The ongoing act of self-documentation in a world that punishes female experience (that doesn’t aspire to maleness) is a radical declaration that women are within our rights to contribute to the story of what it means to be human.
— Alana Massey
Outside of certain enlightened groups, when I confess my deep love of The Real Housewives franchise, the reactions range from disgust to rage. The occasional few admit that they appreciate these types of shows as a “guilty pleasure”. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the novel was considered a cheap and feminine form of entertainment because it caused readers to form emotional attachments to fictional characters. Today, reality TV is undervalued for the same reason. Writer and scholar Anne Helen Petersen wrote in regard to celebrity gossip, an umbrella under which today’s reality stars fall: “like so many other gendered media texts, it causes anxiety […] because it has been labeled, mostly by men, as feminine and frivolous.”
Admittedly The Real Housewives doesn’t have the intellectual heft of, say, a documentary feature on particle science or the ills of the criminal justice system, but it’s no less intelligent than shows viewers readily admit to loving without guilt, such as Westworld or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Writing for the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum declared that while reality TV is an “easily mocked mass artistic medium”, it also provides a “magnetizing mirror for culture”. The mirror shows women “who have succeeded all too well at becoming visible” being “penalized vigilantly and forcefully, and turned into spectacles” (Doyle 2016a). Likewise, fans are mocked at best, scorned at worst for allowing these spectacles to flourish. According to Peterson, however, “the more you talk about gossip in a critical, feminist way, the more the seams of its construction become more visible.”
I will not suggest that The Real Housewives franchise is not problematic or that it doesn’t in many ways promulgate patriarchal structures (that its “leader” Andy Cohen is a powerful man famous for exploiting and ridiculing women for entertainment value would render such arguments difficult). I instead propose that in writing about, viewing, and consuming the Real Housewives franchise (and reality TV more generally) with a critical eye, we can disentangle the patriarchal forces at play and move towards a culture in which women are not punished for putting their lives in the public sphere on their own terms.
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Upon Trump’s election, we were plucked from an era of deep political apathy and into a reinvigoration of liberal activism, spurred by fears of impending fascism and a complete eradication of civil rights. In the months following, I was overcome by a feeling that my writing (which focuses heavily on celebrity and, well, white women) does not matter. In this alarming political climate, why would anyone care about something so trivial? Then a realization hit: our current president is a former reality TV star. (Somewhat relatedly, I also realized that my tendency to turn my fears inward was a product of a patriarchal culture in which women’s instinctual reaction to negative external events is to blame ourselves.)
The month of Trump’s inauguration, Vulture declared that “reality-TV conventions and reality-TV storytelling are fundamental to what’s happening in our national politics.” Trump puts his personal brand above all else, he has assembled a cabinet of inexperienced ideologues, is completely disconnected from the realities of American life, and is “defined largely in opposition to others”, our president is “still living in his own reality TV show.” In fact, Trump’s aggressive hawking of his “Make America Great Again” merchandise is reminiscent of how Bethenney Frankel’s emblazons her “Skinny Girl” brand all over Bravo programming. New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum recently said: “[Trump] is reality TV embodied, which has to do with an audience knowing, simultaneously, that something is fake and real, and their cynicism enabling them to enjoy the parts of it that are revolting because they feel like they’re sort of in on it.” Through the lens of reality TV, Trump’s behavior does not seem the least bit shocking, nor does the fact that he was elected as America’s leader.
That Trump’s leadership style aligns with how reality TV tells story exemplifies how the medium can act as a cultural mirror. In its recent profile of Bravo’s senior vice-president of programming and production and the man to whom the Real Housewives franchise is credited, New York Times Magazine wrote: “Andy Cohen isn’t how our culture got this way. He is simply a walking seismograph of it.” Likewise, Vice recently declared: “Critics have dissected the Housewives in every publication from n + 1 to New York Times Magazine [….] With Donald Trump as president, few can deny that reality television has moved to the center of American culture.” It is therefore of crucial importance — particularly now — to examine the oft-discarded cultural phenomenon of reality TV with a critical eye.
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Like the best reality stars, Shereé [Whitfield] straddles the line between savvy and messy, self-aware and oblivious. — Mitchell Sunderland, Vice
In 2005 when The Real Housewives of Orange County aired, there were few television shows featuring all-female casts, telling their stories from their perspective. With Mob Wives, Sister Wives Basketball Wives, Army Wives, and Wife Swap (to name a few), recent decades have seen a pop culture obsession with the housewife. While this obsession could arguably symbolize a backlash to feminism, a subtle push to affirm women’s position in the home, Andy Cohen has said that the term “Housewives” is meant to be tongue-and-cheek. In fact, most of the women featured in the franchise are not housewives. Many are the breadwinners and, as Cohen told New York Times Magazine, most are — at least after being on the show — “sophisticated businesswomen”.
