Resistance is futile, America. Almost everyone with a television has sampled from the deliciously naughty snack bar that is reality television. Those who refuse to watch, based on some misguided cultural snobbery, aren't just missing great entertainment, they are overlooking the best social insight into the American psyche since Huck Finn and Jim explored the soul of America on a raft of lost innocence.
Good news, Huck and Jim. We found that lost innocence and we're hanging it out to dry on cable TV.
I'm not being sarcastic. I'm a fan. I think that Andy Cohen, the brains behind Bravo's Real Housewives franchise, is the Andy Warhol of the 21 Century. His version of Warhol's Campbell's soup cans and multi-colored Marilyns are the table-flipping divas and surgically-buoyed breasts he puts "on display." (Followers of the shows will appreciate that musical inside reference.)
First, I need to make a distinction and a disclaimer. The distinction is between the two main types of reality programs: competitions (Survivor, Project Runway, Top Chef) and daily-life "documentaries" (Real World, Real Housewives, Basketball Wives).
The competition shows are like any other sports show: just plain fun to watch. The thrill over someone winning and disappointment over someone losing is riveting entertainment. Whether it's talented chefs trying to out-flambé each other, or edgy fashion designers out-draping each other, there is little that is more dramatic than people at the top of their game competing. Watching someone turn a newspaper into a red-carpet gown is as amazing and inspiring as watching a quarterback throw a 30-yard touchdown pass. Talent, creativity and courageous choices are always uplifting, no matter what the discipline.
My disclaimer is that I'm appearing in a celebrity-driven show called Splash! in which a bunch of celebrities hurl themselves off diving boards trying not to belly-flop into the spot where Louie Anderson pee'd in the pool. Why do celebrities participate in these kinds of shows? Some do it because they have slid off the celebrity grid as defined by TMZ and E! and are desperately trying to claw their way up the cold, rocky cliff of obscurity back into the warm public eye. For some celebrities, they aren't alive unless they are talked about by people they wouldn't want to have coffee with.
Where do I fit in? I'm doing it for fun. I've always been competitive and an athlete. But the past few years of writing books, speaking to educators and traveling the world as the U.S. cultural ambassador has left me anxious to do something athletic again. I wanted to let people know that you can be fit and healthy at any age. What could be more challenging than something I've never done before? Plus, I enjoy the look of terror on the faces of those gathered around the pool as a 7'2" man prepares to leap from a high dive. Like me, are they wondering if we should have used a deeper pool?
While these competition shows are wispy entertainment, the daily life documentary reality shows actually offer some poignant lessons about our culture.
Lesson #1: They force us to redefine our notions of "reality."
Some people complain that certain reality shows (Laguna Beach, The Hills) aren't real because they are semi-scripted. I agree with that complaint; any time a cast member is given a line to say, the FCC should ban that show from being called a reality show. However, there is nothing inherently misleading about a show arranging for their cast members to go on a trip or throw a party or eat dinner together. Most of us are forced into those uncomfortable social situations in our lives. They aren't forced to attack each other in childish fits. That's their choice.
We are a nation that gets most of its information from TV, movies and the Internet. But how real is that reality? We were told, with charts and visual aids, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we went to war based on that "reality." Yet, it wasn't true. Several studies of news viewers have concluded that those who watch Fox News are significantly misinformed. Yet, those viewers vote in elections based on this "reality." A recent article in the New York Times Magazine about one of my favorite authors, John Le Carre, whereas he discusses how the Bush Administration manipulated public opinion in support of the invasion of Iraq. Le Carre called it "one of the great public relations conjuring tricks in history."
That place where art and reality collide is where the Real Housewives live.
Lesson #2: Art is everywhere.
Daily life skews our perception, but art holds up a mirror of behavior that allows us to see ourselves clearly and act on it. Anyone who's seen a movie, read a poem, or heard a song that inspired them to make a positive change in their lives knows what I mean. So, if we look at certain reality shows as art (like a novel) rather than a source of gossip or feeling superior to others, we can not only enjoy them, but learn from them as well.
