Since I am the last person to have any right to judge other people's reality TV habits (two words: Paradise Hotel. Two More Words: Big Brother), I just have to say up front: to all my friends and readers who like the Real Housewives series... this is not about you. Or your tastes.
That said, when friends say "Oh my God, you should watch Real Housewives of ____", I am always bewildered. First by the notion that I would watch them, and second... why anyone else would.
But TV can be addictive, and reality TV, after all, is designed to invent drama where little or none actually exists, so I can't say I don't know why people watch; I do. What baffled me, as I generally reply, is why the Real Housewives genre gets the attention that it does.
Over this weekend, watching parts of both New York and New Jersey (and having, in the past, caught parts of Atlanta and Orange County) I'm come to realize... that's not true either. It's not that I don't get the appeal of the Housewives series... it's that I do. And that, really, is why I find the whole thing so troubling.
It's easy, some five or six copycats later, to forget why the Real Housewives of Orange County was created to begin with: some combination of the success of MTV's Laguna Beach (itself an attempt to capitalize on the success of The OC) and ABC's success with Desperate Housewives created the alchemy of concocting a series following "real" stay-at-home wives, with wealthy husbands, and documenting their "real life dramas." That it took off, like a rocket, was somewhat unexpected, and as Bravo has spun out carbon after carbon copy of the formula in city after city... it's become clear that the network tapped a fascination few could have necessarily predicted.
But why not? I've rarely tuned into the shows, since little of it fascinates me. The women chosen for these shows have lives that don't, generally, interest me, the kind of suburban (except for New York, but let's get back to that), slightly boring lives of women with money and more than a little free time. If you've worked in a mall - I have, a lot - you've seen these daytime shoppers, and it's not a way of life that ever held much interest. I don't mean that negatively - lots of livestyle choices aren't mine - it's just not my life, and wouldn't be, however well I married.
Still, what the Real Housewives shows get at is an intersection of money and class that does drive a lot of cultural conversation and commentary. In the eighties you could point to a number of women who had married well who tried, with varying success to break into New York's Upper East Side elite: Ivana Trump most obviously, but women like Pat Kluge, Carolyne Roehm and others. They were the staples of gossip columns and a certain kind of sneer-y celebrity journalism, their cravings for a kind of respectability laid against their lavish wealth, and their mixed efforts at good taste. This story is not new, and the judgments that play out in our culture tend, most often, to fall harshly on women.
The modest dramas that play out on the Real Housewives shows - and play out, it should be said, interminably, given the way in which the shows are shot and edited - tend, mostly, to pit, one or more of the women against one another; it's dizzying, even in a modest attempt at watching, to keep track of who's saying what about whom, why it matters, and who, in the end, bears the blame. And there's always blame. Someone, clearly, must be at fault. The dramas play out against the backdrop of upscale shopping, dressup parties (be they charity events, "fashion shows" or similar Function Hall type occasions), and the luxury homes that seem, in these shows to be in endless supply and constant variation. So many examples of crass luxury and dubious taste... so little time.
In the end, though, I was interested, though not surprised to discover that I could, in fact, figure out what drove the storytelling in fairly short order: familiar cultural tropes about how women must compete with one another and undermine one another, in the guise of a kind of friendship; and class based judgments meant to remind us that to have money does not mean one has class, and that the rich have problems and dramas that we (an audience not quite as rich) would never want, and should be relieved not to be wealthy, and not have the same issues.
As I said at the start... this isn't to indict the audience; I don't think there's something wrong with watching the Housewives shows, finding the dramas - such as they are - compelling, or taking sides (OMFG, Danielle! What's with her??). Reacting to the way the shows are edited and the stories are told seems to me like proof that the people making these shows do, in fact, know what they're doing, and what sells. But the bad taste I'm left with is about the people who are making these programs, who revel in other people's miseries, who profit from painting women of a certain class as greedy, catty bitches, callow, shallow and unworthy of respect or decency. It's insulting to women who, as far as I can tell (given all that editing), seem fairly ordinary and human, and whose mistake, if it can be called that, is that they think notoriety on reality TV is the same thing as fame, or respectability. Who's to say they're wrong about that, after all?
In the end, what drives me away from the Real Housewives genre is not that "I don't get it", but in fact, that I do: I get, all too well, a reaity TV world where women are catty and bitchy and call each other names and fight over trivialities. I grew up on soaps; I'm a lifelong Dynasty fan. And maybe it's just that I got my fill. Or maybe it's that, under the veil of fiction, I can comfort myself in thinking that in real life, I know better than to think women, really, are all about fighting and calling each other names. Whatever it is, I know I can't make the leap to watch a Real Housewives show, think that it's all fun and games and harmless and not perpetuating a lot of ugly stereotypes and myths about women and their lives that I have no business feeding into or perpetuating. Thanks but no thanks, and OMFG, I get it... she's a bitch, and we hate her. Is that enough?