The Reality of Real Housewives

2/22/11

http://tv.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/arts/television/22housewives.html?scp=1&sq=Real%20Housewives&st=cse

As I sat this morning in the sun drenched cafeteria enjoying my oatmeal and leafing through the New York Times, I came across a review of yet another season of that infamous Bravo TV series about the women that everyone loves to hate. Someday, journalist Ginia Bellefonte tells me, my future daughter will ask me about these women. How will I explain them? Why do I even care who they are and what they do with their socialite driven Friday nights?

With the addition of “Miami” to the Real Housewives “reality” TV show featuring obscenely wealthy women from New York, Atlanta, Beverly Hills, and Orange County, a whole new set of geographic stereotypes and cultural consumptions is waiting to be made. Usually viewed as a sort of guilty pleasure, the series offers the opportunity to compare and contrast the expensive habits of overindulged socialite wives and mothers hand selected for their ability to cause drama and make us feel better about the way we live our lives… though sometimes we really wish we could spend a day at one of those backyard infinity pools. We ridicule their parenting, rip apart their 3,000 dollar outfit choices, and make predictions about how much plastic surgery went into that bikini bod and wrinkle-free visage. As Bellefante points out in her review, the Miami portion of this series fits the redundant format of long hair, endless calenders of high end events, and kitchens with “double wide sub zero refrigerators.” Despite the purpose of showing how rich women across the country live differently, it appears that they are largely the same. And this is part of why we keep watching. We need to continue to group them into one category– a category of bad mothers and desperate women who fail to be independent and seek constant recognition. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule (for example, I have a soft spot for a certain Bethany of the Real Housewives of New York City) but for the most part we tune in so that we can look at everything these women do and criticize them for it–boosting our own self esteem.

Acknowledging this interpretation of the show, I wonder how I would present it to my future daughter. My mother refuses to watch the show with me for more than 20 minutes–quickly exclaiming that it disgusts her and all of the cat-like whining that is characteristic of every episode is hurting her ears. She tells me not to turn into those valueless women, and when she’s really looking for an insult that stings, she compares my behavior to that of the daughters on the show. This usually occurs in instances of selfishness or “brattiness.” In a sense, the show has become an example of how not to raise your daughter in our family. I imagine that some day I will sit my own daughter down on our couch, point out the botox smiles and neglectful parenting of the makeup caked actresses (because really, that’s what they are aren’t they?) on screen, and tell her to learn how to be herself. I will use the gross representation of our consumer culture that “Real Housewives” represents as an example to learn from and to go against. For the majority of mother-daughter viewers, I think that this is the experience that comes with watching the show. As for the viewing population that sets these plastic women up on pedestals and dreams of one day reaching a place where they would be considered for the show (since after all, they must be out there… in cities that haven’t yet been added to the mix) I’m a little bit afraid of you.

I have to wonder how long this phenomena will continue. Will there be a Real Housewives of Detroit? Of Chicago or San Francisco or Seattle? Will, as Bellafonte suggests, the show take a turn and begin to show the struggles of a flailing upper class forced to compromise in the face of a failing economy? Or would this be simply too realistic for reality TV? Would it hit too close to home? After all, don’t we want to be entertained by the 1% of the population that has so much more than us materially but morally doesn’t stand a chance? I don’t know if the “Real Housewives” installation will still be in place by the time I find myself taking on the ultimate challenge of raising children, but I do have a sort of pessimistic faith that something similar will have taken its place. We have redefined entertainment as a culture. Unless we find a way to re-evaluate and bring back the world of television before reality TV reared its head, the recurrence of frighteningly skinny mothers with gigantic diamond rings playing tennis in short pink mini skirts will continue to be a way to spend an hour of free time on the couch.

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