There’s something going on with women on television these days. As the TV critics have noticed, shows about the lives of women have been proliferating over the past few years: the fall 2011 lineup featured several such debuting sitcoms (Whitney, New Girl, and Two Broke Girls), and that spring saw the airing of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, a sly, self-mocking portrait of twenty-something girlfriends muddling their way through life in New York City (clearly a challenge to Sex and the City, though Dunham’s vision is very much her own). The fall 2012 lineup added to the roster The Mindy Project (about a gynecologist with a barren romantic life), and this year’s mid-season listings gave us the premieres of Red Widow (featuring a housewife forced to carry out the mob work of her late husband) and The Carrie Diaries (a Sex and the City prequel). And though Carrie Bradshaw’s show itself, certainly one of the mothers of these more recent additions, went off the air almost a decade ago, various other women-centered shows (The Good Wife, Gossip Girl, and Desperate Housewives among them) are now well into their mature years. In a rather literal enactment of this general phenomenon, Two Broke Girls has recently displaced Two and a Half Men, taking over the time slot previously occupied by that show.
At least since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, and with series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Maude, and Golden Girls, prime time television has frequently featured female protagonists in starring roles, with plot lines centered on the difficulties of balancing career and family and the intensity and sustaining power of female friendships. The female-centered series currently dominating the listings undoubtedly focus on, and gain narrative momentum from, similar issues; and yet it would be a stretch to call them unambiguously feminist. The sexual emancipation advocated by the Sex and the City characters consisted in large part of a rather untroubled acceptance and appropriation of a woman’s status as sexual object, and many subsequent shows seem to be similarly walking a fine line between celebrating the robustness of their heroines’ interior lives and revealing their bodies for all to see. They are also, for the most part, distinctly apolitical.
Perhaps the avatar of these developments—and also, I should admit here, the focus of my own personal preoccupation with these television products—is Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, whose loosely ordered programs took their inspiration from ABC’s Desperate Housewives but are vastly more successful than those of their scripted predecessor. There have been seven Real Housewives series, with the original (Real Housewives of Orange County) soon to begin its eighth season, as well as spinoffs such as Bethenny Ever After, Don’t Be Tardy, and Vanderpump Rules. Reportedly a half-billion-dollar enterprise, these programs combine in one irresistible confection the appeal of female-focused narratives and the current mega-phenomenon of reality television, and the episodes have attracted as many as 2.9 million viewers, most of them representatives of the target demographic of women in the eighteen to forty-nine age range (especially the median age range of thirty-somethings, my own peers). In one way or another, all of the female-focused shows currently dominating our television listings are voyeuristic, if not frankly titillating (the narrative potential exhibited by a title like Two Broke Girls even verges on the pornographic, though certainly the show itself, which airs on CBS, will likely never go there). But with the Real Housewives our scopophilic impulses are only enhanced by the knowledge that we are peeking in on the lives of non-actors, and in this sense it is perhaps the “Real” of the title that accounts for a certain intensification, in these shows, of the ubiquitous allure of the female element.
The appeal of Real Housewives is somewhat paradoxical, though, since for all of the thrill of the forbidden that swirls around these productions, their narrative arcs are relatively tame, or at least predictable, focusing on the trials and tribulations of marriage, motherhood, and female friendship. As a result, if these shows undoubtedly have something important to say about certain contemporary trends—about our continuing, or perhaps recently renewed, cultural investment in the traditionally feminine realm of childcare and homemaking; about the ongoing question of how women might step out of that realm without leaving it behind entirely; and about the place of the female body and female desire in popular culture generally—then they reveal above all just how fraught with complexity these issues currently are. At the same time, it seems to me that the Real Housewives series also bring into focus certain questions about “realism”—a term whose meanings and connotations are a veritable staple of scholarly inquiry in the fields of literature and the arts—and especially about what that general social and aesthetic program and the shows’ particular subject matter have to do with each other.
