Monday, December 1, 2008

Reality TV Analysis: MTV Juvies

Show: MTV Juvies

Considering my topic for my final project involved women and the industrial prison complex, I could have hardly asked for a “better” reality TV show to watch than MTV's Juvies: a show that follows the trials and tribulations of juvenile offenders brought to Lake County Juvenile Justice Complex in Indiana. Well, where do I start? Does the trivialization of crime problems bound out of psychological and socio-economic factors facing these teenagers offend me more than the overly simplistic and lauding portrayal of the reformative capacities of the modern industrial prison complex?

The episode I watched concerned two young African-American sisters, brought in for battery and possibly attempted murder and a young Caucasian man brought in for breaking and entering while under the influence of prescription pills. The two sisters, Jacinta and Jasmine, had gotten into a fight with two other girls when one of the other girls allegedly pulled out a knife and lacerated Jasmine. Seeing her sister bleeding, Jacinta attacked the other girl, taking her knife and stabbing her. Jasmine was brought in for disorderly conduct but Jacinta had more perilous charges that could have amounted to attempted murder.

The Caucasian teenager, RJ, was brought in under the influence of Xanax, which he had stolen from his mother and apparently gone into a black out frenzy ending with breaking and entering someone's house. This was his second substance abuse offense and carried the prospect of harsher sentencing. In the end we see the court case presided over by Judge who hardballs them but eventually releases both parties, RJ to a treatment center and Jacinta and Jasmine are put under house probation with security ankle bracelets.

This program airs on MTV, with it's demographic seeming to be in the 13-20 year old range (but I'm quite sure some parent's watch it too). It's only had one season, but it was successful in the ratings, with re-runs going on for a few more years and rumors of a second season. It is produced for MTV by Calamari Productions, an independent company who have been granted extraordinary access by the state Supreme Courts to produce documentary and “reality” TV content in child welfare and juvenile detention programs. Now here comes the first inkling of suspicion. How does a production company who's survival is based on it's monopoly over the niche of juvenile imprisonment content portray the prison industrial complex when it depends on it for access? Without this special access, this company has no other avenues of content production.

Let's start with the opening of the show, with hip music and flashing cut scenes it reveals what the show is all about in it's tag line: “Everyday teenagers get into trouble. Some end up here. One Judge, One Verdict. Will they stay. Or go home?” Now consider the origin of Reality TV as a big bucks, big ratings TV genre. Yes, I know you watched the first season of SURVIVOR with your eye's attached to the TV screen (I did too). While there were successful reality Tv shows before it, like COPS, Survivor created the basic schematic of the new money making shows: Set of willing participants in a TV-worthy situation provided with a set of trials and tribulations to overcome where the winners stay on and losers are sent home. How does this play into the tag-line of “Will they stay. Or go home?”. Going home is undoubtedly the better rational option but not for the show. Good ratings don't come with showing how participant X has reformed and now lives a totally normal life, chilling at Star Bucks and shopping at Target. Ratings in the Reality TV world are created by drama, by relapse, by conflict. Therefore similar to the prison industrial complex, it is in this shows best interest to have at least some participants “Stay” or maybe even “come back” (as RJ does in this episode) rather than “Go home” because incarceration = profit.

However, Reality TV viewers aren't heartless. As all classical narrative cinema and television goes, there is a need for closure, especially a positive closure. Thus we are shown that the Judge threatens but is ultimately lenient and that the prisoners have learned from their stainless steel encrusted ordeal that they should stay in school and go to college instead of getting into fights and doing drugs. Particularly irritating to me was when RJ was brought in front of a Probation officer who told him that she was going to suggest to the Judge that he remain incarcerated because ““Listen to me RJ, this will help to keep you clean.” This show is clearly exporting the idea that incarceration itself is rehabilitative due to the harsh lessons it teaches these kids if they mess up. While the show briefly mentions counselling and treatment, it never shows it, implying their secondary nature to the more important rehabilitative process of straight incarceration. They show us the embarrassment on RJ's face as he's asked to strip naked and “marinate” himself with Lizol in the shower under the watchful eyes of the guard. This is the REAL rehabilitation that's worthy of television, not him making emotional breakthroughs in counseling. Thus the show promotes a very pro-prison industrial complex message with simplistic and easy to digest narratives of mistakes being corrected and delinquents being put on the path to righteousness via juvenile incarceration. In Women's Lives, Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey link this emphasis on incarceration with the profitability of the prison industrial complex:
Public policy is going...with an emphasis on incarceration. Currently there are 2 million people in U.S jails and prisons. Government funding for the building and operation of new jails and prisons has increased while funding for social services, education, welfare and housing has been cut.”

A last note: the racial and gender representations in this show also present an interesting dichotomy. While the guards and other personnel in the prison are off all races and genders, the probation officers, counselors and indeed the judge are all White women. The judge in particular is presented in an interesting fashion. Her introduction toward the end of the show is her striding down the hallway wearing a flowing black robe shot from a low angle, making her seem epic. I half-expected to hear Darth Vader's theme music from Star Wars to start playing. It was interesting to note that the crucial part of this show, the sentencing of the two Black women on attempted murder charges, was up to the singular decision of this White Judge. Earlier in the show there are blurry fast paced re-enactments of crimes committed in the words of the prisoners. However in the trial section the Judge presents a very different and much more accusatory recounting of events (which is followed by a new re-enactment, kind of like on the show CSI when they discover new evidence which changes the case). How come the judge, not the prosecution, provides this guilty-before-proven-innocent version of events?


Kirk, Gwyn and Margo Okazawa-Rey. “The Prison Industrial Complex”. Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. McGraw Hill (New York 2004). Pg.423.

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