Monday, August 18, 2014

Real Housewives of My Existential Crisis

On Saturday afternoon, through no deliberate choice of my own, I wound up watching several episodes of "The Real Housewives of Orange County." Although several smart friends and people I admire a lot love these shows, I'd never seen one. I remember when Bravo used to be a specialty cable channel for the performing arts; you could probably make the argument (and I'm sure someone has) that the Real Housewives shows are another type of performance art.

But the show upset me, and two days later, I'm still trying to figure out why. I can't figure out what the shows or their participants want from their audience. Are we supposed to mock them, or judge them? I don't want to do either of those things. Are we supposed to plunge ourselves vicariously into their artificial drama? I don't want to do that, either. I felt as if just watching the show, and trying in the process to understand or relate to or sympathize with those women, corrupted my soul and made me a worse person. That’s not an exaggeration.

I can’t stand back and mock them; they’re creatures in such pain that they need to act out their lives for television cameras, and create artificial drama with strangers the producers have thrown them together with. What is their use on the planet, what is their value? How do they think that being on TV will improve their lives, and why would they have sought out that experience? How are we supposed to know which of the emotions they show on screen are real, and which are only for the benefit of the cameras?

I’ve worked very hard to make my own life as drama-free as possible. I got a lifetime’s worth of drama before the age of 25, and I don’t need any more, thank you very much. Where are these women’s children, and what is their life’s work, except to be immortalized on these TV shows? It makes me feel horrible and scribbly inside, and I don’t know what to do with it. I was already feeling horrible and scribbly.

My friends who love these shows might say, “Don’t take it so seriously,” but these are women who want to be taken seriously — aren't they? — who yearn for connection and meaning and psychic weight. Which is tragic. It’s all tragic, and the tragedy overwhelms me. If I want to be overwhelmed by tragedy I can watch “Intervention,” which at least is not asking me to laugh at it.

Do you watch "The Real Housewives"? If so, why, and what do you get out of it? Am I over-thinking this, or do I need to watch more to understand its true cultural significance?


Ed Lamb said...

A quote I can never find when I go looking for goes along the lines of "Put an orange on TV, and people will be sending the orange fan mail within a week." Shows like this one operate on that level while also feeding viewers' depressing dreams that they, too, could be famous"if only."

The real problem with "reality" television is that the shows are both largely scripted and heavily edited to create conflict. Because of the cognitive dissonance TV creates, though, a large majority of viewers perceive the shenanigans as documentary footage. And, monkey-see, they act just ever so much worse toward the people they interact with at home and work.

Whatever the intent of "Real Housewives" and its ilk, its effect is a coarsening and devolution of social norms and mores. Not that people were paragons of virtue and decorum to begin with, but you never saw June Cleaver screw the neighbor and throw a liquor bottle at Ward.

-- Ed

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

That's why I say that watching the show actually made me a worse person. Those women behave terribly, in general and to each other, and yet they enjoy a lifestyle I always thought had to be earned in some way. How do they earn this lifestyle? It's not one I aspire to, but if I did, I'd never be able to earn it, no matter how hard I worked. If they deserve it and I don't, that makes me question all of the moral and social values I have received in my 48 years. If I deserve it and they don't, what do I do with all that rage? I have no time for class rage, and it bores me. I miss scripted television.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I am one of you intelligent friends who love to watch the Housewives. I often ask how such dumb people can be so successfully monetarily. I also partially enjoy watching because they make me feel better about my life and my ability to communicate with other humans.

I had a recent experience, however, that showed me the Housewife shows in a different light. Have you ever read the E.F. Benson novel Mapp & Lucia (1930ish) or seen the wonderful 1980s television adaptation of same? I have read and seen it many times, but I recently just watched again and was struck how much Benson's characters are like Real Housewives. They are petty and conniving for sport. Sabotaging their 'friendships' just enough to cause drama but not so much that they have to stop being social with each other. Alcohol and contrived situations abound to bring them all into each other's presences. Allegiances change as boredom sets in and change again when that seems like more fun. Egos abound.

The women of the Bravo shows may think they want to be taken seriously, but there real interest is money. Vicki, the queen bee of the OC franchise and the longest serving of any housewife makes about $750,000 a season.

Until I re-watched the Benson dramatization I thought the Housewives were a sign of how low we sunk. Now I see them playing out some human desire to be amused by others misbehaving. Could getting satisfaction from the petty bitchiness be any less perverted than enjoying murder mysteries or even gorier sorts of crime fiction? When being a voyeur of bad behavior why is the former seen as trashier or more base than the latter?

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

Tom, thank you for that. Maybe what troubles me is the assertion of "reality," and the apparent assumption of these women — who are playing TV characters based on themselves — that their lives are something to be aspired to. I was unquestionably in the wrong frame of mind to watch the show when I did; maybe I'll go back to it when I'm not feeling so uncertain of my own reality. And I do need to read the Mapp and Lucia books.