Misogyny and The Real Housewives

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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

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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?

Luann.jpg

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.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    21st/05/2009 to 2:38 pm

    Out of all the versions of The Real Housewives, the New York cast seem to be the most contentious and bitchy. No one likes anyone else, much less themselves. Maybe this is just my bias against New York coming through.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/05/2009 to 2:51 pm

    Joe – I really never watched the other ones, maybe one episode of Orange County and one of Atlanta. I shut off NJ after about 10 minutes. I think New York is a pressure-cooker kind of town and these people are REALLY living the high life. It’s just got to be more competitive, but the underpinnings of the whole series is to pit women against each other, in my opinion.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    21st/05/2009 to 9:06 pm

    I forgot to add how much I enjoyed your article, mixing up the art films and documentaries with trash TV.
    These shows have very little to do with reality and more to do with entertainment, I think. A real housewives show would be about peanut butter, Payless Shoes, soccer games and how to pay the mortgage. I’m sure the cast think they’re on a real show, just like the Project Greenlight geeks thought they were making real movies.
    Coming soon will be The Real Housewives of Chicago. I hope that pizza, alcohol and political corruption are involved.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 3:57 am

    I always make the mistake of thinking that just because I avoid programs is this ilk like the plague, that everybody else does too…

  • Stephanie spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 6:07 am

    Near as I can tell, the California series was about affluence, messed up kids and what happens when hotties start aging. As the women came and went, it came to be about hazing the new girl and pointless bitchery. Here’s what happened to the Mean Girls from high school.
    The New York series is more about jockeying for status and shameless self promotion. The women all see themselves as brands and have a product or a book to sell, and the show is supposed to be a vehicle for self-aggrandizement although
    it humiliates them in the process. I think the appeal is supposed to be looking down on them and feeling superior to them as they scramble to get on top of the ant heap. Viewers are supposed to choose sides (Team Jill vs. Team Ramona) but after awhile, the women are all unlikeable, although some less so.
    Something similar happened to Kathy Griffin. The more the camera showed of her, her mania for freebies and her failed marriage, the less appealing she was.
    I don’t feel the sense of waste or the misogyny.
    I think the New York series is comfort food for the recession–look, these women have everything and yet they’re so shrill and self-involved and petty that they don’t really seem to enjoy their lives. Alex, who was shunned by the group last year, came off as this year’s winner simply because she had the least amount of screen time.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 6:58 am

    Rod – I believe you were a fan of Big Brother, so I think you can relate to the attraction of these shows a little bit. I feel attracted to them to the point when they repulse me. I’ve about had it with the RHs.
    Joe – I like to use my writing to explore deeper issues in society. On one level, these shows are trash entertainment. But the appeal of the rich to the masses is deeply engrained, from the many centuries of royal rule to the rich playboys and girls in 1930s films, deep in the first depression.
    Stephanie – I deliberately quoted from Still Failing at Fairness to show how this “entertainment” mirrors the very real and painful passages girls make, how girls are “broken” to conform to society standards. I believe these women, though adult and acting out of their own intentions to some degree, have swallowed the entire package of “femininity,” or at least are portrayed on the show that way. See how Kelly was ostracized for not doing charity. That’s part of the noblesse oblige script that has been part of American culture for over 100 years. I think it’s damaging to show people in a position of privilege mirroring conformity and consumer culture – that’s the waste. It really does make me sick.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 8:49 am

    Yes, I confess, I watched Big Brother for a couple of seasons. I was young. And foolish. And horny.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 8:54 am

    Ha ha!

  • Fox spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 10:27 am

    Watching the RHNYC cast is like sitting in a toilet stall in the girls’ restroom and hearing the reigning clique duke it out.
    I haven’t seen RHNYC, but I just KNOW that that is the perfect description of it. Plus, it made me laugh. As did you referring to them as “RHs” later in the paragraph.
    Something that is interesting to me about these kind of shows is the sense of guilt it leaves on the viewers. My wife will watch The Hills and feel “gross”, or friends will watch America’s Next Top Model and say “I know it’s dumb, but…”. What do these qualifications mean?
    It’s like when I catch myself watching part of the Jerry Springer Show. Totally empty consumption. Like a friend of mine often says, my mind then feels like I “just ate a giant bag of Lays potato chips”.
    I wonder if there is a desire for us to feel superior to the people on screen in these shows. They are physically pretty, but socially messed up, and we get pleasure from that trade-off. I don’t know.
    BTW… I love when you do your commentary on pop culture/TV. I know you’ve done it before, but just wanted to give it props b/c I think it’s something you should continue to do!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 11:07 am

    Thanks, Fox. I grew up on pop culture and don’t look down on it except when I think it’s reached some unacceptable level of toxicity. It always has something to say about what our mass culture values.
    There is a guilt factor because we sense these shows are tapping a part of us we’re not particularly proud of. For myself, I wrote this to try to come to grips with what I find compelling about the show. I don’t feel superior to these women, though. I think it’s sad that for all their money and social position, they’re still living in this adolescent bubble. I think I summed it up pretty well in my review of The Walker:
    “…as the film unspools, it’s clear that the women relish their social power because, in fact, they are basically inconsequential in the lives of their rich and powerful husbands. Lynn says that she wanted a bit of happiness with her lover because the men don’t need them: ‘They fuck each other.’ … Lynn’s husband (Willem Dafoe) confirms her view (or at least confirms their relationship) to Carr, who continues to shield her: ‘Lynn inflates her importance in the larger scheme of things.’ From the look on his face, he really seems to mean it.”

  • Pat spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 12:31 pm

    Marilyn -
    I’m hooked on Real Housewives of NYC myself (and only the NYC version, like you), and actually was thinking up a post of my own, but you beat me to it!!!
    I think you nail it perfectly – it’s their lack of personal power and consequence that makes their constant backbiting and junior high school-level machinations of such God-awful consequence to them. In that respect, the show very much reminds me of the play and the original film version of “The Women.”
    I must admit, though – the reunion show pushed me over the edge. I don’t think I can stand another season of those creatures – they’ve worn me out.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 12:50 pm

    Pat – I hear you. Except for Kelly, who really does live on Planet Kelly (poor thing), I think the rest of the women can be genuine. They often say things that make we wonder how much being on a reality show is pushing them to be bitchy; they are more thoughtful than it’s easy to give them credit for, given their behavior.
    But when you look at it, their arguments are about hurt feelings, being rude, slights. The show is designed this way; that’s why we don’t hear about the real problems, like Luann living practically alone and then being dumped by email. Now that’s a real human problem, not being outraged about the “old” comment. That’s why I was careful to use the word “apparent”. We are getting a distortion, which the women contribute to, for sure, but which is by the design of the Misogyny Channel.

  • Pat spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 12:57 pm

    Yep, Kelly is by far the worst of the lot – at times, I think she’s got a touch of Narcissitic Personality disorder. The others have their human moments.
    Also re: “Don’t they ever wear slacks?” – I also noticed in “Sex and the City: The Movie,” the characters always wear dresses. That hadn’t been true of the TV series. A current NYC trend, perhaps? Beats me.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/05/2009 to 1:00 pm

    Either that or the RHs don’t want to be caught on TV looking anything less than their best. I was flabbergasted at how dressed up everyone was just going over to Jill’s for a fundraiser meeting.
    Kelly does, I think, have some kind of problem. To say “If my kids like you, I like you” sort of indicates someone who has lost the ability to judge people for herself. She trusts her kids more than she trusts herself.

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