Last December, I sat in my friend’s living room, glued to her television as we watched one of the last episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I was completely hooked on The Real Housewives series. I loved the characters and their loud, crazy, dramatic interactions with each other. I loved taking sides by celebrating some of the “housewives,” and vilifying others.
I would share the latest gossip with my friends on Twitter and Facebook: “Did you see how “crazy” Ramona was when she confronted Kelly on The Real Housewives of New York? Why is Camille Grammer (star of the Beverly Hills series) so evil and desperate?”
I saw The Real Housewives series, and other shows like it, as fun, accessible entertainment—escapism.
I was wrong.
Even though that Real Housewives viewing party happened just seven months ago, my days of celebrating and promoting the show are long gone. I can no longer stand to watch a program that—while brilliantly produced and written with respect to entertainment value—perpetuates a horrible stereotype about women: that they are hysterical, unhinged, and conniving.
I have realized that I can’t see reality shows like The Real Housewives as mindless, fun escapism anymore. These kinds of shows put women right into the gutter of a society where bias and discrimination against women are still strongly prevalent.
The impetus for my change-of-heart towards The Real Housewives came after I watched the final cut of my friend Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary, Miss Representation.
Miss Representation explores the under-representation of women in positions of power and the limited, often disparaging, portrayal of women in the media.
Her documentary brilliantly addresses the connection between how women are portrayed in the media—both in news and entertainment—and the connection to the huge disparity between men and women in positions of power, from the boardroom to Capitol Hill.
In my life and career, I have fought for more women to serve in public office; I don’t think we can make real progress in our country until women have not just one seat at the table, but have half the seats at the table. I look up to the women CEOs who run Fortune 500 companies—all 15 of them. I dream of a day when there are so many women CEOs that I won’t be able to remember all their names. But how can we expect young women to want to serve in elective office or lead a large corporation when we generally provide them a limited view of what women can be?
Yet, despite what I believe to be a key part of my life’s calling—fighting for gender equality—I somehow managed to compartmentalize the horrible way women are portrayed in reality shows from the way I view women in the rest of my life.
I was so stupid.
After I saw Miss Representation, I was grappling with my obsession with The Real Housewives. It just didn’t feel right to watch the show anymore. But the fundamental shift in the way I view entertainment came when I asked my friend’s twelve-year-old daughter, Erica, about her favorite TV show. I naively expected her to mention a Nickelodeon program or a show like American Idol. Her answer, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
Erica is a smart, creative girl. I remember her as a bookworm who would tug on my shirt to tell me, with excitement, about how she saw Hillary Clinton on CNN. But now her favorite show is about women who spend themselves into bankruptcy and call each other “prostitute whores?”
I shouldn’t have been surprised that a girl Erica’s age is interested in the show. Earlier this year, Andy Cohen, host of Watch What Happens Live! on The Bravo Network, had 13-year-old Ben Weiner as his guest. On live television, Mr. Cohen proclaimed Ben Weiner to be a “housewives super fan.”
The Bravo Network blog even praised Ben for displaying a “cattiness beyond his years.” Is this what we’ve come to? Praising a thirteen year old for being catty like a Real Housewives character?