A simple, straight forward, reality TV show is typically an hour of pure entertainment right? Think again. A program as simple as reality television is full of social codes that the audience isn’t aware of. As I told you earlier, I am in a media criticism class at I have learned about a term that basically covers all the different social codes that are present in all television shows. This term is called semiotics and it is honestly fascinating.
Now, don’t stop reading now! This blog won’t be a school lesson, I promise to teach you all about semiotics in a way that won’t feel like learning!
To begin, I want to give you ONE definition so you will be well equipped to understand how I analyze my text. Semiotics is the study of how social production of meaning is constructed through a system of signs, courtesy of Dr. Nichols. These signs are embedded in ALL texts.
For example, print ads and television shows all present social codes and signs
that typically go unnoticed to the viewer. As a society, we don’t focus on how our reality is socially constructed through the media. This is a problem because we as an audience are not stepping back to realize the influence these codes have on our perceptions and attitudes.
This all may be a bit confusing, so let me give you a text and break it down to show exactly what I am talking about. One of my favorite reality TV shows is The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Now, if you haven’t had the pure pleasure of seeing this show, let me describe the premise of the show.
The show follows the lives of five women and their daily activities. Viewers get to see the housewives deal with their family problems, friendship drama and the effects of the slumped economy. More importantly, we get to observe these women spending their millions while wearing over the top fashions.
As you may be able to anticipate, this show is full of signs that in turn become codes. There are different signs that are commonly used in television shows. For example, symbolic, iconic and indexical signs are all present in television and they are ever more present in The Real Housewives of New Jersey. For example, a symbolic code in the Jersey housewives would be the cross necklaces most of the women wear at one time or another. There is an arbitrary meaning between a cross and the knowledge that a cross represents faith in God.
An iconic sign in the show would be all of the signage that is throughout. The women hold many fundraisers and charity events which all display advertisements. When we see the women promote their cause we are seeing iconic signs because they resemble exactly what they stand for. Finally, indexical signs are the most obvious signs in the show. I feel it is most apparent through their luxurious lifestyles. When the viewers see their mansions and Mercedes, we know that the women are rich.
A great way to further understand a semiotic analysis of the Jersey Housewives show is through John Fiske’s codes of television. FiskeMatters.com states that Fiske is a media scholar, noted professor and media critic who was essential in developing media and cultural studies. He is therefore an expert on the effects television has on our society and his codes of television will help us further examine The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
Fiske’s first level in his codes of television is reality. Our reality consists of already existing social codes such as appearance, dress, gestures, behavior, sound, etc. So when we take the New Jersey Housewives we as the audience are not realizing that their appearance and behavior is their own interpretation of their reality. The audience stereotypes these women to represent all housewives in New Jersey, when a small percentage of Jersey women actually live lives similar to theirs. The audience needs to be aware that these women are living in their own reality that is in part dramatized to catch viewers.
Level two tackles the technical codes that are ever present within reality TV shows, and the Jersey Housewives are no exception. The Real Housewives of New Jersey uses many technical effects to give the viewers the feeling that they are really following these women throughout their daily activities. For instance, the camera isn’t stationed on a doc. Instead, the camera man follows these women around allowing viewers to see the camera shake, unlike what you see in a regular television show.
The show also incorporates interviews of the housewives to show the women’s opinions on certain situations that occur. These “interview scenes” give the audience the feeling that the women are talking directly to them, bridging a relationship between the two.
Finally, the show is shot almost like you were watching a home video. There are short scenes mixed with longer scenes and quick zooming during a scene. The purpose of chopping up the scenes is to give the producers the ability to change how a housewife is to be portrayed. For example, one of the housewives is mainly shown being nurturing to her family. The audience now stereotypes her as a loving mother at all times.
Fiske’s final level in his codes of television is ideology. For those of you who don’t know, ideology is the ideas and manner of thinking about a group, social class, or individual. Fiske states that ideology is shaped by representation of ideological codes, like class, materialism, etc. Now, let’s have a field day identifying the ideological codes in the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
Let’s begin with their designer duds and elaborate lifestyles. The housewives make a point to comment on each other’s Gucci shoes and Louis Vuitton handbags. The audience translates this into the materialism ideological code. Depending on the social position of the viewer, the materialism may be interpreted differently. For example, wealthy individuals would see nothing wrong with these women spending thousands of dollars on handbags, but individuals of a lower class would see it as ridiculous.
Another ideological code present in the Jersey Housewives is capitalism. We all know that nothing is done for free in this world and that is no exception for these housewives. As the show increases in popularity, the housewives seem to be demanding higher pay they receive per episode.
The housewives also take on other jobs to make money for their family. One housewife has her own radio show, while another has two bestselling cookbooks. The audience sees the representational code of the women working and then the ideological code of capitalism is accepted.
Now that we analyzed the codes in The Real Housewives of New Jersey, you may be thinking who cares? So what? Why does this matter to me? Well, to answer those questions is rather simple. As the audience, it is our job to be aware of the signs and codes in television that unconsciously influence our values and beliefs.
We need to be aware that this isn’t the true reality of the New Jersey Housewives. It is a reality that is constructed by themselves, producers and the Bravo network. It’s essential that we don’t stereotype all New Jersey housewives from what we see of these five women who are on a reality TV show.
Over all, Ifeel it is important to be aware while you’re watching any TV program for that matter. Whether its reality TV or a sitcom, the audience needs to stop and think about how the characters appearance is specific to their reality. Or how the producers and directors manipulate how we see the program through technical codes such as lighting or editing.
My analysis of The Real Housewives of New Jersey was to help you to understand how important it is to be educated on semiotics and the codes in television. I hope it helped you to understand a semiotic analysis! I know I learned more myself!
Fiske, J. (1987). The codes of television. Television Culture , 1-13.