In pursuing the question of the popularity of the Real Housewives shows beyond their immediate context, then, I am not simply trying to justify my less-than-exalted leisure activities (though that would be a welcome result). I believe that the question of the popularity of Real Housewives is a serious one, and that answering it may reveal something important not only about the astonishing proliferation of reality television, but also about the prevalence of women on television, the current shape of television programming as a whole, the current generation’s relationship to feminism, and even a certain type of aesthetic sensibility and experience that exceeds the limits of contemporary trends. Indeed, I am far from the first to suggest that modern realism, as a historical development—and perhaps even capital-R Realism, the aesthetic category and epistemology—has something to do with women. But it also, I believe, has something to do specifically with housewives. In fact it seems to me that the progenitor of Real Housewives was less Mary Tyler Moore than it was the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century realist novel—not only the first literary form both to place women (and homemakers) center stage and to appear serially, but also a genre that was in many ways focused, often ambivalently, on the female body. And so I would like to propose that the question of the popularity of Real Housewives—as well as the question behind the question, which is what the genre can tell us about our tastes, our forms of entertainment, our art, and ourselves—might be addressed fruitfully by posing it against the background of the historical origins of the novel, whose own insights and assumptions both inform and are further illuminated by the Bravo imagery.
In The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, Ian Watt claimed that the rise of modern realism, in the form of the novel, was intimately tied to the emergence of women as audience members and subject matter. In eighteenth-century England, women, not only those in the upper and middle classes but also the less-well-to-do, found themselves with more leisure time on their hands than ever before—which, Watt says, was often taken up by “omnivorous reading.” At the same time, related socioeconomic developments were making “marriage much more important for women than before, and . . . [also] much more difficult to achieve.” These factors (among others) combined to engender what many consider to be the “traditional” novelistic marriage plot, a story driven by the (often female) protagonist’s desire for normative, bourgeois, connubial bliss—that is, the wish to settle down happily with a husband in a house.
Watt concentrates on novels such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which follows the eponymous heroine, a peripatetic petty criminal, in her repeatedly enacted (though eventually successful) quest to attain what she calls a “settled state of living,” and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, which features a servant girl whose virtue, in rejecting the advances of the nobleman master with whom she is in love, is rewarded when she becomes his lawful wife. Such plot lines should be recognizable to readers who are probably more familiar with their later incarnations. How many nineteenth-century English novels center similarly on a woman’s path, often from a state of insecurity, homelessness, or some other form of confusion, waywardness, or lack, to the civilized abundance of housewifery? The works of Jane Austen are perhaps the best case in point, with heroines such as Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse starting off in a condition of dangerous error—mostly an impetuous temperament combined with bad judgment in regard to men—but eventually, after an education in discernment and self-restraint, wedding the appropriate partner.
To be sure, the deficiency of Emma’s initial condition is counterintuitive, since she seems to be a woman who wants for nothing (she is, as we learn in the very first sentence, “handsome, clever, and rich”); by contrast, Elizabeth’s predicament is over-determined, compounded by her and her sisters’ loss of their paternal inheritance due to an unfortunate legal technicality. Still, the apparent ethical—or at least aesthetic—principle revealed in both of these novels (and in their eighteenth-century precursors) is that, whatever her fortune, a single woman is virtually by definition always already in a profound state of want, and that it is precisely this vacuity that produces the narrative that will eventually fill it with a husband and a home. Pride and Prejudice even literalizes the association between the condition of lack constituted by erotic desire and the quest for the security of landed property—Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy only after surveying the splendid grounds on his estate—and many successors to Jane Austen’s work bear similar associations. In Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre (who, as an orphan and impoverished governess, starts out in about as complete a state of dispossession as one can imagine) first knows Rochester as the frequently absent proprietor of Thornfield, a “great house” with “fine grounds,” and her valedictory announcement of “Reader, I married him” is equally a declaration of her ascent as mistress of a manor. Esther in Dickens’s Bleak House follows a similar trajectory, from abandoned orphan to employed housekeeper to satisfied wife, mother, and possessor of a domicile that has been constructed and arranged especially for her. If Emma’s initial self-satisfaction is illusory, then, the final social ascents of Elizabeth, Jane, and Esther (like the achievements of Moll and Pamela) represent the gratifying remediation of the problem with which all of these stories begin: the problem of being a woman on her own. It seems that the various conditions of dispossession into which women are born are precisely what make their lives especially amenable subjects of narrative plotting, and in this sense it is no wonder that novels emerged when women entered the reading public.
