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Tube Tied: Sometimes the Real Housewives are a Little Too Real

Welcome to the second instalment of Tube Tied, in which I (Michelle Dean, pleased to meet and/or re-meet you), blog for Bitch about gender and television. I've done, as mentioned, a run of posts here before, but you can also check out more recent writing of mine at The Awl, The Rumpus and The American Prospect. I also blog, these days, at The Pursuit of Harpyness. I thought about doing a navel-gaze of an introductory post. But there's not much to say other than that I watch a lot of television and think it contains some of the most interesting and complex work about women anywhere in the culture. And I already said that last time. So perhaps we'll just dive straight in.

I'm not one to guilt anyone for caring for lowbrow culture, not least because for so many years my bookish university friends made fun of me for watching television at all. (I've felt no small degree of satisfaction that The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men have had them eating their words more recently.) But every time I've tuned into any version of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise this year, I've had to fend off a sinking feeling that I've hit the rock bottom of my guilty pleasures.

The Real Housewives shows were initially presented to viewers as "windows" into the worlds of the rich and privileged but seem now to be more or less scripted reality shows with a fair amount of interpersonal drama thrown in for seasoning. I myself started out as a fan of the New York version, because that was where I lived. A good amount of both the frustration and fun of living in New York is traceable to the close proximity to ostentatious wealth wielded with commensurately ostentatious stupidity. This is a land, after all, in which you can actually convince the ruling class that they ought to pay $200 [check] for a burger, or $2500 a month for a sixth-floor walkup studio located in the "right" neighborhood downtown. And while it's true that less-fortunate New Yorkers usually avert their eyes when the rich are behaving badly right in front of them, parsing out the absurdity in private conversation is a near-universal survival strategy. Schadenfreude gets you through the day—and the Real Housewives of New York provided me with haterade without even having to leave the couch.

That reality shows play to certain baser impulses we all have is news to no one, I'd expect. But what's begun to concern me about the Real Housewives franchise in particular is the way in which it transforms what I'd say is some legitimate irritation with the upper middle class into flat-out misogyny.

See, initially, the Real Housewives franchise feeds off a very similar dynamic to the one I've just described in New Yorkers. Here, it says to America, are some absurdly, often inexplicably, rich people. Here they are reveling in their privilege. Here they are making unbelievably poor decisions in choosing their interior decor. Here they are bickering in overpriced restaurants in stupid, ugly clothes. God, don't you just hate the rich and their stupid asshole behavior?

 All of that stuff is fairly harmless of course, but those scenes are usually just filler. See, if you're lucky, today Teresa Giudice throws a table. Or if you've been really good, Ashley Laurita's daughter will pull Danielle Staub's hair extensions out! Did you SEE Kelly Killoren Bensimon's ridiculous YouTube PSA about bullying when she was the one picking on Bethenny Frankel all damn season? Or when she called Alex McCord a woman in a Kabuki mask? I think Danielle Staub may have borderline personality disorder based on what I saw on television! Did you see that weirdo companion, whose clothing appeared to be composed almost entirely of stonewashed denim, of Danielle's this season? Is the redundant epithet "prostitution whore" part of your vocabulary yet???

In other words, women be fighting! I'll get the popcorn ready. "it's just car-crash rubbernecking," a (female) friend said to me, once. "I can't help it."

I don't think it's necessary to feel overly offended by the audience reaction to any one woman who appears on these shows, of course. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they deliberately play up their behavior for the cameras. And I suspect they're compensated well enough for what they do. And their problems—notwithstanding what might genuinely be some mental illness in some of the women, though I will resist the urge to armchair diagnose—are pretty small, compared to those of most people in the world.

But I do have a real concern that women particularly are such an easy flashpoint for this kind of class warfare. It's not only in the audience for this show that you see a kind of glee at the misfortune of formerly successful women, of course. This summer's incarceration of Lindsay Lohan comes to mind, for example, as another occasion where people seemed barely able to contain their pleasure that she was being cut back down to size. That schadenfreude was almost entirely absent, for example, from Robert Downey Jr.'s similar meltdowns years back.

It's true that the Real Housewives women often behave like parodies of late 2000s capitalism, minus any kind of brand-building-savvy. It's also true that we are not living in a time where the kind of wealth these people have feels particularly attainable to anyone, and their lack of recognition of that fact is often grating. On the other hand, no one's producing or watching, "The Real Investment Bankers and CEOs of Tribeca," even though it's those rich men whose shenanigans have led most directly to making the rest of us poorer and less employed and more uncertain than we were two years ago. (And who, I'd argue, probably have interpersonal petty beefs and bizarre spending habits that would make just as great television as their wives', if only they'd just let us film them, but that's neither here nor there.)

 See, the problem with the sexism in this instance is more than just the general wrongness of it, of course. It's that it feels like it's being wielded as a distraction, as a shield for the people who have actually done the bad things here. Fascinated though I am by LuAnn de Lesseps' insistence that the "help" shouldn't refer to her by her first name, her classist snobbery is a symptom of the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It's not a cause. And the thing I think you have to do, if you really do care about how bad things are, is refuse to be distracted by the things that are put in front of you to get mad about. You have to keep shoving them aside, and looking behind them. You have to, to use a Real Housewives metaphor, flip that table right over.

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Comments

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Made me think of how the

Made me think of how the media handled the Martha Stewart thing while bigger fish got nowhere near the attention she did. Have to say though, although I hate to admit it, I do watch, mostly the New Jersey version, and I assume that it is mostly women watching. So, if I am correct in my assumption, then it is the group the distraction is aimed at that has made those shows so successful.

Welcome back, Michelle!

I loved your first Tube Tied series and am continually impressed by your work at The Awl. Good to see you!
(Unfortunately, I have nothing to add to the Real Housewives discussion; I've never seen it.)

I haven't watched any shows

I haven't watched any shows in the RH franchise, but I am curious about how the way race and class inform how the women's behavior is perceived. It seems like the ATL version had no more catfights than Orange County, yet I seem to hear more about the ATL catfights than the OC's. I loved your Tube Tied series and glad you're back!!!
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My kinda of Show

I'd watch "The Real Investment Bankers and CEOs of Tribeca"

Unfortunately I've never

Unfortunately I've never watched the Atlanta version, which is, to my knowledge, still the only one that actually features women of colour. That is, unless you count the nanny, Rosa, at the de Lesseps' in the New York version.

That said, race is obviously going to inflect the discussion, particularly because the show might be seen to cater to stereotypes about black women and their interpsonal dynamics. But again it's hard to speak about it.

Class will affect things too, but it's interesting in this context. If we were still living in the age of Wharton and Henry James, the rich people who populate the Housewives shows would be referred to as nouveau riche, for sure. (In fact, one of the things I used to hear in New York from my limited connections to old New York money was the scoff that these people weren't "real socialites.") So class here isn't just a matter of the number on your bank account balance. Although at a certain point we're just splitting rich people's hairs there, I guess.