Don't Cha Believe in Hoochie Female Empowerment?

The 'Pussycat Dolls' blur reality TV feminism.

By Steve Burgess 23 Mar 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films and TV for The Tyee every second Friday.

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'Female empowerment, self-discovery and personal transformation'?

Reality TV -- it's a slippery slope. Those of us who have been inclined to defend it may now find that inclination perilously steep. Increasingly treated to reality shows that function as vehicles for the rehabilitation/promotion of public figures, reality TV fans have now seen their cherished formula employed for truly dire purposes. We've been ambushed by the Pussycat Dolls.

The people who brought us the wildly successful America's Next Top Model (ANTM) franchise have now brought forth CW's The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll (City TV in Canada), a talent contest designed to find a new member of that horrifyingly popular singing group. ANTM executive producer Ken Mok brings the same formula, and many of the same scenes, to the new show -- a bunch of shrieking, star-struck wannabees crammed into a house ("Omigawd! It is like, so cool!"), put through a series of trials designed to destroy their fragile egos and consume any nascent friendships in the cauldron of ambition. Yay! Only one can emerge victorious. The others learn valuable lessons about how they are too ugly/fat/untalented to succeed.

I've enjoyed reality TV shows without apology. I still maintain that watching the antics of actual people, as long as they're not too vapid, is preferable to following the contrived plotlines of network fare like Prison Break or Lost. And when the show in question is something like Survivor there's no real guilt involved -- there are no real-world consequences in such an artificial environment.

Modelling bad behavior

ANTM is trickier, of course. The modelling industry has plenty to answer for with its dehumanizing processes. One of the more revealing recent TV moments came not on ANTM, but on Slice channel's Project Catwalk, the British version of the designer competition Project Runway. After a cruel judge savaged the look of one model (as a way of criticizing the designer), it was briefly noted the following week that the humiliated model had left the show. That's the job these ANTM hopefuls are scrambling for.

Still, one can watch in the knowledge that no one is forcing these young women to participate. They want the gig? Let them fight for it.

With the Pussycat Dolls it's harder to justify. The consequences cannot be ignored. Perhaps the low point of my recent Asian tour was a Bangkok traffic jam made even more unbearable by the taxicab radio interminably blaring "Buttons" by the Pussycat Dolls and Snoop Dogg. I prayed for sweet death.

And The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll sometimes feels like a prolonged, nasty joke aimed at those who still watch reality TV. "I think the Pussycat Dolls have had a huge influence on my generation," chirps one contestant. Humanity is doomed.

Corporate art?

Whatever else they might be, the Pussycat Dolls are a thoroughly modern corporate entity. Originally a group of lip-synching burlesque dancers, they gradually incorporated actual singers and started racking up hit records. Nonetheless, they are not really a group -- they are all employees of the record company, completely replaceable and interchangeable, with zero artistic or creative control over the musical widgets they crank out. There's your voice of a new generation.

Of course we are told that the Pussycat Dolls are "all about female empowerment." In reality TV land this is usually the cue to put on lingerie and dance around a pole. Which is what contestants were told to do in a public bar in order to display their, um, confidence.

The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll does offer some of the usual guilty pleasures of the genre. "I had so many people who didn't believe in me," says contestant Shaunte. "I want all those people to feel so awful when I make it."

That's the spirit!

Increasingly though, these shows seem like PR vehicles for damaged public figures. Seeing how corporate sleazebag Donald Trump was reinvented as the revered bossman of The Apprentice, other stars are joining in. Heather Mills, estranged wife of Paul McCartney, is now a contestant on Dancing With the Stars and getting tons of positive North American press -- a preemptive strike to prevent the spread of her entrenched U.K. image, where she is widely reviled as Celebrity Enemy #1.

The Next Pussycat Doll has Lil' Kim, the rapper/convicted felon who is on board as a judge. There's plenty of adoration on display from the girls, and precious little mention of the 366-day sentence for perjury and conspiracy levied after Kim (a.k.a. Kimberley Jones) was found guilty of lying to protect a thug who shot a man in a gun battle outside a New York radio station. Today she is treated as a hero in the hip-hop community because she didn't snitch.

Incredibly, the only mention of her incarceration came from Lil' Kim herself on the most recent episode. The rapper talked about the difficulties young performers encounter. "Imagine the things I had to go through," she told one girl. "I had to go to prison!"

Had to go? Damn right. It's an important lesson for these young women to learn -- if you win this competition, someday your bodyguard may have to pop a cap into some fool. Don't snitch.

If this is reality, I want out.

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