Interestingly, Eliot’s Middlemarch reverses the formula, since Dorothea’s marriage to Ladislaw results in the loss of her inheritance from her first husband, Casaubon (though the association is just as strong for the negation). But in this sense Middlemarch, by staging Dorothea’s passage from a state of landed abundance with an insufferable boor to one of relative impoverishment with the man she loves, also envisions a glimpse of the liberty denied the other heroines by the very social successes with which their stories end. For in fact the achievement of housewifely status, in these early novels, is a distinctly ambiguous accomplishment; whatever its stability and satisfactions, it is also a form of constriction that exacts its own price on the very women who are happy enough to enjoy it. When Elizabeth Bennett marries Darcy and settles in as mistress of Pemberley, most readers find themselves mourning the loss of the more mobile, less inhibited, and less house-bound Lizzie we once knew, who tromped through the marshes and messed up her clothing. In Jane Eyre, too, a gratifying resolution takes a heavy toll: in order for Jane to be granted a home of her own, another house must burn to the ground and the madwoman in the attic (a representative, in part, of the wilder aspects of Jane’s own persona) must perish. Esther’s house in Yorkshire, for its part, is an exact replica of Bleak House, the place where she was once employed to organize cupboards and pantries, and hence her role as housewife in the second Bleak House is another version of her status as housekeeper of the first. It hardly needs noting that in a novel that figures domestic settlement as domestic servitude, the title (of the book and of the house) says it all.
If marriage and motherhood in these novels represent the achievement of status, stability, and adulthood, as well as the resolution of the various forms of insecurity that drive the narrative forward, then they are also, in some respects, forms of limitation; and if settling down figures the binding up of wayward sexual energies, then it also represents a sad loss of liberty. From this point of view, perhaps the defining emblem of the English novel’s struggle with domestic settlement and housewifeliness is Moll Flanders herself, whose first home, even in utero, is Newgate prison, where her mother is a convict who escapes hanging by “pleading her belly.” Certainly, in Defoe’s novels as well as the others, the paradoxes of domestic settlement, as an aspect of the human condition writ large, are not women’s alone. But to the extent that much of Moll’s story involves her reluctant submission to the periods of “confinement” associated with childbirth, her first home serves, both psychically and socio-culturally, as the model for all subsequent residences; and so of the many Newgate simulacra that abound in the novel, perhaps primary among them is the female body itself. As for Middlemarch’s Dorothea, her happy avoidance of imprisonment in Casaubon’s house is similarly only a partial triumph, since even her fate with Ladislaw sees her “absorbed into the life of another, and . . . only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother”—an unfortunate end, those around her agree, for a woman of such a noble and remarkable character. In another time, the narrator remarks, she might have been an Antigone; but in the age of realism and the novel, grand gestures are foreclosed, and the emblem of the human condition is the thoroughly mixed lot of the happy-enough housewife.
One other perspective from which to understand the centrality of the dilemmas faced by female figures to the development of modern realism derives from the simple observation that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century realist novels, as both responses to and products of the new age of industrial capitalism, are fascinated by, and overflowing with, things. In this sense the novel genre simultaneously documents and participates in the phenomenon of commodity fetishism in its earliest manifestations: a way of looking at the world, both animate and inanimate, with an objectifying eye that resists distinctions and often, effectively, levels all that is surveyed. Realism is about objects, and the realist representation objectifies. The multiple kinds of selfhood that fill the world become, to an extent, lost in the proliferation of matter; though the human presence may be deserving of narrative attention, it is just another element in the material environment. No matter what our grand ambitions or soaring hopes may be, we are all objects in the world and in the eyes of our peers, and this truth lies at the edge of consciousness for every novelistic character.
And yet we undoubtedly love novels because they also maintain a defiantly Romantic commitment to the human subject: its complex interiority, its passions, its strivings, its beauty. One might say, then, that novels understand people as both subjects and objects at one and the same time, and that this perhaps is the crux of the genre’s claim to “realism,” since it is the reality of this paradox—our simultaneous condition as viewer and viewed, immortal soul and mortal body—that lies at the heart of the human experience. The precarious balance that novels maintain between romantic attachment and chilly objectivity is also a mark of their modernity: the developing “individualism” that, as Watt has noted, went along with the advent of industrial capitalism in the West. The novel’s determination to encompass a large and vibrant community of individuals, to take seriously the subjectivity of all human persons no matter their diminutive status or stature (not only women, but also children, the lower classes, criminals), and to grant narrative space to the plans and musings of even minor characters is mitigated by the recognition that one’s private satisfactions—whether in the form of narrative attention or material accumulation—are ultimately bound up with a deprivation of others. Hence novels’ various moralistic efforts to correct the individualist ethos that they simultaneously champion by giving their heroes and heroines an education in humility. Hence as well the extent to which these characters’ various trajectories, no matter the deprived state in which they may start out, tend to feature experiences of even further disillusionment and cutting-down-to-size.
