I am ending a seven year relationship that has become toxic. I had never been entirely honest or open about the relationship hiding it from friends, making excuses for lost evenings, hours when I could not be reached by phone. No more — I am breaking up with Bravo’s Real Housewives — all of them from New York to California, Atlanta to Miami. So why would an educated woman with a family and demanding job become so addicted? What could be so appealing? How could it happen?
When the Housewives of Orange County first aired, I justified watching as a sort-of anthropological exercise bringing me deep inside Reagonite suburbia. Even if the various characters’ lives did not reflect my own, they were not so distant from the lives of some of my acquaintances. Blonder –yes; richer- yes; more materialistic-yes; but on some level still relatable as they struggled with children, husbands, friends, careers, and perhaps most of all their own secreted ambitions. The casts were likeable and beneath the veneer of their manicured lawns and over decorated homes typical family problems brewed. The Housewives were certainly not brilliant documentary but it also was not Survivor. Bravo seemed to respect that its audience was composed of adult women with some intelligence whose TV choices were the equivalent of a food desert.
As time went on and the show’s franchise expanded, the characters slowly turned into parodies of themselves. They became real housewives performing the role of being real housewives. As if in some version of a gender theorists’ laboratory, the housewives now most closely resemble a drag show as they engage in studied and exaggerated performances of upper-middle class femininity. Now, the main feature of episode after episode is the standard cat fight. Like Sartres’ No Exit or for that matter Big Brother, the cast members are put together only to tear each other apart. Housewives are expected to criticize and judge their fellow cast members, continually escalating conflicts and creating ever changing alliances involving anything as small as a perceived insult, a cold shoulder, the failure to attend an event –In other words, junior high school on steroids.
Critics originally hailed the show as innovative, creative, and even subversive. It was celebrated as bringing a queer perspective to television. Cultural critic Camille Paglia recently claimed the show to be great for feminism and an important additive to the unsexy Gloria Steinem version of feminism. (There is an irony here — Gloria Steinem now the grand dame of feminism was long considered to be the sexy public face of feminism). Yet Housewives is deeply conservative, trading in the oldest of gender stereotypes. The greatest insult one housewife can hurtle at another is to be “old,” “fat” a “transvestite” a “whore,” “a home wrecker,” “a gold digger,” “a bad mother” and “trash.” These are insults that have been used for centuries to disparage women and were once considered legally actionable slander. As cast members are aware, they are attacking each others’ claims to being ladies. Yet what does it mean to be a lady (on a TV reality show) in 2013? As one Housewife tauntingly sings, “Money can’t buy you class.”
If the cat fight is one way to create dramatic tension, so too plastic surgery. With each season, the Housewives become ever more devoted to the surgeon’s skills. Even if money can’t buy you class, it can by you new breasts. These procedures become the center piece of episodes as we watch preparation for the surgery and all gather to celebrate the reveal of someone’s new nose, breasts, lips, face, or tummy tuck. Such surgery is de rigor as the Housewives desperately try to starve off aging. In Bravo’s world, appearing one’s age becomes a cardinal sin. As if surgery were not enough, the real prize is to be married to a plastic surgeon. Not only does the wife then have some claim to his salary and status but better yet to discount surgery and quick emergency Botox injections. One of the greatest gifts one housewife can bestow upon another is a free procedure performed by her husband.
At times episodes even have a soft-core porn feel as the cast parades in bathing suits and the skimpiest of dresses. The camera hovers on its subjects’ butt, breasts, crotch. What do these images evoke in the viewer – a comparison with oneself, jealousy, titillation, criticism, bewilderment? Like porn, each part of the female body becomes a fetish, a part, an object, endlessly reconstructed. The camera mocks, lingering on close-up shots of cellulite or untoned and undisciplined flesh. Such shots then become yet another rational for surgery.
If as some claim the Housewives have anything to do with feminism, I do not see it. If it is there it is of the narrowest kind, deeply connected to consumerism and the mimicking of men’s objectification of women. Liberation is then simply appropriating the male gaze, going to strip shows, learning pole dancing, having breast implants, and ultimately objectifying oneself. The Housewives’ critical gaze (and our own) is turned on other cast members, but it is ultimately turned on oneself. As feminist theorist Catherine Mackinnon writes, patriarchy works by women becoming “thingified” in the head. We become objects of our own gaze. We do not need men, we do it to ourselves having thoroughly consumed the worst of patriarchy.