Ok peeps, it’s time. I know I have been teasing this for awhile, but I have decided to finally write a post on one of my favorite guilty pleasures, the Real Housewives franchise. It was in my first post on why I blog about gender that I revealed my addiction to the show, and how it could be argued that engaging with such a problematic text contradicts my feminism. After all, this is a program that features women of um, privilege, who routinely get in vicious cat fights with each other and display uncontrolled materialism in their consumption of all things designer, birthday cakes, and Botox. It is, at first glance, misogyny on a stick.
So here is the thing. I am picky with my Housewives (I do have standards, after all). I personally find the OC women to be too boring (and I can’t tell them apart). The New York women come off as strong and independent, so I should love them, but their voices grate on my nerves (Ramona’s walk down the runway though? Classic). The Atlanta wives come off as too staged to me, though Kim and Sheree’s wig fight was a true media event that rivaled, in my opinion, the best hot-mess moments of Jersey Shore, Being Bobby Brown, and Hey Paula, combined. For me, those three franchises are like Nestle, while the flava’ of the fiery Miami ladies, heavily-filled lips and ostentatious wealth of the Beverly Hills women, and family drama and table-flipping of New Jersey, are organic, fairly traded, dark-chocolate bars.
Yeah, I’m a culture snob. Deal with it.
I was actually inspired to write about the series during the latest reunion episodes of the Jersey Housewives, in which the entire cast of women came together to rehash the events of the season. These reunion shows usually lead to emotional outbursts of anger that Andy Cohen, the host and only man on the stage, is often forced to subdue. The sexist implications of having a male voice of reason in between all of these unhinged women has always made me uncomfortable (hey, I have to insert my feminist objections somewhere!). But this past season, the husbands of each of the women came on the show, and as the couples hurled their accusations of divorces, debt, and foreclosures at each other, I found myself watching an openly gay Andy Cohen and thinking, “Ok homie, are you seriously trying to insert a scathing critique of traditional heteronormative marriage in a reality show? You mean, I can’t just zone out while posting my latest ‘Even More Fierceness!’ album up on Facebook? I’m going to have to write a two-part series on a show that everyone mocks and that I actually feel guilty about watching? You’re really doing this to me?”
Yup, he is. So get ready peeps, get ready.
Heteronormativity is the ideology that privileges heterosexuality as the norm and holds that people fall into distinct binary gender roles. The idea that men and women are ‘naturally’ more capable of doing certain things has historically been ingrained in our societal, educational, and religious institutions and reiterated in our media in countless ways. Most notable is the idealization of the traditional family model in television that centers the working dad, domestic wife, and two children on the one end, and erases from mainstream media visibility people within the LGBTQ community on the other. Queer is a term that refers to people or institutions that do not subscribe to these dominant cultural ideologies of gender and sexuality.
While the media landscape has changed somewhat in recent years, it should be noted that even these seemingly progressive shows that offer more queer representations of gender and sexuality, such as Will & Grace, Modern Family, and even The Mindy Project, still must work within these dominant frameworks. In Will & Grace, the stereotypically feminine Jack was always contrasted with the more masculine Will as less competent, smart and successful, thus demeaning femininity. While Modern Family‘s gay male couple is in many ways a progressive example of mainstream queer visibility, they still seem to be working within heteronormative constructs that demand marriage as a legitimization of one’s romantic relationship, and the assigning of traditional binary roles when assigning tasks for raising their child. And Mindy Kaling’s smart, successful character at the heart of The Mindy Project is 31 and refreshingly single, but always talking about how she is single while fantasizing to Rom-Coms. But that’s for another blog post (I do actually really love her show and am already a Mindy/Danny shipper – so I’m totes part of the problem, girlfriends!).
This privileging of heteronormativity would lead one to assume that the heterosexual marriage in which men and women subscribe to traditional gender roles is what is truly ‘natural,’ but in fact, we know that this is not the case. Many heterosexual marriages end up in divorce, countless children are abused and neglected by their straight parents, and domestic abuse is all too rampant. If heteronormative practices were truly intrinsically right, then why are they often so flawed?
This point is driven home during the Housewives series again and again. While we are introduced at the beginning of each program to characters who seemingly live a fantasy life in their mansions and designer closets, the show slowly unravels the numerous ways in which this domestic bliss is just a mirage. Subverting the image of the ‘happy housewife,’ we are instead introduced to a wide range of characters navigating through, and often leaving, truly dysfunctional relationships. There’s Taylor from the Beverly Hills housewives, who alleged that she was abused by her husband and “didn’t feel safe” until he committed suicide a few days before the second season aired. There is Sheree, the Atlanta housewife whose messy foreclosure and custody battle was covered by numerous national media outlets. And how can I not mention Theresa, who, kept out of the loop of her husband’s business dealings, is now dealing with bankruptcy and her ‘Juicy Joe’s’ pending jail sentence due to financial fraud? Of course, children are not left unscathed from their parents’ evictions and family drama. Who can forget Theresa’s daughter Gia crying while singing a poem to her mother and uncle, pleading with them to make peace? (yeah I know you forgot, but I didn’t, ok?)