And so if the human person, novelistically conceived, is both subject and object, both viewer and viewed, then it may be that its most fully fleshed embodiment—the person who lives out the predicament that the genre dramatizes most intensely—is female. For who better understands, and lives with, that radical split? Particularly suggestive in this regard is Esther Summerson in Bleak House, which is also considered by many to be an iconic specimen of the novel form—or at least, in Robert Newsom’s words, “Dickens’s most novelistic novel.” Here novelistic double vision is literalized in a split narrative in which chapters given by an objective, third-person, and authoritatively masculine observer alternate with those assigned to Esther herself, whose delineation, as narrator, of the contours of her own domain contrasts with her depiction, as a character in a large and multifarious community, as merely one small woman. This rift is further played out in Esther’s psychic life, in which impulses of self-aggrandizement and self-abnegation (which reveal themselves in extended bouts of equally narcissistic and self-loathing mirror gazing) war against each other in epic battles of neurotic conflict—surely one of the most impressive enactments in literature of the split between subjectivity and objectivity that plagues us all.
Which brings us to the all-important matter of sex, for it hardly needs pointing out that the difficulty with which Esther attempts to navigate her conflicting roles as subject and object also manifests itself as a sexual hang-up. It is here that we may register the likely foundational connection not only between the novel and female domesticity, but also between the novel and rape, the ultimate violent act of objectification. For Richardson’s heroine Clarissa the rape is literal; for Moll Flanders, who pursues one sexual adventure after another as a survival strategy, it is somewhat less so, although the victimization she experiences when she returns to Newgate as an adult convict, and can save her skin only by acquiescing to a Christian minister who extracts a false confession by “breaking into my very soul,” is only loosely metaphorical. In this way Defoe’s work reveals an ambivalence enshrined even within the novelistic elevation of the self and its practice of first-person narration; indeed, both Moll’s and Esther’s autobiographies are in essence enforced confessions, on a meta-literary level as well as explicitly within the texts. In later novels this absorption in the “I” and the voice of the self becomes free indirect discourse, in which a third-person telling weaves fluidly in and out of characters’ thoughts: a practice that afforded its master, Henry James, as he wrote in his Preface to The Ambassadors, “the pleasure of . . . cutting thick” into his characters’ “intellectual . . . [and] moral substance.” In view of the force of James’s language, perhaps nothing more needs to be said about the implicit violence inherent in this particular realist endeavor. For any character, the thrilling opportunity to take center stage and tell one’s own story is always also a form of shattering violation, as Lena Dunham’s Girls might suggest.
And so it perhaps makes sense that so many novels circle around the conundrums of female sexuality and the mystery of what women want. If realism is ontologically imbricated with the fate of subject-object hybrids, then it is understandable that the question of how desire is managed by such creatures would be central. It also makes sense that houses, those spaces between inner and outer worlds, should be featured so prominently, although as signals of class, repositories for possessions, manifestations of identity, and objects of ambition, their centrality is itself multivalent. As we have seen, houses are also the emblem of narrative closure: the space where so many stories reach their conclusion and the embodiment of both the securities and the stultifications of enclosure generally. The question of desire, of both characters and readers, then becomes bound to the allure of this domestic space, the place of private doings and coveted objects, our point of entry into the larger world that also walls us in.
This is not to say that all novels end in even happy-enough homebody marriages—if the marriage plot is an archetypal pattern in the novel, then so is the adultery story. As Denis de Rougemont writes, “to judge by literature, adultery would seem to be one of the most remarkable of occupations in both Europe and America. Few are the novels that fail to allude to it”—though perhaps this insight could only come from an observer situated in the French tradition (which Watt for one does not consider). But even English novels, with their Puritanical influences and family values guiding characters into socially sanctioned pairings, are founded on the adulterous fantasies and transgressive desires that push the narrative forward: urgings whose fate we then wonder about once the walls have been erected. Are these urges effectively repressed? Indulged? Sublimated and transformed? Usually, in marriage and housewife novels, the story is brought to an end, and we will never really know. Or else, in the novels of adultery proper like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, the paradoxical merging of sustained desire and detached self-condemnation is figured in suicide, and the female body, the source or at least the chief site of all of these various novelistic and realist conundrums, disappears for good. Marriage or death, a wedding or a funeral: these have been the dichotomous resolutions to intense longing since time immemorial. But to the extent that, like houses, coffins are places of rest, perhaps in the realist imagination these antithetical endings aren’t terribly different.
