By Marilyn Ferdinand
I don’t expect everyone knows about or watches the Misogyny Channel, aka Bravo, which through its programming of modeling and fashion competitions, matchmaking, and its “Real Housewives” series in Orange County, Atlanta, New York City, and New Jersey, pushes every button every girl and woman in America and most of the rest of the world has had jammed into her brain stem. And I am no exception.
I enjoy looking at fashion, so until it jumped networks, Project Runway was a winning Bravo entry for me. I think, though, it had more to do with Heidi Klum, a very engaging host, than with the show itself, which is incredibly dumb (let’s make outfits out of stuff at a recycling plant, a grocery store, and a car parts factory—yup, that’s a real test of talent). The rest of the shows have no appeal for me at all. Except The Real Housewives of New York City. For some reason, when I run across this show—and no, I don’t know when its regular time slot is; I gave up on having a constant TV schedule in my head long, long ago when the networks decided to redecorate their line-ups about every week—I have to watch it. None of the other “Real Housewives” shows have rung my chimes; I guess we all have our own psychic dynamics when dealing with female relationships, and as an urban career woman, I find this one works for me.
As with all the shows, the cast is composed of several wealthy women and the people in their lives. Jill has a rich, indulgent husband who runs a fabric business; Jill helps out at the retail store, buys a lot of expensive things, redecorates, and throws charity events. She has a fractious friendship with Ramona, who is married to a tennis pro and has her own skin care and jewelry line. They are friends with celebrity chef Bethenny, who has a food line and just published a book on achieving a thin figure. Luann, a former model, married a count, does charity stuff, and just published an “as told to” book on etiquette. Alex seems to come from a bonafide New York society family; she’s joined at the hip with her effete Aussie husband Simon and works in marketing. The newest “housewife” is Kelly, a former model and editor of Elle Accessories who is, according to Bethenny, the queen of “fabulosity:” the two women can’t stand each other. Everyone but Bethenny has children.
The more I watch this show, the more it sickens me. It’s not the wealth or even the insular bubble of New York society these women inhabit that has them running from party to party, charity event to charity event, and the Hamptons to St. Barts. It’s not even, exactly, about their appearance “touch ups,” their couture miniskirts and dresses (don’t they ever wear slacks?), or working their connections to get what they want (a private school for Johann and Francois, Alex and Simon’s kids; a tennis star Jill plans to fly from California to New York for a grudge match with Ramona and her husband Mario). The thing that underlies this series—and, I suppose, all the series—is that these women seem so immature, so adolescent, so caught up in girl culture:
Relationships are central to girls who depend on close, intimate friendships. The trust and support of these relationships provide girls with emotional and psychological safety nets. … Yet girls can be excruciatingly tough on other girls, particularly at early adolescence. They talk behind each other’s backs, they tease and torture one another; they police each other’s clothing and body size and fight over real or imagined relationships with boys. In so doing they participate in and help to reproduce largely negative views of female relationships as untrustworthy, deceitful, manipulative, and catty. Unlike boys, girls are not encouraged to act out their anger, so uncomfortable feelings often go underground and come out in unhealthy words.
From Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting by way of Still Failing at Fairness by David & Myra Sadker & Karen R. Zittleman
Watching the RHNYC cast is like sitting in a toilet stall in the girls’ restroom and hearing the reigning clique duke it out. Bethenny screams at Jill, veins bulging out of her neck, to apologize for talking about Bethenny behind her back. Ramona is struck dumb by the appearance of Simon, a man she loathes, as Jill’s tennis partner; Jill smirks at the zing she’s given Ramona. Luann is livid at the bad manners Ramona shows when she says that the count is an old man in front of Luann’s daughter! Everyone wonders whether Alex ever disciplines her sons, who, at 1 and 3 years old, climb all over the RHs at a dinner party. Kelly calls Bethenny all the way across town to meet her at a bar so she can tell her she doesn’t like her and will never be her friend. During this encounter, the infamous, “You’re here (one hand held low), and I’m here (other hand held high)” becomes the moment that characterizes Kelly’s condescending attitude. Her working the extreme hottie Max onto the show as her date is another apparent display of superiority.
More from Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting by way of Still Failing at Fairness:
Why do girls act this way? The need to belong and fear of rejection are high on the list. They want to be part of a sort of club, a club of innies. Some girls explain they like the excitement and drama of relational aggression, and evidently there is a wide audience for such behavior. Stories about “cruel and nasty girls” have become the centerpiece for magazines, television shows, and popular books. We are now taught how to tame girls, make them nicer, quieter, easier to deal with, sweeter and more pliable. A decade or two ago we feared girls’ loss of voice; now we seem to fear that they have found it. Is this a discussion about “mean girls,” or a discussion about society’s continuing pattern of defining and demeaning females?
Looking at these “successful” women makes me profoundly sad. Their adolescent competitiveness, their focus on appearance (Jill is so pleased that she almost fits in a size 0 dress), their status in a completely traditional female world of husbands, children, dating, and careers in cooking, beauty, and image seem like such a squandering of talent, energy, and considerable resources. When Luann gives Bethenny dating advice, she says, “I think men are tired of having to deal with outspoken women. You should try to be more demure and coaxing.” Oh my god! What is Bravo trying to do to us? What are these women trying to do to other women? If they aren’t really like this, why do they let themselves be manipulated?
And why do I watch them? Why do millions watch them and the other “housewives”? Because we are still part of a system that deranges us in our adolescence. Call this the unfinished business of womanhood, the chance we may be trying to give ourselves to heal the wounds inflicted on our sense of self. People may say they enjoy these shows, but the truth is, they’re not much fun after a while. They become grueling. Jill herself said she found her fight with Bethenny very painful to watch. These women aren’t self-centered, petty, or vain by nature. They’re birds in gilded cages, and whether they think it’s misplaced, insulting, or “doesn’t matter to my life,” I feel a terrible sympathy for them.