult to imagine so succinctly insightful a description of what results from the genre’s lurid fascination with attractive and monumentally self-absorbed young women.

It has become a ubiquitous formula: Round up a gaggle of pert and perky gals who haven’t spent much time considering the world around them and who don’t play well with others, and follow their antics with camera crews. Invariably, they’ll say things that betray a hilariously stunted worldview. Invariably, they’ll offend anyone with a modicum of decorum. Often, they’ll provoke physical confrontations.

And they won’t seem to care whether the audience is laughing with them or at them.

Joel McHale, who routinely mocks the denizens of these programs on his E! series “The Soup,” says he and his show’s colleagues have “gotten a little too used to bad behavior.”

He offers some unprintable examples from “Flavor of Love” and “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila.”

“You get to a point where you stop thinking about what’s shocking.”

Clearly, participants are encouraged to ratchet up their behavior to create jaw-dropping TV.

Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who emerged as one of reality’s most elegantly withering antagonists on the first season of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” admits: “Anyone who says, ‘I created this [persona] on my own’ is being ridiculous.

“The format of reality TV is that there are six or seven line producers, and what helps put the narrative together is the on-the-fly interviews, where they’ve been watching what you’ve been doing and ask you questions to help you tell your story.”

Manigault-Stallworth, who will reunite with Trump for “Omarosa’s Ultimate Merger” on TV One next year, added: “I would not have been that competitive in real life, but being surrounded by 15 Type A cast mates made me more edgy.”

Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise reveals that vapid, materialistic and self-smitten women seeking easy stardom cannot be contained to any geographical location.

Each of its four iterations has trucked in scandal, be it nude photos, sex tapes or dodgy background checks (a New Jersey housewife’s past involves cocaine and an escort service, while the Atlanta housewives aren’t as affluent as they claim, with several in debt).

Story lines invariably climax with calamitous confrontations -- a restaurant poleaxed here, a chokehold there.

And the planned “Real Housewives” of Washington, D.C., has already provoked controversy: Michaele and Tareq Salahi, who are vying to get on the series, recently crashed a White House state dinner.

“We’ve always had people famous simply for being famous,” says Karen Sternheimer, professor of sociology at USC. “But now there are more avenues to access fame. The Salahis are when the floodgates broke. There’s economic and social value when someone’s interested in what we’re doing.”

Omarosa defends the Salahis: “Actors have done far worse to get on a movie. Let’s not be too dramatic about what extent people would go to to be famous.”

Besides “Real Housewives,” a number of these shows are “about excessive consumption,” Sternheimer adds.

“If you have lots of stuff, you have license to behave badly. It reflects our ambivalences about being a hyper-consumptive society. We see what it’s like to spend a lot of money, but our Puritan side comes out too -- these shows suggest they don’t deserve what they have.”

Mark Andrejevic, a communications studies professor at the University of Iowa and the author of “Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched,” says: “Reality TV is a leveling genre. It takes the rich and famous down a peg and shows us that they’re just like us. At the same time, it itself is a kind of lottery. Whoever it picks can be turned into a celebrity. It invokes the randomness of the economic machinery.”

The pinnacle -- or, perhaps, nadir -- of the genre could very well be Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club,” which recently returned to its highest ratings to date, teasing a brutal catfight that would come later in the season. The show otherwise plays out as a string of confrontations between rowdy, raunchy women who lay waste to a mansion during the course of the shoot.

Early episodes included a rage-aholic ejected from a bar for throwing a drink at a bartender after insisting, “I run L.A.”; another woman introducing herself by declaring, “I lost my virginity in my church” and later salaciously munching a hot dog off the business portion of a male-torso sculpture; plus heated showdowns over petty grievances and enough nudity that the person in charge of pixelating the show’s images no doubt clocked some serious overtime.

Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist who has counseled reality participants and appeared on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab,” says: “Such attention-seeking behaviors are not good -- they allow themselves to be exploited and don’t care what people will think of them.

“Being on TV allows them to be at arm’s length to their true selves, which is either someone they don’t like or don’t know. It’s a way for them never to deal with themselves..”

Omarosa adds, “Participants have figured out the formula -- the more conflict, the higher the ratings. So, some shows are saturated with conflicts -- there’s no differentiation between the highs and the lows.”

(When a network anticipates queries such as “Why so many sociopaths on your shows?” it demurs, so Oxygen did not make executives available for this interview. And Bravo’s been operating under radio silence since the Salahi scandal.)

E! has trucked in several reality series featuring women nominally famous before their shows premiered.

“The Girls Next Door” focuses on Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, who clearly don’t read Playboy for its articles. The least neurotic cast member of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” is, counter-intuitively enough, the one with the most obvious plastic surgery (househusband Bruce Jenner).

Series such as Bravo’s “NYC Prep” and “Miami Social” expose young women and men alike as superficial ninnies. As does MTV’s latest provocation, “Jersey Shore,” which introduced us to a demure woman named Jenni proclaiming, “After I have sex with a guy, I will rip their heads off,” and Snooki, who passed out within hours of joining the production, then woke up vomiting.

“I don’t think they would cast people if they were mentally healthy -- they’d be too dull,” Sternheimer deadpans.

Oxygen also offered “Pretty Wicked,” which at least purportedly tried to reform its participants, and “Addicted to Beauty.” (Interesting how a cable network aimed at women chooses to depict its target demographic.)

On cable’s reality shows, dancing like a stripper and decking costars are the encouraged routes to landing one’s dream guy.

Once that’s accomplished, the cast could move on to WEtv’s “Bridezillas,” featuring harpies only masochists would marry.

MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16" and “16 and Pregnant” demonstrate that our young, spoiled harridans are getting their starts earlier these days. And mothers prepare the next generation of girls to embrace their neuroses in the kid-beauty-pageant shows “Toddlers & Tiaras” (TLC) and “Little Miss Perfect” (WEtv) as well as the Style Network’s “Dallas Divas & Daughters” and TLC’s upcoming “Daycare Divas.”

“It says not great stuff about where our culture is heading,” Sophy says. “They send a message that bad behavior is OK and it’s funny to put someone down.”

These shows and their eager participants aren’t going away.

“With this recession, more people are under stress, and there are far less opportunities for conventional success,” says Sternheimer.

“People have to be more angry to get on these shows, and they have more to be angry about.”

Perhaps Austen had the right idea when she wrote, in “Pride and Prejudice,” “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

calendar@latimes.com


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