By: Sarah Scott
In 2010 the History channel debuted a competitive reality show focused on some of the best shots in the country, where they came together to face off in teams against each other before finally getting down to a face-off of individuals to see who would win the competition. This show is called Top Shot. This show had some of the drama of other reality television shows, but it also showed how the contestants were also empowered by their well-honed skills. It took people from all kinds of backgrounds, races, and genders. One memorable season had an Asian IT (information technology) guy winning the whole competition. The show portrayed women shooters as well, who got pretty far in the competition before being eliminated. Reality television has commonly portrayed women as frail or overly sexualized, and this show took a step in the right direction to shine a light on minorities and women.
Reality television became popular in the 2000s with the rise of competitive reality television shows like Survivor (Cooper, 2019), which starred Colby Donaldson, who hosts the show Top Shot. Since reality television’s popularity, there have been many shows that have arisen and many more that have failed. What Glascock and Preston-Schreck (2018) found was that verbal aggression had a strong presence in reality television programs. This is a big problem in reality television alongside of negative portrayals of women and minorities. Such shows can cause an increase in objectification and self-objectification of women. This can lead to undesirable consequences of women feeling that they are not enough, and it can even lead to violence against women.
There are some reality television shows that do portray women in a positive and empowering light. This positive portrayal can cause positive effects and women’s self-esteem to flourish. This study aims to undercover some of the ways that Top Shot portrays men and women. This will help to show how some reality television shows can lead the way in empowering women instead of just using them for their sexualities.
Women in Reality Television
Research related to reality TV focuses on the objectification of women by the producers and by the women themselves in self-objectification. Using a 6-point scale Trekels et al. (2018), surveyed 495 women aged 18-22 years old to find out if reality television influenced women’s self-objectification regarding tanning and appearance. They found that watching reality television did indeed lead women to start to accept new beauty ideals through internalization and then self-objectification. They posited that this leads women to care more about appearance than their own health. They say that reality television teaches women what the prevalent beauty ideals are, and this is why it is important for reality television to portray healthy habits and ideals.
In addition to the objectification of women, reality TV research also focuses on the representation of women on makeover shows. Marwick (2010) looks at the content of the reality television show The Swan to see if it really helps to change people’s minds about plastic surgery. What Marwick (2010) found was that some reality televisions that are seemingly positive examples of healthy practices and ideas were actually not as beneficial as they seem, and that they can even be showing just as toxic ideals for women’s beauty ideals just in a different way with the guise that they are trying to improve people’s lives. This shows how reality television’s portrayals of women can be toxic even if it is not trying to be toxic. It shows how women can still objectify themselves through a show that is trying to show a positive representation.
This literature review has looked at how reality television can add to the negative impact on objectification of women, but now it turns to look at how reality television can be used to portray empowering portrayals of women. Seabrook et al. (2019) looked at surveys from 283 undergraduate men to find out how different media reality tv, pornography, and other television shows affect how men objectify women. They found that consumption of reality television, pornography, and even sports programming all were associated with greater acceptance of the objectification of women, which is related to a lot of negative effects for women, including sexual violence (Seabrook et al., 2019), making it important for shows to be careful with the content that they are portraying.
Of course, reality television is not a medium that can influence a person’s entire thought process. There is some room for people to incorporate some of their own ideas alongside the messages that are being shown on reality television. Cato and Carpentier (2010) analyzed how young women’s liking of reality television related to their views of empowerment and feminine roles. What they found suggests that young women have their own views of female empowerment. The study also found that when the participants were talking about their views on the characters in the show that they were using their own models of empowerment.
All the previous literature supports the idea that women can be objectified or self-objectify after watching reality television. This can either be beneficial or harmful based on the content of the reality television show and the perceptions of the audience. From the previous literature, it would seem that a lot of reality television shows cause harmful effects due to negative portrayals. This study aims to look at what could potentially be a beneficial reality television show by looking at how the show Top Shot portrays the men and women who participate.
This reality television show has men and women all competing for the title of Top Shot, and this study will look into the connotative meanings of the scenes including the women or talking about the women. It will also look at how the women are framed in various contexts of the competition and the interactions between the contestants. It will look at whether women are empowered, disempowered, or if there are instances where women are empowered and then in other instances where they are disempowered. This is done through a content analysis of season 1 and season 4 of Top Shot. Content analyses are important to really delve into more social portrayals. This paper specifically uses thematic analysis to create themes around the content. Slade et al. (2014) talk about how thematic content analysis allows the researcher to be more flexible with creating the themes as they go along with their research (p. 105).
H1: How do season 1 and 4 of the reality show Top Shot portray the women and men who participate?