Ernest Hemingway said that courage was "grace under pressure." Reality TV is based on putting people under pressure and seeing how they behave. Mostly, they behave without grace. But that's not the best part. Where it gets interesting is when these same individuals address the camera during their "confessionals" to explain why their behavior was rational and everyone else's was nuts. They are almost always wrong. They are unreliable narrators, justifying and rationalizing and twisting their motives in ways that are clearly delusional. Like politicians, they often say exactly what they think the viewers want to hear in order to make themselves more sympathetic. The most pathetic appeal of all is when they play the sacred family card, claiming they are only acting out of the best interests of their family, especially (sniff, sniff) The Children. They parade their kids around like shields to prove they are really decent people, never realizing that the ways in which they do this makes them seem exploitative of their children. Parenthood is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
The thing is, we're all guilty of this kind of rationalization. In The Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum's character says that rationalization is more important than sex. When another character protests that nothing is more important than sex, Goldblum replies, "Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?" Nailed it, Jeff!
This inability to see themselves clearly leads some cast members to think they come across as witty, charming, and intelligent. (They don't.) That they are in control of how the viewers see them. (They aren't.) They often don't realize how badly they are portrayed in the show until after the season has aired. The real fun is when they come back from a season in which they realize they came across as petty and mean and shallow, then they try to change their persona to come across as calm and reasoned and wise. This always fails because they are consumed with fixing the cosmetics of their persona rather than changing from within. They blame the messenger (the show) rather than the message (they really are petty and mean and shallow). Some keep coming back with a new image, only to repeat the same demoralizing mistakes again and again. After a couple of seasons, the viewer feels guilty watching them sadly stumble around the ring like punch-drunk pugs and the producers mercifully cut them from the show.
Watching these housewives scramble to suture up their tattered personas is both anger-inducing and heart-wrenching. That's what literature is supposed to do: make us angry at certain behavior; then when we recognize ourselves in the characters we so harshly judge, to change our behavior.
Lesson #3: Rich folk be crazy.
Plenty of people have pointed out the real housewives aren't a real representation of average American housewives. Most of the housewives are rich, some super-rich. Most are white, with the exception of the Atlanta cast, which is mostly black. But there are no Hispanics or Asians. That's okay, because racial balance isn't the prime ingredient here. Money is.
This focus on wealth makes the show play out like a classic Shakespearean tragedy. The fabulous homes, clothes, shoes, servants, and opulent parties at first make the viewers admire the housewife and wish to be like her. But soon we see the "real" person, whose hubris reveals a deep unhappiness that they, being unreliable narrators, deny. However, the rampant drinking (which is often disguised as being "classy"), the numerous divorces, and the desperate need to show themselves better (as parents, as businesspersons, as friends) than the others prove the point. All the fancy trips to Africa or Tahiti or Paris don't hide the churning insecurity and baseline misery. So, as with a tragedy, the show warns us not to follow in their arrogant footsteps, least we also are destroyed by pride.
The key to understanding their fatal flaw is to ask why the women choose to do such a show in the first place. Many of the women are wannabe performers anxious to use the show to launch a new career, or former performers whose careers have stalled by choice or circumstances, looking to steal back into the limelight. Unlike a documentary, which usually details a person of some accomplishment or horrific occurrence, these shows detail naked narcissism. Who else would go on this show except someone who thinks she is worthy of fame and adulation, either for some hidden talent or because her life is so awesome? Or someone who relishes being portrayed as a victim, usually of the men they've chosen.
This is not a criticism of the women. The fact that their wealth has not protected or elevated them from the same neediness that most people have is what makes them sympathetic as well as cautionary examples.
Lesson #4: Feminism is on life support with DNR scrawled on its Botoxed brow.
Despite a lot of posturing about "empowerment" and "girl power," most of the women in the show can't seem to dig their bedazzled shovels fast enough to bury feminist progress. When watching the shows, I'm reminded of Susan Faludi's 1991 National Book Award-winning book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, in which she makes a compelling case that whenever an oppressed group makes social progress, there is a backlash against them that tries to re-establish the old status quo. The Real Housewives embodies that notion, with most of the women seeming like better-dressed versions of '50s housewives.
