I hate the Real Housewives shows. Hate them. Every time my girlfriend watches them, I am filled with inexplicable rage. I don’t wish the Housewives any harm (I’m a pacifist, of course), but I wish they would just disappear to some nice tropical island resort, without any cameras, so I never have to see or hear from them ever again.
All this led me to wonder, though, what the appeal of the Real Housewives is. The shows are wildly successful, and their spinoffs get viewers, too. Anecdotally, my girlfriend watches these shows all the time. There’s something to the idea of a primal drama — it’s fun to watch people who hate each other. Yet, the blend of diva behavior, extravagant wealth, and self-aware snark has somehow yielded a phenomenon greater than the sum of its parts. Is this where feminism has gone?
Part of the show’s appeal is aspirational: women would like to be the Real Housewives. The Real Housewives are neither Real (unless we mean “The Real World”) nor Housewives (many are unmarried or have variously attached beaus). The Real Housewives don’t appear to have jobs, even though many of them do. The shows rarely focus on their careers — heaven forbid! — and instead focus on their constant intrigues.
The intrigues fuel the other part of the show’s appeal: voyeurism. The Real Housewives mostly drink too much too early in the day, and spend most of their time (onscreen) shopping, eating at fancy restaurants, or having parties. Who wouldn’t want this lifestyle? The shows model consumption — how to consume, where to consume, what to consume. The Real Housewives shows have broken away from a model where women must have their lives dictated by the men that surround them; instead the Real Housewives dictate their lives on their own terms. Certainly, the Real Housewives do not suffer from the “Bechdel Test” problem of women only discussing men; the Housewives only discuss each other (and themselves).
Yet, this self-assuredness manifests itself as outrageous diva behavior. Instead of being mediated through a husband, the Housewives have only one concern — their own egos. Their egomaniacal behavior is merely one manifestation of a general trend. Women routinely undermine each other in the workplace (warning, long law review article in PDF), and the “liberated” woman’s solidarity with other women has splintered. The empowerment movement has not led to liberation from false posturing for men; instead, it has led to yet another posture — one of vindictiveness and neediness — performed for other women.
In a recent critical analysis of Thelma and Louise and Pretty Woman, Carina Chocano explains in detail how Thelma and Louise, which appeared so revolutionary at the time of its release compared to Pretty Woman, was actually quite dated. Thelma and Louise reflects dangerous rebellious women, breaking free from male society and choosing suicide over subjugation. Pretty Woman, conversely, was all about subjugation to men, and more importantly, subjugation to money. It was a preview of feminism to come:
Ultimately, “Pretty Woman” wasn’t a love story; it was a money story. Its logic depended on a disconnect between character and narrative, between image and meaning, between money and value, and that made it not cluelessly traditional but thoroughly postmodern. Revisiting “Thelma and Louise” recently, I was struck by how dated it seemed, how much a product of its time. And “Pretty Woman,” it turns out, wasn’t a throwback at all. It was the future.
The future envisioned by Pretty Woman is played out in The Real Housewives. The “model woman” has gone from chattel property to dangerous rebel to tame consumer, all the while undermining and badmouthing her “friends.” Is this the result of feminism’s struggles for equality? Is it so much accomplishment to have graduated from discussing men to discussing clothes, gossip and beefs?
One could argue that said behavior is no different from the way men and women have behaved for centuries. The women of the Roman Empire undermined each other as much as women today; why should we regard the Real Housewives with anything less than a shrug? Besides, women have finally achieved equality — they tote guns like men, they cuss and strut like men — why shouldn’t they consume and fight like men, too?
In “Educating Rita,” the titular character (Julie Walters) gets a literary education from a professor (Michael Caine). She says she doesn’t want to be stuck in the pub with her clod of a husband singing the same song. But after her education, when she can quote poetry and analyze beauty, she has a falling out with Caine’s character. Caine yells at her that she hasn’t found a better song to sing, merely a different one. The Real Housewives think they are singing a better song — that their money, privilege, and cameras make them better (it’s always about being “classy”) than those around them — but their song is the same as it always has been.
If, at the end of feminism’s long march, women have simply moved from objects of consumerism to subjects of consumerism, has it accomplished that much? If freedom from subjugation just means the freedom to be empty, heartless, cruel, vapid and materialist, what good is it anyways? In a world of such massive remaining inequalities — entrepreneurship gaps, lack of female leadership at Fortune 500 companies, lack of female legislators (17 female Senators!), etc. — is this truly where feminism ends?
I want to end with a note about class: the upper-class Real Housewives always hold “classiness” and “class” as the most important indicators of a person’s worth. A good person is “classy”; a bad person “classless.” It’s possible that the Real Housewives simply reveals the class distinctions in feminism as a whole — that married-rich, privileged, “classy” women have more in common with their income bracket than with other women who work two jobs and provide the bulk of domestic labor for their families. As Chocano points out, “Pretty Woman” was ultimately a money story, not a love story. Maybe feminism is ultimately a money story, too, not a solidarity story.