In the first season, there was only one female contestant out of the 16 competitors. At the beginning of the first season, all the competitors walk in with a voice-over with them introducing themselves and their shooting backgrounds. The female contestant, Tara Poremba, talks about how when she was a police officer recruit, she practiced for a competition until she won it. An overlay says that Tara is a police officer and a former marine as well. In this episode, Tara practices on the rifle with Iain Harrison, where he and Tara both talk about how she is not the best at spotting his shots. Tara herself says the same thing but says that she is better at shooting. In the actual competition in this episode, the two teams have to pair up and shoot different weapons, and Iain chooses her and him to shoot the rifle since they both practiced with it. It takes Tara a little bit to help Iain shoot the target, but the team yells out that the other team is also having trouble and to not worry. So, they are encouraging both her and him without disparaging either of them. In the end, Tara and Iain hit the target and move ahead of the other team, who is struggling to hit the target, which is empowering that they help their team get ahead even though they were having trouble in practice.
In the second episode, they have Tara explaining what her first impression of the episode’s team challenge instead of having one of the guys explaining it. Then they compete by shooting at incrementally smaller and smaller tubes, and most of the members of Tara’s team hit the target with their first shot, including her. Tara’s teammates cheer for her, and she also cheers for her teammates and even takes a little bit of charge when she asks the one guy to reload for the other guy. No one objects to this leadership and listen to her suggestions.
There is one scene where Tara and her team are on the porch, and all the males are shirtless. Meanwhile, Tara is wearing a tank top and some shorts, which is appropriate and not objectifying. They could have portrayed her in a sexual manner, but that did not happen here. All that happens is that Tara asks who they think the other team will send to an elimination round.
There is a scene in episode five after the last episode’s elimination, where the opposing team gets upset that Tara’s team is not crying and upset. One of Tara’s teammates talks about how the team is made up of “real” men and a real woman. While at first this sounds like men should not have emotions, what he was really trying to say was that the opposing team were sore losers, and that their team did not want to act like sore losers. Later in this episode, they shoot some flintlock rifles, and Tara almost hits a bullseye. They do lose this challenge however and are forced to send people to the elimination challenge. Since there were some arguments in the house, Tara did her best to try to cool down the moment. Later, she even jokes and says that if the men and their testosterone want to take each other out of the game, then she will be the winner in the end, which is her talking about how she will not be pulled into the argument because she can keep her ego under control.
In episode 7, the teams face off by attempting trick shots, and Tara hit all her trick shots, in the Annie Oakley-like trick matching what her male competitor shot. This makes her feel proud that she could carry out such a difficult shot. During their practicing for this challenge, one of the competitors threw an object and tried to shoot it but throws the object poorly, and then he says that he throws like a girl. When Tara is practicing her teammate tells her to “throw like a girl,” which coming from him was meant to be a jab at the other team thinking that girls throw poorly. It was meant to encourage Tara to do her best and shoot the object.
In episode 8, Tara gets a phone call from her dad, who had previously been diagnosed with lung cancer, and his call to her was telling her that he was doing worse. At that time, her dad told her to stay in the competition. Later, in the same episode, Tara gets a call from her brother, who says that the nurses and doctors say that he probably only has a few days left. This is when Tara decides to leave the competition. Tara tells the group she was leaving, and the other contestants support her decision and talk about how good she was at shooting.
Season 4 has two women competitors with very impressive shooting backgrounds. Gabby Franco is introduced to the show as the first female to make the Venezuelan Olympic shooting team, which is a huge honor. Michelle has a background as having been in the military and having been a border patrol agent. As soon as the show opens, they already have to compete to stay on the show, and two worst shooters were eliminated; the two eliminated were men. This automatically made everyone else, especially the women have a sense of earning their spot, because statistically there were more men than women trying to stay in the show, but the two women were able to secure a spot on the show. The two women end up being on the opposite teams to each other, but they end up being best friends instead of being the catty women that are generally seen on reality television when women compete against each other. In the first team challenge, the teams are shooting at a row of plates, and each row has smaller and smaller plates. The red team chooses Gaby as the person to shoot the smallest plates based on her background. They believed that she could hit the smaller plates. Michelle’s team is elated that she hit all her plates without missing a shot. One teammate says, “Come on, Gaby, baby,” which could come off in a wrong way, but throughout the season this teammate seems to develop a strong bond to people that he becomes friends with. At one point, he even gives a guy teammate a friendship bandana, which is also slightly weird. So, it is hard to know his intent with this saying, but it would seem that he is just overly familiar with people and overly emotional as well but had the best of intentions to encourage Gaby.
In the challenge for one episode, Michelle talks about how she is nervous to follow the first shooter, who did well. She then hits the target and says that she thinks she has proved that she’s not just a girl that people think suck. At the beginning of the season, Michelle says that she wants to be known as not just a pretty face but also as someone who can shoot. Based on her own definition of empowerment like in Cato and Carpentier (2010)’s analysis. Michelle defines her own sense of empowerment and does for the most part shoot well as well as be a pretty face. She does show off her body a little bit too much though, taking away from thinking about her good shooting skills.