Also lurking, however, is the concern that Cohen is exploiting these women. Cohen himself recently told New York Times Magazine of the women on the The Real Housewives: “A lot of them view me as kind of their daddy in some weird, sick way, and their boss, and their friend, and their boyfriend, and their enemy — and so there’s a lot of different psychological layers happening in a situation like this. Some of them are volatile women. So it’s all real. It’s all real. (Brodesser-Akner)
On a November 2016 episode of his talk show Watch What Happens Live, Cohen played a game with guest Kristen Doute (a star of Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules) entitled “Is! Kristen! Still! Crazy!” Cohen explained the rules to Kristen: “I will ask you some questions about your sanity, and every answer will effect this very scientific meter, so we can finally know for sure.” Cohen proceeded to ask Kristen questions like whether she has ever punched her current boyfriend in the face. A cartoon meter rose when her answer was deemed “crazy”, such as when she admitted to still wearing a fake engagement ring. This interaction captured how Cohen routinely exploits toxic patriarchal constructs for entertainment value. As a Washington Post article put it: “crazy” is a term “typically held in reserve for women’s behavior”, and is one of “five deadly words” (the others: fat, ugly, slutty, bitchy) that “sum up the supposedly worst things a woman can be.” Cohen has arguably made a career out of portraying women as at least three of the five: Crazy, Slutty, Bitchy.
The names “fake” and “wannabe” could be added to this list, and are also traits upon which Bravo capitalizes. In Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel Look at Me — which eerily foreshadowed the imminent popularity of reality television in that the protagonist agrees to film herself 24/7 for a website called “Ordinary People” (Look at Me was released in 2001; The Real Housewives first aired in 2005) — a former model named Charlotte is forced to rebuild her identity after becoming disfigured in a car accident. Early in the novel, Charlotte is offered a photo shoot with Italian Vogue by a photographer famous for replicating violence. At the shoot, a make-up artist removes a razor blade to cut the models for “authentic blood”. Charlotte suggests using fake blood instead: “The word ‘fake’ induced a collective flinch, as if I’d used a racial slur.” The photographer replies: “I’m trying to get at some kind of truth, here, in this phony, sick, ludicrous world.” Likewise, the notion that the Real Housewives are parading inauthentic conflict/ bodies/ faces under the guise of “reality” induces a “collective flinch”.
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In their book In the Limelight and Under the Microscope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity, authors Diane Negra and Su Holmes present an empirical study of young women suggesting that “the image of young female ‘wannabe’ has psycho-pathological undertones” — “girls’ desires to become celebrities are read as deluded fantasies in need of correction.” The Real Housewives are a visual manifestation of this alleged psycho-pathology. They are portrayed as delusional, wannabe celebrities who are unfairly given the spotlight. Over seasons, we watch them lean into the wannabe narrative. We watch their wardrobes become shinier, their bodies slimmer, their faces increasingly plasticized. We watch their personalities become louder, their feuds more dramatic and more public. We watch them inevitably announce that they’ve “always wanted to be a singer”. We watch them pay for expensive producers and release campy singles that gay men love ironically. We watch them get book deals, become national bestsellers, and then watch Cohen test their vocabularies for laughs on his talk show. We watch them cheat on their husbands, get cheated on, get divorced, sleep with men young enough to be their sons. As the executive vice-president and general manager of Bravo Media herself said: “There is a train wreck element to it.”
What a Straight Man Can’t Get Away With…
In her Master’s thesis from Georgetown, Lilan Hughes wrote that The Real Housewives “portrays and promotes a discourse in which women have become their own oppressors.” This discourse is largely reflected in the women’s obsessions with youth and beauty. Maintaining an attractive and youthful appearance, primarily to attract men, is a major theme throughout the franchise. In Taylor Armstrong’s introduction on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, for example, the cast member expresses fears that her husband will leave her for someone younger and prettier; the 38-year-old admits to surgically manipulating her body to maintain a competitive appearance. Likewise, on the Season 8 premier of The Real Housewives of Orange County, Vicki Gunvalson arrives at a dinner party just two weeks after getting major plastic surgery on her face, which appears on camera as red and swollen. Orange County housewife Tamra Judge has gotten breast implants a number of times on camera, and Real Housewives Jacqueline Laurita, NeNe Leakes, Cynthia Bailey, and Kathy Walkie have all admitted to having work done on Watch What Happens Live.
