It seems that reality TV has hit on a winning formula: take one or more prissy, princessy females, stick 'em in an earthbound, nitty-gritty environment and voila! It's a hit show.
In TBS' popular new "Outback Jack" (search), 12 high-maintenance women compete for the love of a hunky Australian adventurer — in the remote El Questro wilderness. Fox's hit "Simple Life 2" (search) follows privileged Paris Hilton and fellow rich-kid Nicole Richie as they bumble across rural America in a pink trailer. And on MTV's "Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica," (search) hilarity ensues as pop star Jessica Simpson packs a luxury Louis Vuitton bag for a camping trip.
Experts agree: well-groomed ladies plus backwoods equals ratings.
"The fish out of water concept has always been something that works in the scripted world and the reality world," said “Simple Life 2” executive producer Jonathan Murray, citing '30s and '40s Claudette Colbert movies, "I Love Lucy" and '60s TV show "Green Acres" as historical examples of the formula.
"I guess it’s sort of fun because we can laugh a little at them," Murray added. "They’re very privileged and maybe we're a little jealous and we can feel a little superior."
“Outback Jack” executive producer Bruce Nash agreed that the girly-girl-against-the-odds scenario is practically an entertainment genre in itself — and one that “always works.”
“It’s been popular in the movies — 'Legally Blonde,' 'Working Girl.' It's just fun — not making fun. It's putting them in an unusual situation and seeing how they react."
Critics, however, fear these shows cash in on outdated, negative stereotypes of women, portraying them as materialistic, shallow, catty and silly.
"Part of it is inherent sexism," said Dr. Nancy Snow, professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton. "We're reverting back. When 'The Stepford Wives' [the 1975 film about women turned into automatons by their husbands] came out, it was really scary — in the 2004 remake it’s light comedy."
Glamour magazine editor Laurie Sandell, who appeared on the reality show "To Live and Date in New York," agreed that these images are not necessarily positive for women.
"The problem is it reinforces fears that men may have of women, and it serves to make women feel bad about themselves," she said.
However, Sandell said the women on these shows are exaggerated caricatures contrived for entertainment purposes, and thus don't malign "real" women.
"They pick the women who will be most miserable on a show to the create maximum amount of drama," she said. "The 'Outback Jack' guy wanted a woman who was low-maintenance — so the 'Outback Jack' producers looked for well-groomed women and didn’t tell them they’d be camping and living in the outback. It's an interesting spectacle."
Snow, on the other hand, is disturbed that the damsel-in-distress construct — a staple she said goes back to the old silent movies, in which women were commonly tied to train tracks — is still popular and may even be seeing a resurgence.
But as far as "Outback Jack" is concerned, Nash thinks people who look at his show too critically are missing the point. He also said the formula could easily be flipped to feature men in dandy roles.
"We kind of always start with a group of girls and a guy. Girls will watch women and guys watch women. That’s not to say that on 'Outback Jack 2' there won’t be metrosexuals and a really tough woman."
Nash added that while the ultra-feminine contestants start out unwilling to break a nail, they're often a lot tougher by the end of the show.
"People like to see the arc of these women. They end up learning to adapt, learning something about themselves, seeing that they can do this. They all say the experience has changed their lives."