In an episode, they are learning to shoot a gun that has a lot of recoil, and one of Gaby’s teammates says that she has strong upper body strength, and that she will not have any problems firing the weapon. While firing the weapon, Gaby says that firing the gun is nothing, and instructor says say it’s nothing after you put them in the bullseye, which she then proceeds to hit the bullseye, and the instructor nods like I guess I should not have underestimated her. Then he says to the team that Gaby was like a sniper on the weapon.
Gaby’s turn to shoot comes up, and one of her teammates says that he is impressed with how she has been performing so far in the competition. At the end of the challenge, there is a screen for the viewers to see how long the red team took to shoot their target, and Gaby shot her target faster than most of the members on her team that were able to shoot that challenge.
In the same episode, Michelle and another contestant are nominated for the elimination challenge based on both of their poor performance in the team challenge. Michelle talks to Gaby after the nomination, and she talks about how nervous she is. Gaby tells her that she has been proving herself so far. It is nice to see females in a reality television show supporting each other instead of tearing each other down.
In the practice for an elimination challenge, the instructor talks about how Michelle learned how to hit the target well. She started to complain about how she is tired and obviously how her shoulder hurts from shooting a shotgun. So, the instructor says that fatigue might be something that will go against her in in the challenge, but as long as she can hit the target like she did in practice she might have a chance. He even says that he thinks that Michelle could win the challenge. Michelle says later that she wants to show women that they can compete against men in shooting competitions and other types of competitions as well. Unfortunately, she does get eliminated in this episode because she cannot find the rhythm of hitting the target. Michelle and Dylan share a chest bump that is unique to them, and another team member, who is friendly with her, says that he will miss Michelle.
In a crossbow challenge, Gaby’s teammate says that he is not worried about Gaby, and then he talks about how she’s on target with the crossbow every time she shoots it, and in another challenge they shoot a flintlock pistol and have to swing on a rope across from one platform to another. The first person to try swinging, kept falling, but Gaby had no trouble swinging across and hitting her target, and her teammate said that she had feather-feet, which is a compliment, especially when the other contestants were having trouble swinging across and hitting the target.
Throughout the rest of the season Gaby continues to shoot well. She shoots so well that she gets to the point in the season, where they compete against each other and not against teams. The show makes a point to congratulate her for getting further than any other female contestant on the show, which is pretty cool.
In the third episode of the first season, Tara and the teams shoot bows in the competition and the instructor talks about how the drawback was 40 pounds on the bow they were using as compared to the old Englishmen who used a bow that 180–200-pound drawback weight. After the instructor states this it cuts to a shot of Tara like she was worried about being able to pull back the bow. This may not have been the intention, but a little bit after this Tara says that everyone is out of their comfort zone. The only teammate that did well in practice was one of the guys, while the rest of the teammates had trouble with the bow. So, this may have been a reflection of the show thinking that Tara might be weaker, but it also showed how most of the contestants were also not good with the bow either.
In episode four, Tara competes with an AR-15 to shoot some plates that she had to remember where they were. The shot does not show her memorizing the plates, and the shot makes it seem like she took too long to load the gun and that she did not hit any of her shots. When, in reality, she hit four plates, even though one did not count because she hit it after the time expiration. It also did also portray another member of her team as well looking like they did not shoot well, but it was not as long as Tara’s clip. It may have been delayed just for building suspense, but it was weird that it was mainly on clips of her shooting.
Right off the bat in season 4, the first thing you see about Michelle is that she is wearing a low-cut shirt that shows off quite a bit of her cleavage. Meanwhile, everyone else is wearing appropriate attire. She wants to be known as not just a pretty face but also as someone who can shoot. However, from her attire, the first thing you think is that she is trying to get attention on her body instead of her shooting skills. Even though later, she does prove herself to be a good shot, your first impression and at other points, she does seem to flaunt her body and sexuality for attention. In episode two, Michelle is wearing extremely short shorts while everyone else is wearing much longer shorts and pants. Michelle’s choice of attire can lead people to think more about how sexual she is, which will affect other women like Eggermont et. al. (2018) talked about. Women that watch reality television will start to accept their beauty ideals from women on the shows, which is why it is disempowering for Michelle to dress and act in a sexual manner. Especially, since she is on a show that is meant to showcase the shooters skills.
In one episode, Michelle and Dylan are teasing each other, and he pushes her over the couch and tickles her. She says this looks so wrong, and she is laughing while her voice over self is talking about how he is a cool guy. This scene could be taken as flirting since she had been flirty with him in other episodes, but maybe made the viewers and the other contestants feel awkward. Later in this episode when the blue team wins, Michelle jumps into Dylan’s arms. Michelle and Dylan even do a chest bump routine later in the episode as well while she giggles. There are a lot of public displays of affection in this season between these two.