Likewise, Danielle Staub’s introduction on The Real Housewives of New Jersey is dedicated to showcasing her body and her alleged ability to defy the effects of aging. As 46-year-old Danielle lifts weights in a skimpy outfit, she watches herself in the mirror. In doing so, Hughes writes, Danielle “embodies the narcissism of narrative cinema in which the viewer must always adopt a (sexist) male gaze” — “[o]bjectification has become a self-practice.” Egan’s Look at Me depicts this same phenomenon with an urgent, haunting tone — at one point, a character warns against internalizing the male gaze, pleading: “Don’t look at yourself through their eyes — don’t. Or they will have won.”
Like Hughes, many theorists view The Real Housewives (and similar programs) as unequivocally detrimental to women. For example, scholar Penny Griffin wrote that the franchise belongs to the many shows that teach women: “[T]hey can only be fulfilled through finding a husband, that they should aspire solely to a life of leisure, that they are valuable as decorative props for advertisers, [and] that they are bad wives and mothers if they pursue professional or political interests outside the home.”
Griffin continued that the franchise depicts middle-aged women as “shallow, catty, greedy, and idle”, with their identities “entirely dependent on the men they marry.” Accordingly, nearly every episode shows the women “ripping each other to shreds over some frivolous transgression,” which has the impact of encouraging pettiness and teaching young girls that women cannot be friends. Accordingly, former Real Housewives of OC cast member Alexis Bellino recently expressed extreme distaste for her own gender:
“Girls are harder,” she explained. “I have two twin daughters — and they’re Scorpios!” The years Alexis has spent combating Real Housewives seem to have gotten to her; she went on to tell me she has banned all other women from her house, including female pets that her kids wanted to get. When I asked Alexis what’s to blame for what she seems to believe is women’s essential malice, she laughed and shouted, “Estrogen!”
At the end of 14 months of traveling America to interview former Real Housewives, Vice reporter Mitchell Sutherland concluded that the women are “petty, vindictive strivers, and spending time in their world can be exhausting.”
In addition to fostering an environment in which women are encouraged to see each other as enemies, Cohen perpetuates a cheapening of female sexuality. In an article on lesbian women and mental health, Talkspace listed the assumption that lesbians are romantically with women “as some sort of trendy experiment rather than a legitimate sexual preference” as a particularly harmful stereotype. On Watch What Happens Live, Cohen asks essentially every female guest whether they’ve ever “taken a dip in the lady pond”. He doesn’t ask the same of men on his show. In interrogating women about their sexual histories as a gameshow joke, Cohen perpetuates the aforementioned harmful stereotype. Demonstrating Cohen’s influence, when rumors surfaced on Season 9 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta that certain cast members had engaged in lesbian behavior, the housewives assumed Cohen’s idiolect, speculating about whether certain women had “dipped in the lady pond”. This occurrence provides a clear example of how Cohen turns these women into their own oppressors.
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One critic wrote in 2005 that the then popular Desperate Housewives depicted women “hemmed in by the expectations society puts on them, all desperately trying to break free from prescribed mundaneness, and failing.” While many Real Housewives contestants have achieved major professional and personal successes since being on air, the women have also endured a great deal of trauma — from rampant divorce, addiction, and financial collapse, to issues as extreme as federal prison sentences and suicide. The overwhelming darkness lurking beneath the show’s shiny veneer begs the question: is being on air detrimental to the women?
A whopping 23 participants have gotten divorced since appearing on television. (Last year, E! News reported the divorce rate for every Real Housewives franchise: New York: 44.4 percent, Beverly Hills: 33.3 percent, Atlanta: 60 percent, New Jersey: 12.5 percent.) Financial issues are also common. In an early episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, Teresa says while pulling out a chunk of cash to pay for a hefty furniture bill: “I hear the economy’s crashing. That’s why I pay cash.” A year later, Teresa and her husband filed for bankruptcy. In November 2010, Sonja Morgan of The Real Housewives of New York, too, filed a Chapter 11. On a Season 1 episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Taylor brags that her husband is “richer than Texas”. In reality, he was struggling through bankruptcy proceedings at the time. In 2017, Vice reported that former Atlanta housewife Shereé Whitfield “currently owes over $300,000 to the IRS”. Shereé explained away her financial issues with “it happens!” then asked the reporter to pay for her valet parking.
Addiction issues also appear on the franchise. On the 2011 finalé of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Kyle Richards outs her sister Kim’s alcoholism in a limo after a party. Prior to this moment, Kim was depicted as eccentric, but viewers were unaware of any addiction issues. A banner at the bottom of the screen announces that Kim checked into rehab shortly thereafter. The sisters have since had a tumultuous on-screen relationship surrounding Kim’s struggles to stay sober — dark television that Housewives recapper (yes, that’s a job) JJulie Klausner compared in tone to Intervention, Requiem for a Dream, and Dancer in the Dark.
The show’s trademark wink-and-nod editing show the women being ridiculed in the same way that Cohen mocks the women on his talk show. For example, one episode depicts Kim Richards evidently drunk and/or high and exhibiting bizarre behavior in the back of a car. The producers then chose “to intercept Kim’s action” with a testimonial that, in Klausner’s words “reeked of cruelty by contrast. ‘I’m a Virgo,’ poor Kim deadpanned to the camera.” Klausner playfully imagined Andy Cohen turning the scene into a game on Watch What Happens Live: “Every time Kim calls herself a Virgo, then locks herself in a bathroom for 45 minutes so she can, with chemical assistance, stave off the approach of reality, take a sip of your cocktail!”
But things get even darker.
In 2012, Taylor Armstrong’s husband Russell was found dead in a friend’s Los Angeles home; he had hung himself. His suicide occurred a month after Taylor publicly filed for divorce, alleging verbal and physical abuse. While Taylor partially blamed the show for Russell’s suicide, indicating that the couple was “pushed to extremes” during filming, Cohen provided a different explanation: “I think what emerged is the story of a woman trying to extricate herself from a bad, broken marriage, in which she was unhappy and domestic violence played a part.” Both explanations, while different, seem reasonable. The stress of filming a reality show was likely detrimental to Russell’s mental health. (The Daily Beast reported that in the early days of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Russell told friends the exposure of the show would skyrocket his career as an investor). It is also possible, however, that finding an autonomous voice on Bravo gave Taylor the courage to extricate herself from an abusive domestic situation.
Teresa Giudice’s story presents a similar conundrum. In July 2013, Teresa and Joe Giudice were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud, making false statements on loan applications, and bankruptcy fraud in a 39-count federal indictment (Vena). The following spring, Teresa and Joe entered a guilty plea to 41 counts of fraud. In December 2015, Teresa was released from federal prison after serving 11 months of a 15-month sentence for fraud. In February 2016, Teresa’s memoir Turning the Tables: From Housewife to Inmate and Back Again debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. This timeline begs the question: did the pressure of appearing affluent on TV catalyze criminal behavior, or did Teresa’s exposure as a Bravo personality allow her to free herself from relying on her crooked husband and pen a bestseller to make money on her own terms? Or are both of these things true?
Brodesser-Akner asked Cohen if he feels bad for the women. “It annoys him, the implication that what he’s doing is somehow cruel to the women who have signed up for it.” He explained: “I’m in a business relationship with these women[.] They know what they’re doing.” Husband of former OC housewife Gretchen Rossi feels differently: “My opinion is that the network has raped their talent [….] It plays all over the world, and its talent gets nothing.” These interactions capture the complicated dichotomy at play: are these women mentally unstable victims of a manipulating system, or are they businesswomen who know exactly what they’re doing? Or does the reality lie somewhere in between?
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As feminist scholar Laura Mulvey argued in coining the term “male gaze” in the ’80s that men are socialized to stare at women as objects in order to control them. While not sexually/ romantically interested in women, gay men are not immune from the corrosive influences of the patriarchy. Yet because misogyny is thought to be intrinsically linked to sexual desire and gay men tend not to present the same threat to women’s bodies (i.e., rape, sexual assault), they are often granted a societal pass. Gay men, however, have the same potential to be misogynistic as their straight counterparts, and Bravo — which turns women into spectacles to be alternatively praised for their glamorous, doll-like appearances or mocked for their “volatile” antics before a largely gay audience (a 2008 student ranked Bravo as the most recognizable brand among gay consumers (Reuters)) — is a prime example.
Given his societal pass as a gay man, Cohen is able to get away with asking invasive and explicit questioning, if it came from a straight man, would undoubtedly be viewed as harassment. In January 2015, for example, Cohen asked Nicki Minaj: “Who has the biggest dick in the music industry?” Minaj politely responded that she did not know because she had been in a ten-year relationship. Afterwards, he asked to take a selfie with her butt, which she declined. When Advocate writer Eliel Cruz asked female readers about misogyny they had encountered from gay men, he was flooded with responses detailing gay male fat-shaming, slut-shaming, touching women without their consent, and giving critical and unsolicited beauty advice. These examples, Cruz wrote, provided “a clear example of gay and bi men asserting authority over women by critiquing their appearance.”