What is so interesting about the Housewives series is the way in which it seems to really provide a pointed critique (or at least, examination) of the role that many American women adopted after World War II, that of the domestic shopper. Although during the war women took on different professions that were left behind by their husbands, society then encouraged women to abandon these jobs and return to the domestic sphere once the war ended, while advertisers targeted them as professional homemakers whose jobs were to shop not just for their family, but for national economic prosperity. Excessive consumption is never more apparent than on the Housewives, where the women spend thousands on designer shoes, lip fillers, and birthday parties for their children. Furthermore, this crass consumerism could also be attributed to these women’s flawed assumptions that they are ‘secure’ in their spending, either because they trust the personal and economic stability of their relationship, or because they believe that they will be protected financially if the marriage does end.
However, as Leslie Bennetts’ excellent book The Feminist Mistake addresses, dependency can often jeopardize the lives of women and their children, as the newest alimony laws have made the futures of stay-at-home mothers increasingly tenuous after a divorce. This is what Theresa Guidice, who famously boasted in the first season of being able to buy expensive furniture in cash, discovered in the wake of her husband’s failed financial dealings which left her family bankrupt.
Is it any coincidence then that amidst the foreclosure accusations and stripper allegations hurled among these heterosexual couples and family members during the recent season of the Housewives of New Jersey, there was a beautiful civil union ceremony between Caroline’s brother and his spouse? Or that one of the most touching moments came from Rosie, Kathy’s lesbian sister, when she came out to her niece and nephew and discussed with them how difficult it was to accept herself in a society that made her feel like an outcast? Or how about when Andy Cohen actually inserted himself into one of the episodes to explain why Joe Guidice’s repeated use of gay slurs was hateful and wrong? By revealing the dysfunction of these heteronormative institutions, is the show more easily able to legitimize, and perhaps even center, queer issues and relationships?
For me, the most interesting conversation around gay rights was on the now defunct Real Housewives of DC, where a couple of the wives and their husbands were talking about the issue of marriage equality. One of the gay ‘sidekicks’ on the show, celebrity stylist Paul Wharton, was also in attendance, and he explained his belief that when you give one group of people rights and deny them to others, it makes it that much easier for day-to-day discrimination to happen. When one of the couples said that they “weren’t homophobic, but were against gay marriage,” Wharton quickly retorted, “it does make you homophobic, you just don’t want the label.” SNAP.
Ok, let’s be honest here. How often in the mainstream media do you see this kind of discussion that really digs deep into the complexities of bigotry and how it can be manifested in more subtle ways? The absence of this kind of dialogue in mainstream news outlets can perhaps be attributed to the more masculine space of the public sphere that tends to view issues like gay rights through the lens of policy. Very rarely are we allowed insight into the more personal, but still very important, conversations that take place in the domestic, private sphere of our daily lives.
Many critics have lambasted the Housewives as a show that is regressive for women, and I certainly understand why many of the characters’ adolescent behavior should not be held up as role models for young girls. And while the gay characters on the show are often depicted positively, they are still one-dimensional personalities who are not really central to the series. Furthermore, the gay men in both the Housewives and other shows on Bravo are usually limited to stereotypical professions (hair stylists, fashion designers) and fall into what I refer to as the “Gay Helper” trope, meaning that their central role as a ‘gay sidekick’ is to constantly support the straight characters in their lives without question and to reassure them of their fabulousness, despite their many flaws (I’m looking at you, Rachel Zoe).
But then, to focus solely on these critiques is missing the point. While I hesitate to offer the Real Housewives as a progressive text, that does not mean that it isn’t saying something interesting. The show’s main concern is with marriage, and given that the franchise does feature some successful marriages and a gay civil union, it doesn’t seem to be necessarily arguing against marriage, but rather for a more egalitarian vision of marriage that empowers women and includes the gay community. This notion that gender and queer rights are not mutually exclusive is reflected in both the societal shift in favor of marriage equality, and the lower divorce rates among the younger generation that can be attributed to the greater acceptance of the two-income mold for couples, as well as the sharing of housework.
The purpose of the Housewives series then is not to demean women but to reveal how ridiculous women behave when they are tied to archaic and power-based institutions of marriage, which privilege men over women. Take Camille Grammar of the Beverly Hills Housewives, whose messy divorce to Kelsey Grammar was on display during the first season, following the revelation that Kelsey had cheated on her with a much younger woman. Now dating a younger man who she adores but is reserved about marrying, she notes in her second-season intro, “Diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend, Freedom is.”
You go, girl. And thank you for giving me an intellectual reason to write about you and your friends, in all of your botox-ed glory.
Does Alexis Bellino from the OC Housewives really have the right to speak out against marriage equality when she has been divorced already? These bloggers don’t think so:
Stay tuned for part TWO of this series, which will focus on the show’s centering of female spaces!