The show did not include more women in the seasons, but they could have chosen more than two for the seasons, but it is impressive that the show includes not just women but also includes a lot of other races, including some Asians as well, who are not generally thought of as people who shoot, especially not in competitions. It also included not only professional shooters, but also includes self-taught shooters and even an Asian IT guy, who ended up winning a season. So, while it could include more women, it does not just portray a cast of white men. It was even diverse in the women on the show.
For the most part, the show portrayed the women as just as capable as the men, and sometimes they even shot better than the men did. One of the women did act more sexually than the others, but it was likely her choice to act and dress the way that she did. However, the show did have to choose her to be on the show, and they knew how she acted and dressed based on her submission video. So, they might have included her to add a flirty woman to the show, but she also did have qualifications that also made her a strong candidate to be on the show, since she was in the military and was a border patrol agent. So, the show likely included her for both qualifications and looks. So, they objectified her in some ways, but also empowered her in other ways. Overall, they empowered the women on the show, giving them equal screen time and an equal chance of winning the title of top shot.
The other contestants on the show also for the most part treated the women as equal contestants. The one contestant, Dylan, did flirt with Michelle and was seen tickling her in the one episode, but that was the only weird thing that was seen in the analysis that may or may not have been inappropriate or objectifying on the contestant’s part. None of the other contestants objectified the women, however.
This show was a good one that empowered women to compete alongside men and had the women be just as interested in the weapons and the weapon’s history. They were generally not objectified, and they were empowered as even they said about themselves. Michelle even said once that every challenge she won made her more confident. As we learned in the literature review, women can self-objectify themselves based on what is shown in a reality television show. However, this show highlighted the women’s abilities over their sexualities, giving them the opportunity to be free from people judging them on their looks. It freed them to feel that they are indeed good at competitive shooting to compete alongside and against the men. They were not there to only support the men’s story but to also have their own part in the story.
The contestants on the show also empowered the women and would encourage them to shoot their best. They spoke highly of the women and their qualifications and abilities as well. This reinforced positive ideals and images like the literature review talked about; it is important for women to see healthy images of other women on television. This show had the contestants treating women with respect and encouraging them, which will likely cause men to respect women and for women to find people that will respect them the way they should be respected.
This show helped to show an image of women as good at competitive shooting, even though most people would likely think that men are the ones who like to shoot and be competitive. It opened the door for women to see a place for themselves in competing against each other and men. Even though no women have won the title of top shot, they have gotten pretty far in the competition and are treated just as equally as the men. A lot of the women even got further along than some of the men, who had amazing shooting backgrounds. From the intro, Glascock and Preston-Schreck (2018) talk about how verbal aggression is prevalent in reality television shows. This show did have some verbal aggression among the men, but it was generally never directed at the women, and instead the women are almost always encouraged and talked well of. All of this helps to bolster women’s confidence in competing against women and men. It was not a reality television show that promoted sexual violence like some of the reality television shows that Seabrook et al. (2019) talked about that did portray women in a negative way. Instead, this show gave women a positive portrayal as well as showing that women can be good shots and defend themselves against any violent attacks. It also just portrayed women as capable which has a positive impact on both men and women and their treatment.
It is nice that in a bunch of reality television shows that objectify women, that there is at least one show that has an empowering portrayal of women. It would be good for future research to look further at the show and shows like it to see how women watching the show are impacted by empowering images of women. It is important for consumers and reality television producers to know the impact that reality television has on women and men, and to know that the populace needs more empowering portrayals on reality television.
Alison F. Slade, Amber J. Narro, & Burton P. Buchanan. (2014). Reality television: Oddities of culture. Lexington Books.
Cato, M., & Carpentier, F. D. (2010). Conceptualizations of female empowerment and enjoyment of sexualized characters in reality television. Mass Communication & Society, 13(3), 270–288. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205430903225589
Cooper, P. G. (2019). Reality television. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Glascock, J., & Preston-Schreck, C. (2018). Verbal aggression, race, and sex on reality tv: Is this really the way it is? Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 62(3), 427–444. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2018.1451859
Marwick, A. (2010). There’s a beautiful girl under all of this: Performing hegemonic femininity in reality television. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 27(3), 251–266. https://doi.org/10.1080/15295030903583515
Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? Media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536–545. https://doi.org/10.1037/vio0000198Trekels, J., Eggermont, S., Koppen, E., & Vandenbosch, L. (2018). Beauty ideals from reality television and young women’s tanning behavior: An internalization and self-objectification perspective. Communication Quarterly, 66(3), 325–343. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463373.2017.1381627