On one episode of the cult classic Sex and the City, Samantha says: “Gay men understand what’s important — clothes, compliments, and cocks.” Like The Real Housewives, Sex and the City depicted stories surrounding powerful career women, but the show was created by a gay man. Creator Darren Star said that although none of his shows were explicitly “gay shows”, they were about the gay experience (he knew that if he wrote and casted women as opposed to gay men, his shows would have a wider appeal). Accordingly, the New Republic deemed Sex and the City an “ingenious affirmation of a certain type of gay male sexuality,” a point hammered home on the The Simpsons when Marge calls it “the show about four women acting like gay guys.”
Women’s Studies professor Ailbhe Smyth wrote that media-savvy gay men provide a “very camped-up view of stereotypes of femininity.” Likewise, a critic wrote that Sex and the City equates femininity with “the camp concept of fabulousness”. Smyth expressed concern over these gay male generated female stereotypes because gay men “have all the power in US television”, and “US television is dictating how we all look at the world”. That the women on Sex and the City and The Real Housewives are valued primarily for their “fabulous” wardrobes and “volatile” personalities perpetuates a notion of women as objects to be consumed for entertainment: put simply, it furthers the controlling male gaze.
Reality TV’s Alluring Counter-narrative
In order to create an alternative, an oppressed group must at once shatter the self-reflecting world which encircles it and, at the same time, project its own image onto history. — Sheila Rowbotham, 1973
“The thing with celebrities is they aren’t good or bad, they just are,” scholar Anne Helen Petersen said in an interview. “Now what matters, I think, is how we think about those celebrities, and how we interrogate our own reactions to those celebrities.” Similarly, Subashini Navartnam wrote in her review of Egan’s Look At Me: Indeed, the gaze that is filtered through celebrity culture and spectacle, it turns out, implicates both you and me — the same gaze that people use to worship and judge celebrities in what they wear is the one that people learn to train onto ourselves and their best friends.
It is therefore of crucial importance to interrogate this gaze, and to think critically about how and why the public reacts to cultural figures like The Real Housewives.
As explained in the introduction, the novel was originally considered a cheap and feminine form of entertainment because it caused readers to form emotional attachments to fictional characters. Today, reality TV is undervalued for the same reason. Feminist theorist Robyn R. Warhol wrote that media that encourages emotions like excitement, desire, or crying has been “systematically devalued by critics.”
To counter this narrative, scholar Camille Paglia wrote that she adores The Real Housewives for its “frank display of emotion” and the “intricate interrelationships”. And rather than critique the women for obsessing over their bodies, Paglia praised one housewife’s enthusiasm for working out: “As a fitness guru with her own gym, [Tamra Judge] is a whirling dervish of physical activity [who] represents the gung-ho athleticism of a new generation of American women.” Instead of critiquing Bravo for portraying women as inherently catty, Paglia instead framed the women as fierce primal warriors: “Tamra leapt like a tigress [across] the restaurant table. [T]o counter the petite Tamra’s fiery Amazonian force, the much taller Vicki had to screech like a banshee. It was not a human voice: it was the piercing, atavistic war rattle of a fur-matted hominid ancestors in the primeval jungle!” In describing female TV characters in a way that glorifies their strength, autonomy, and power, cultural commentators like Paglia help reframe the way society sees women more generally.
In a 2012 interview with Salon, Paglia countered the popular narrative that reality TV is inherently trashy and frivolous. When asked what inspired her at the moment in popular culture, she responded:
Bravo’s Real Housewives series! Whoever is doing the photography and editing […] this is absolute cutting edge. I can watch the same episode […] five, six, or seven times. I savor how visually interesting they are — how long each shot lasts and how much information it contains. This is intelligent and sophisticated documentary filmmaking that really needs to be honored.
It has never made sense to me that while documentaries — essentially “reality movies” — are considered the highest of the highbrow (often finding their way into the Criterion Collection), reality TV is considered lowbrow trash. It is likewise puzzling while the popular conception is that Real Housewives is bad for women, it’s scripted counterpart Sex and the City has been heralded as a “groundbreaking neo-feminist epic”. In the Salon interview, Paglia took the opportunity to present a different, more thoughtful outlook. Perhaps, one day people will look back at mass culture’s disdain for reality television with the same perplexity that today we see the historical dismissal of the novel. (Vice recently suggested that Hollywood no longer views reality TV “as inferior to scripted fair”, meaning perception might be changing.)
Writer Caity Weaver has also countered the stereotype that reality TV and celebrity gossip are inherently trashy and mindless. During a recent podcast interview, the hosts asked Weaver about her GQ profile of Kim Kardashian. Weaver explained that she was initially curious about Kim Kardashian for the following reason:
My friends who I consider my smartest friends — doctor friends, lawyer friends — all watch the Kardashians. So I said, okay, if my smartest friends think the show is worth watching, it has to be worth watching in some way. It’s not totally mindless, pointless entertainment.
And rather than calling Kim “famous for nothing” — a variation on the “wannabe” narrative — Weaver described Kim as famous “for no immediately discernable reason”, expanding that “once you delve into her a little bit, you can totally understand… why she’s able to monetize herself so thoroughly.” She stressed that “[Kim] was really a good interview because she knows she has to make it interesting — Kim’s whole job is being herself.”
Later in the interview, one host said in a condescending tone: “First of all, I think it’s pretty interesting that you, like, actively wanted to do celebrity profiles.” Weaver responded, politely, that she loves reading them. The host quickly and aggressively interjected: “Why?” Weaver responded: “For the same reason I like The Real Housewives. I love studying people.” She went on to compare reading celebrity profiles to watching slow motion video: it’s rewarding because it gives your brain time to take in all the detail of what’s happening. A celebrity profile, she explained, “inherently invites” the reader to delve deeply into a person and observe her from a variety of angles, which is considered rude in every day interactions. This thoughtful explanation provides a counter-narrative to the notion that celebrity gossip is simply mindless entertainment.
In 2016, E! News noted that The Real Housewives of New York counters the widespread conception that middle-age women have little value aside from being wives and mothers, and that TV “wives” shows serve only to keep them further trapped in this role. When The Real Housewives of New York began in 2008, all of the cast-members except Bethenny Frankel were married. By 2016, with a mix of divorce and cast turnover, all seven cast-members were single, resulting in what E! News deemed “one of the medium’s most subtly feminist pieces of entertainment this year.” The show followed the women as they dated younger men, ran businesses, had one-night stands, and focused on their female friendships. Jack Halberstam wrote that society leads young people to believe that “marriage and babies represent the only possible future within which they can live out their adult desires.” In reality, however, peoples’ lives tend to be more complicated than this timeline suggests, and “the family, rather than a sanctuary, may for many be a kind of prison that we assiduously avoid.” Bravo’s portrayal of real women in their 40s and 50s as sexually liberated, financially autonomous, and free of the domestic prison is progressive and deserving of media attention.
Moreover, it can be said that shows like The Real Housewives and Keeping up with the Kardashians are revolutionary in that they present an aspirational version of the world in which women and their stories reign supreme. The Kardashians, for example, comprise a very public matriarchy, with Kris Jenner and her five daughters at the center, while boyfriends and husbands come and go, and brothers and fathers are cast to the side as bothersome or insignificant. As Vanity Fair recently said, “Kris Jenner sits comfortably in her seat of power at the helm.” The most powerful example of the Kardashian “female dominance” is that Bruce Jenner was not taken seriously until he transitioned to Caitlyn. While Bruce was ignored, or mocked for his “silly” stereotypically male interests — toy helicopters and golf — Caitlyn was at the forefront of the storylines, gracing magazine covers and participating in public feuds. While I will not suggest that Bruce transitioned to gain power in the family, his transition highlights how the family prioritizes women. In spotlighting female stories while ignoring male characters and their interests, reality TV presents an alluring counter-narrative to mainstream society’s tendency to dismiss women and their interests. (In this vein, I recently joined a group of mostly women and gay men that meets weekly to watch The Real Housewives at a sports bar, thereby creating community surrounding women’s stories in a historically male space.)
Offsetting the mainstream critique of female television characters’ obsession with appearance, one critic wrote that Sex and the City “consciously disidentif[ied] with bourgeois family values in favor of the dazzling, idealized notion of fabulousness embodied in their gay sidekicks.” In so doing, Sex and the City lionized a rejection of traditional notions of femininity — motherhood, modesty, responsibility — in favor of attaining a “fabulous lifestyle and persona” funded by high-powered careers. Likewise, the notion that women on reality TV shows are shallow in their quest for “fabulousness” can be counteracted by the argument that via “fabulousness”, women can exercise agency and escape the imprisoning domestic roles imposed upon them.
Anne Helen Petersen has also countered mainstream critiques of reality TV’s beauty/ wealth obsession. From a Marxist perspective, she explained, the Kardashians are “making labor visible”. In capitalist America, she explains, we mostly see a product and “it just is” — we don’t acknowledge the work that goes into it. The Kardashians (and the Housewives), by contrast, demonstrate the labor of being a celebrity, of putting on hours of makeup and holding poses, of avoiding some cameras while orchestrating exposure from others. Kim and the Housewives are postmodern celebrities, Peterson concluded, in that they represent the “visualization of invisible labor”.
