Tue. November 27
My Guilty Pleasure: The Real Housewives
by Megan Basham
You have to wonder—does your guilty pleasure really warrant much guilt when everyone from network news anchor/30 Rock straight man Brian Williams to dissident feminist Camille Paglia admits to indulging in it? Even First Lady Michelle Obama confessed on Live with Kelly and Michael (another guilty pleasure) that her favorite reality show isn’t The Amazing Race, American Idol, or any other innocuous and occasionally uplifting competitive pageant but rather that cesspool of collagen, credit abuse, and cattiness, The Real Housewives.
In fact, the franchise that almost singlehandedly made Bravo a major cable player is so popular, it’s now spawning international editions like The Real Housewives of Athens and The Real Housewives of Israel. (As a confirmed Celtophile, I can’t tell you how fast I started searching .ie addresses once I discovered there’s a Dublin Housewives floating around the webosphere!)
But the real question about The Real Housewives is what accounts for the ratings bonanza? When every channel on the TV Guide lineup features at least one show where ostensibly real people scream at each other and embarrass their families, what is it about these women that exerts a draw so strong it cuts across all religious, racial, and political divides? Certainly this isn’t the first or even first hundredth series to feature lifestyles of the rich and wannabe famous. Minor soap stars and flash-in-the-pan rappers were taking audiences on guided tours of their McMansions long before Teresa Guidice arrived on the scene.
The difference, of course, is that none of those other shows invited us to add a potent shot of derision to our covet cocktail or vice versa.
I’m not interested in what the future melanoma sufferers at the Jersey Shore get up to because I’d feel awfully depressed if I woke up one morning and found myself living in a beer-bottle- and DNA-strewn beach shack with seven other alcoholics. But waking up in 7,000-square-foot piece of prime gated real estate with a luxury SUV in the garage and nothing to do all day but decide which of my fifty pairs of $200 jeans I want to shimmy into? That I wouldn’t object to. At least not for a month or so.
On the flipside, unlike the celebrities and Fortune 500 executives Robin Leach chronicled, I feel well within my rights to look down on the denizens of Real Housewives land. How could I not? Forget all the fighting, lying, and financial chicanery, is there anyone more contemptibly self-deluded than a middle-aged woman who chatters on about class and etiquette while allowing camera men to record her every move for public consumption?
Even better (if you’re a woman anyway), in most cases the Housewives’ seemingly undeserved wealth hasn’t won them the eternal youth they’d likely sell their first and second-born children for, with the family dog thrown in for good measure. As Tina Fey put it, the ones in most ardent pursuit of it look more like fires at a wax museum than Pictures of Dorothy Grays.
Whether red, blue, or some shade of purple we can all embrace the sisterhood of disdaining the Housewives. Secular feminists can because they represent the very sort of leeches Betty Friedan warned them about. Church-going, home-schooling, actual housewives (we call ourselves stay-at-home moms now) can because they exemplify the exact kind of self-involved, pointless womanhood Phyllis Schlafly predicted our genderless postmodernism would lead to.
Of course The Real Housewives franchise is a massive ratings hit. The entire botoxed, bejeweled structure is founded on the basest of human instincts—envy and superiority. When Bravo offers up the next Faustian elixir of Fargo, Reno, or Wherever Housewives, I’ll probably go ahead and help myself to a glass. But I think I will try to feel guiltier about it.