Well, yeah. Little bit.
We’ve long since conceded, of course, that these are not really Real Housewives. Many of them do not even have Real Breasts or Real Foreheads, let alone Real Checkbooks or Real Laundry Baskets. The pleasure of the Real Housewives lies in the fact that they’re not real at all. As for the Real Catfight that’s been Really Hyped: well, let’s just say that that’s not even Real Hair that got pulled.
This isn’t reality television. It’s professional wrestling.
And yet I watched. I told myself I was investigating the social phenomena described by Mary Elizabeth Williams of “America’s love affair with angry women,” and wondering why “catfights” hold such a perpetual fascination, but I wasn’t. I was just watching, and marveling, at women gone off the rails in the name of celebrity.I was judging their parenting, judging their lives and enjoying my clear moral superiority.
But RHONH makes it too easy. I like a good Real Housewives train wreck, but the New Jersey version goes too far. The clothes, the settings, the disputes, all somehow manage to reach a low even beneath that of the other versions (an intentional, Sopranos-aping decision by Bravo producers) and this episode—in which an argument between Theresa, a woman who has filed for bankruptcy protection from her “onyx-encrusted mansion” and earned the ire of Ross Douthat, among others, and Danielle, a sad, false-eyelashed attention-seeker who dabbles in lesbianism and relies on an “energy channeler” for moral support—left no question that everyone who had anything to do with the program ought to be ashamed of themselves.”Their darkness is coming and I’m getting out of its way,” Danielle told Babble’s Famecrawler. “That’s all I have to say about it.” They’re all on message, these women.,willing to continue to live out this battle—filmed back in November—as though it happened just yesterday, when it aired. That they haven’t moved on only serves as a reminder that this “reality show” is more like pro-wrestling: semi-scripted drama among self-created characters.
It’s fun to watch people who are enjoying, or at least wallowing in, their reality show experience, especially if you think they’re totally wrong to do so. It’s not fun to watch them indulge in truly misguided attempts to play to the cameras, particularly if those efforts actually ensnare their naive family members. The hair-puller in question wasn’t either Housewife, but Ashley, the 19-year-old daughter of yet another Housewife, Jacquie. Ashley isn’t the first kid to come of age in front of the cameras, but she’s one of the first to do it in the name of stardom for a narcissistic parent in need of fame. She’s not paid for her ratings-boosting efforts, but it seems likely she’ll pay for them in the future. Most of us can see that the Botoxed and coifed Housewives aren’t likely to come to blows, but Ashley either thought Danielle might hit Jacquie, or thought hair-pulling was a perfectly acceptable option under these artificially created circumstances. Either way, she’s the victim–of Bravo, of her mother, and of (damn) the willingness of people like me to watch.
RHONJ is no guilty pleasure. It’s just guilt, and guilt that, along with Helaine’s and Steve Almond’s points about reality television and child exploitation, makes me question my willingness to indulge in any of these programs. If RHONJ is this bad, can I possibly excuse Kate Plus Eight? It’s a moral quandary to be pondered, remote in hand, as I watch TLC’s Deadliest Catch, which actually documents (remember that?) life (and death) in, as Salon‘s Matt Zoller Seitz says, “a hard job staffed by men who barely have time to eat and sleep, much less adopt fake, corny screen personas and sustain them over weeks.”
Photo courtesy WWE.