Unlike earlier socialites such as Paris Hilton, who was born into wealth and made fame appear effortless, Kim emphasizes the work ethic required to build her personal brand and remain relevant. In fact, Kim was initially Paris Hilton’s assistant. Many Housewives, too, come from humble beginnings, which are often referenced on the shows — Yolanda Foster worked as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant; Vicki Gunvelson worked at a construction company; NeNe Leakes was a stripper; and Taylor Armstrong was a pharmaceutical rep in Oklahoma. Petersen called Kim’s rise to fame: “a postmodern industrial American dream”. While Paris Hilton’s name was built on a white man’s business empire, Kim — the offspring of Armenian immigrants — used her own body and exotic appearance and turned it into a commodity.
Indeed, the Kardashian body as a commodity is an integral component of contemporary feminism. Yes, the Kardashians are obsessed with their appearances, arguably contributing to the objectification of the female figure. At the same time, however, the Kardashian body presents an alternative to the male-controlled gaze. First, rather than mediate their appearances through the traditional arbiters of media — men — the Kardashians reach their audiences directly by posting selfies on their own social media pages. Stanford Professor Peggy Phelan described the “selfie” as a “radical inclusion of the female figure by the woman herself,” which in turn displaces the male gaze. (In 1973, British scholar Sheila Rowbotham anticipated the feminist power of the selfie in writing: “In order to discover its own identity as distinct from that of the oppressor it has to become visible to itself. All revolutionary movements create their own ways of seeing.”)
Further, while feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained in the viral TED talk: “we teach women to shrink themselves”, the Kardashians present a highly public antithesis — they are curvy, loud, and proud to take up as much physical and metaphorical space as possible. In this sense, they empower women eschew patriarchal expectations and live comfortably and visibly in their own bodies.
“No Safe Way… to Be Female and Public”
We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You can be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ultimately the true reason Jennifer Egan’s protagonist in Look At Me suffers is that she is unable to conceal what women are conditioned to keep hidden: her sexuality, her brains, and her integrity. Charlotte is self-sufficient, sharp, and jaded. The same could be said for the women of The Real Housewives and Keeping Up with the Kardashians — savvy, financially independent women living vibrantly in the public eye. Negra and Holmes offer a rationale for the adverse narrative so often imposed upon these women: “One reason why stories of professionally accomplished/personally troubled female celebrities circulate so actively is that when women struggle or fail, their actions are seen to constitute ‘proof’ that for women the ‘work-life balance’ is really an impossible one.”
In the summer of 2016, two cultural events made clear that being a shrewd woman in the public eye is a difficult, if not dangerous, space to occupy. Elena Ferrante, a previously pseudonymous and globally popular Italian author, had her identity outed by a male journalist. At around the same time, the internationally renowned “personality” Kim Kardashian was bound and gagged by masked gunmen in her Paris apartment. Despite living on opposite “ends of the privacy spectrum in the digital age” — with Ferrante writing novels under a pen name to divorce her art from her true identity, and Kardashian being “compulsively open with her audience” — the public blamed both women. The two stories captured the impossible position women occupy in today’s public sphere, in which they are punished when they reveal too much, and punished when they reveal too little. The writer Laura Snapes summarized the worst of the reactions: “Elena: so private she ‘deserves’ to get doxed. Kim: so public she ‘deserves’ to get robbed at gun point.”
Reactions to Kardashian and Ferrante say as much about being a woman in today’s world as they do about celebrity. As Christine Friar wrote for The Awl: “seeing headlines from both stories flashing back-to-back through my feed, it occurred to me: There is no safe way, currently, to be both female and public.” If you are a female and making your voice heard — by writing novels under an obviously female pen name, or making a brand out of your personality via social media and reality television — you are at risk, representing either “a beacon of everything threatening and volatile, or you’re a snake hiding in the grass.”
Rather than listening to the voices who say that “women who shy away from publicity are inviting exposure” while “women [who] court publicity are inviting attack,” we should “[l]isten to women themselves when they declare how much privacy they want.” As the public’s reactions to Kardashian and Ferrante made clear, our instinct to blame the women is often more about institutionalized misogyny and implicit bias than about anything the women have done to deserve blame. Namely, the negative reactions symbolize how we don’t trust women to navigate their lives on their own terms.
This winter, the mainstream distrust of women’s voices was thrown into stark relief when Teen Vogue published an illuminating article on Donald Trump’s psychological manipulation of America. In an article for Quartz, Sady Doyle wrote that the “condescension with which Teen Vogue’s political coverage [was] greeted” embodied how “denigrating women who dare to express their thoughts remains a popular pastime.” One Twitter user noted, Doyle wrote, that the article had “big words for a magazine about hair styles and celebrity gossip.” Another snapped: “Go back to acne treatments.” Doyle concluded that we need to stop “feigning shock” at smart female voices and “start listening to what they have to say”.
The difficulty of being female and public has also been readily apparent in mainstream critiques of filmmaker Lena Dunham and her television show Girls. For example, in an early episode called “Dead Inside”, Hannah’s editor dies and she feels nothing aside from concern about the future of upcoming e-book. Critics were uniformly disgusted by Hannah’s reaction, catalyzing headlines such as: “Death reminds us that Hannah is a bit of a monster.” Hannah’s reaction to her editor’s death, however, struck me as normal and relatable. Is Hannah a “monster” because she prioritizes her career over her feelings? Don’t we give men the space to do this every day?
I could see Louis C.K., Larry David, or Woody Allen — all of whom create neurotic, obnoxious, and loosely autobiographical characters — reacting similarly to the same plot-point, and no one would bat an eye; they’d probably find it hilarious. In one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry’s wife calls him from a crashing plane to have her last words and Larry responds by complaining about the TiVo guy. This episode was not met by reaction pieces deeming David a “monster”. Likewise, pop songstress Lana Del Rey was slammed for being “fake” after the public learned she was once a less-compelling aspiring singer named Lizzy Grant. Author Alana Massey nailed the double-standard, writing that those who accuse women like Lana “of fraud in their image craft seem to not heard of David Bowie’s successful alter ego Ziggy Stardust, the folksy creation of a genius named Robert Allen Zimmerman.” She explained that there is a tradition of male artists adopting personae as part of their art, as though they contain so much genius that it must be split up. Meanwhile, women “who venture to do the same are ridiculed as fakers and try-hards; their constructed identities seen as attention-seeking stunts more than new embodiments of the artists themselves.”
Another double standard exists between Kris Jenner and Andy Cohen, who occupy similar roles as public figures and reality TV producers. While Cohen is often perceived as a lovable — if at times irreverent — father of the women on the TV shows he produces, Jenner is viewed as an evil mom who exploits her children for personal gain. For example, actual magazine headlines read: “The Kardashians’ Stepmom Tells All! Claims ‘Evil’ Kris Jenner Destroyed Her Own Family” (Radar); “Kris Jenner Denies Exploiting Her Family” (Huffington Post); “Kris Jenner’s Evil Manipulations Backfire” (Radar); “Is Kris Jenner Just a Glorified Pimp?” (Jezebel). Cohen is not reviled to the same extent as Jenner, a fact attributable to the same patriarchal forces that consider del Rey a faker while regarding Bowie as the height of genius. In the same vein, the fact that we embrace female-focused shows like Sex and the City and Real Housewives only through the controlling arm of gay men speaks to the fact that we don’t entirely trust women to speak for themselves.
New York Times writer Jenna Wortham recently asked Dunham what she wanted to be the legacy of Girls, which is in its final season. She responded: “I hope that it helps people think about women as messy and complicated, and containing multitudes, and that it’s okay for women to be unsure, and impolite.” It’s about time we afford women the same space to be imperfect (i.e., human) that we afford men.
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Author and journalist Zan Romanoff recently tweeted: “the most interesting thing you can do is look long, hard & thoughtfully at what we’re culturally encouraged to dismiss & degrade.”
The Real Housewives may not be the most brilliant television franchise that has ever existed, but the popular condemnation of reality TV and its cast members say much more about us as a society and our attitudes towards women than it does about artistic merit of the shows themselves. The public dismisses The Real Housewives in the same way novels were historically dismissed for “luring [mostly female] readers into an emotional attachment to fictional characters and pathos”; the way the public blamed Kim Kardashian and Elena Ferrante for being mugged and doxed, respectively, for navigating living in the public eye on their own terms; the way the public dismissed Lena Dunham as a narcissist monster instead of an innovative filmmaker; and the way Internet was ablaze with shock and condescension when a woman’s magazine produced smart political journalism. If we expect to believe that “the future is female”, we have to start taking a critical eye to the narratives crafted around women. The Real Housewives franchise, in which complex and powerful women are given a podium to tell their stories on their own terms, presents a perfect opportunity for reflection. Like Jack Hamertam wrote of Lady Gaga, the Housewives franchise and related media can potentially present a “monstrous outgrowth of the concept of women.”
“Can celebrity gossip be feminist?” Anne Helen Peterson asked. “Absolutely,” she explained, as long as we consume it with a critical eye, continually asking: “Ok, why am I having the reaction that I’m having right now? Why is my impulse to shame, to praise, to do any of these things?” With a former reality TV star and admitted sex abuser as America’s president, it’s time we start asking these questions.
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