Yes, I went there. But before I start getting my own reader backlash, let me remind you that the word "feminism" means, according to Webster, "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes." I'm sure every one of the housewives would loudly support the equality of the sexes. In theory. However, in practice they are seriously undermining it. That's what makes these shows so reflective of the national psyche: we often do the opposite of what we claim we believe in, not out of malice, but out of lack of insight.
The most egregious blow to gender equality is their self-loathing notion of physical beauty. It's a TV show, so a certain amount of make-up is required because of the lighting, but the amount they use rivals crazed mimes. Beyond the make-up is the liberal use of Botox, fillers, breast enhancements, and other extraordinary means to look youthful and attractive. The message is that a woman's main worth is in her youthful appearance. Even if that is the dominant attitude of our society, it doesn't have to be. This breathless chase after youth only promotes the warped idea that women have a shorter shelf life than men.
The excuse for the overstuffed closets of gaudy clothing and feet-crippling high heels is that "we like it." But liking it merely reflects another aspect of the unreliable narrator who doesn't realize she's been brainwashed by cosmetic, fashion, and surgical industries that reap billions of dollars from them being convinced they aren't attractive or worthwhile enough without it. If the men in their lives wouldn't love them without $300 hairstyles and ballistic boobs, then are these the right men for them?
Another damaging assault on the status of women is that most of the women are wealthy because they married into money. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Unless you act like you are entitled to all the best in life without ever having done anything to earn it. Many of the married-rich Housewives talk about how they are "down to earth" and they "keep it real," though their behavior shows just the opposite: a smug elitism of the undeserving.
The husbands and boyfriends don't come off much better. Some are bullying, remote, condescending, or petty. Some just seem uncomfortable in the reflected celebrity. Some are hungry to gobble up as much fame as they can. Some are stiffly affectionate for the cameras, as if they've been coached to be more loving. Many of the marriages and relationships have visible expiration dates and part of the entertainment is guessing when they will implode. It's not that we aren't sympathetic to their pain, but at the same time it's annoying to see people so consumed with seeking attention that they miss all the danger signs that are obvious to everyone else.
It should be noted that this characterization is not true of all the women. Some, like singer-songwriter Kandi Burruss from Atlanta, have achieved success through sheer talent and discipline. Others, like Lisa Vanderpump, designer and restaurateur, embody feminist ideals of balancing career and family with wit and intelligence.
Why Real Housewives Rules
PBS's An American Family first taught us that observing the inner workings of family dynamics can be more than voyeurism, it also can be an illuminating lesson exploring our moral values, hypocrisies, and unrealistic expectations. More important, by seeing where that family went wrong, we could adjust our own behavior to avoid the same fate. In 1992, MTV jumped in with The Real World, throwing a bunch of young people into the same house to see how they would interact. The results were often volatile, but also touching as they tried to overcome their prejudices and egos to evolve. The show's success spawned many imitators.
Today, MTV is the cesspool of reality TV. Once they were at the vanguard of what's hip and cool, now they're desperately chasing after it like an old man with a gray ponytail and fringed leather vest driving a red Corvette. At the beginning, The Real World had a few intelligent kids thrown into the mix, but cynical MTV execs soon found out that brains meant not always doing stupid things. So now they load their shows with the most emotionally damaged and obnoxious kids, make sure they live close to bars, and let the fun unfurl. Jersey Shore started as a blue-collar version of The Real World and in the first season there was a certain sweetness in the characters' foolishness. But they quickly became celebrity savvy and the show devolved into a bunch of hucksters scrambling over each other to exploit their notoriety. Buckwild is the video version of toilet paper. Whatever their ratings success, MTV jumped the shark from an iconic voice of youth.
Which is why Real Housewives reigns as the Grand Poobah of reality series. It is a glitzy window into mainstream values, if not mainstream lifestyle. It offers more insight into American consciousness than most TV scripted dramas. We just have to be willing to see ourselves in it.
For those who skipped right to the end of this article, here's what you need to know:
NBA Legend & Pop Culture Columnist, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar