Saturday, December 6, 2008

Reality Tv Analysis: Tila Tequila

For this assignment I re-watched an episode of the first season of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, which originally aired on MTV in November 2007. The episode, titled “Welcome to the Family” follows Tila as “she travels to the hometowns of the final four to meet their families and reveals to them she's bisexual” ( As Tila travels to New Jersey, Florida, Oregon and New York to visit the contestants and their families, she continually focuses on how the families might react to her. She says things like, “I bet they haven’t brought a girl like me home before!” and “They’re going to find out I’m a bisexual and if they don’t like it, peace out!” The episode seemed to be about exploring how people react to “difference.” At each location, Tila would go out of her way to act inappropriately (by making overly sexual comments to family members, giving one contestant’s grandmother a lap dance) and to ask leading questions that focused on how shocking she was (“Is it shocking to you that I’m a bisexual?” “Do you think Bobby could ever really fall in love with someone like me?”). The two families of the female contestants were accepting and unsurprised by the news of her bisexuality, presumably because they already knew their own daughters were gay. The two families of the male contestants, however, were predictably “shocked” and uncomfortable, and the mother of one contestant told the camera in a one-on-one “At first I felt like I would just throw up!” After visiting all the families, Tila eliminates one of the male contestants, saying that she could never fit in with his conservative family because she’s not “traditional." Tila giving Dani's grandmother a lap dance.

SallyAnn Salsano and 495 Productions, whose previous work includes episodes of The Bachelor, Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition, Secret Life of a Soccer Mom, produced the episode. Salsano has also produced many of the Tila Tequila “specials” and follow up shows. A Shot At Love with Tila Tequila debuted at No 1 in its time period across all of cable in the network’s target demographic of persons 18-34. The season one finale ended with 6.2 million viewers, making it MTV’s most watched series telecast. Tila Tequila, whose real name is Thien Thanh Thi Nguyen, is a Singaporean-born Vietnamese American internet celebrity, reality TV performer, model, entertainer and singer. The commercials during the episode were for Ortho-Tri-Cyclen birth control pills and Gardasil, the female HPV vaccine. These ads indicate that the targeted audience is female, and the other ads for new cell phones from Sprint and AT&T indicate they are targeting teenagers and young women (an ad for a phone with advanced texting capabilities read “Instead of OMG say what’s really on your mind”).
I found it interesting that the targeted audience was female, because the show is all about male fantasy about and desire for Tila Tequila, and Tila’s interest in women is dealt with in a somewhat exploitative, voyeuristic way. Perhaps because it’s a show about finding love, they assume women and girls will be more interested. The comments online underneath the episode were all from female viewers, commenting on how hot the male contestants were or voicing opinions on who Tila should choose.
The sixty-minute episode was chock-full of moments ripe for feminist analysis, from the comments of Tila and the contestants to the constructed plot and the larger messages that emerged. To start, the “final four” are all white and embody the spectrum of gender performance: a hyper-masculine man, a man framed as “sensitive and nice”, a hyper-feminine woman and a butch woman. Narratives of masculinity as it relates to class are clear in the multiple clips we see of Bobby (the “nice” guy)’s one-on-one with the camera. He expresses anxiety about coming from a rural, working-class background and Tila’s possible rejection of him based on his class status. He fears that rich oil executive Ryan can “give her more” than he can. This reinforces the idea that real manhood relies on money and power and the ability to take care of and provide for women.
The whiteness of the contestants and the varying degrees of heteronormativity present in their families allows for the construction of Tila as a racial and sexual Other. The white heteronormative reaction to and negotiation of the racialized, sexualized Other is a main source of comedy in the episode. Tila’s performance of the Other and her seemingly deliberate baiting of the families left me wondering if we are supposed to be laughing at the families or at Tila. Dianne Raymond writes in Popular Culture and Queer Representation, “It is now homophobes, not gays and lesbians, who are vilified or ignored, and often the test of a character comes down to how well he or she deals with a friend or family member’s coming out” (Women’s Lives 187). This seems to be the case in this episode, and the camera zooms in and flashes repeatedly the facial expressions and initial reactions of the family members who are shocked and displeased with the news of Tila’s bisexuality. The overall message seems to be one of acceptance of bisexuality, as the two families who were initially overtly homophobic express their acceptance of Tila in their one-on-one’s with the camera at the end of her visit.
We also witness the normalization of male sexual aggression when Tila is visiting the family of rich oil executive Ryan at his mansion in Trenton, New Jersey. During dinner with the family, Ryan abruptly says he wants to finish showing Tila his house, and takes her to his bedroom. He literally picks her up (she’s very petite), throws her onto his bed, and jumps on top of her. She protests, saying that his family is downstairs, they should go back, etc. but we quickly cut to them making out. In her one-on-one with the camera, she says, “It was hot, him taking control like that, being in charge and throwing me down.” In his one-on-one, he boasts about “giving her a taste of how things go in my bedroom” and adds as an afterthought, “Hope she liked it.” This reinforces the messages that women like it when men are sexually aggressive, that Asian women are submissive, that “No” turns into “Yes,” and that whether women have an enjoyable experience of sexual encounters or give consent doesn’t really matter. It also reinforces the idea that sex is best when spontaneous, and with no discussion between partners of their bodies and their likes and dislikes.
The narratives of race, class, gender, sex, and relationships told in this show are particularly damaging because the target audience is teenagers, who are in the process of figuring out what it means to be male or female, who may be struggling with their sexuality and sexual identity, and who are highly susceptible to the messages of mass media.

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