Clearly there is a wide chasm between the artistic vision and accomplishments of the nineteenth-century novel and the cheap offerings of reality television, not least because the contemporary characters are actually present, in the flesh. That the consumers of early novels often behaved as if their beloved characters truly existed, or that reality television has of late become nearly as scripted as shows that bill themselves as fictitious, hardly reduces the distance, at least in terms of the complexity of artistic vision. Nevertheless, the psychology of fandom seems to have changed little from century to century (viewers who flock to book signings or other staged publicity events for the real Bethenny Frankel, for example, seem similar in motivation to readers who made pilgrimages to the grave of the fictional Charlotte Temple), and there are startling resemblances between the two forms in terms of subject matter, narrative interest, and even behavioral and interpersonal dynamics—prompting us to wonder anew whether such elements constitute some kind of realist drive as a human attribute, the impulse to create and to consume artifacts that announce themselves as “real.”
By and large, the Housewives shows follow a fairly simple formula. Each series features a handful of women who live, if not in the same neighborhood, at least in the same city, and who circulate among the same circles of upper-class socialites (sometimes their relationships predate the series, sometimes the series brings them into being). The individual shows are structured as a series of scenes, each one introduced by a brief set clip of one of the women (usually wearing a characteristic outfit and posing with her family members smiling, and hardly distinguishable, in the background) in order to indicate whose story line we are currently following. Those scenes then alternate with brief “confessionals,” in which the woman who is the present focus of attention sits in a nondescript and unidentified location, faces the screen directly, and narrates her opinion about the goings-on that we are witnessing at the moment but that, from her perspective, occurred in the past. Each season ends with a multi-part live reunion show, in which the women all gather, free of the formal constraints that dictate the rest of the series, and discuss the events of the past several months.
Taken together, the series feature a spectrum of housewifely possibilities: most (but not all) of the women are mothers, and most are (or have been) married. If a husband and children are not currently in the picture for a given cast member, they seem to be the direction in which she is heading—or at least, her story in one way or another centers on the question of her disposition toward these apparently unavoidable prospects. Virtually all of the women have beautiful homes in which they are frequently filmed, and indeed, if a given scene does not take place entirely in the home—with the protagonist interacting with her husband or children, entertaining guests, engaging in home-based business ventures, and the like—it often starts out there at any rate: the filming of a night on the town, or a trip, will frequently begin at home, with a couple or a family or a pair of girlfriends getting ready and then departing in a limo or making use of some other extravagant mode of transportation. And though it is certainly never the main topic of the episode, we do witness, at least briefly, a range of banal domestic activities: cooking, dishes, gardening, laundry.
To be sure, many of the women have staff members employed to carry out these and other chores, and this retinue is periodically filmed as well. In fact, the negotiations that take place between the protagonists and their office assistants, nannies, cooks, and interior decorators are as central to the genre as anything in Jane Austen, with similarly complicated (albeit updated) questions of class politics lurking in the background. In general, the implicit question that these story lines are answering (or at least posing) is: just what is needed to make a private life run successfully? Is it possible for it to run smoothly? Specifically, is it possible for these women to maintain beautiful homes, vibrant social and romantic lives, thriving children, and fit bodies, all without sacrificing anything in any area? In short, is it possible to have it all? Certainly, these women are well placed to secure such an enviable accomplishment, given their socioeconomic advantages, and the sumptuousness of their surroundings is surely part of the appeal for viewers. In this sense as well, the comparison to Austen, whose protagonists represent a spectrum of the idle aristocracy, is apposite; for surely no contemporary activities could be closer to the round of balls that punctuate the lives of Austen’s characters than the charity events, fashion shows, exhibit openings, and theme parties that the housewives organize and frequent and that take on the aspect of regularly performed public routines.
And yet it should come as no surprise that the pleasures of witnessing social and material success are not quite—or are at least not exclusively—what viewers are after. Nor is our voyeuristic pleasure explained solely by the element of Schadenfreude that creeps into our perception of the women’s misfortunes, the satisfaction we get from the assurance that rich people suffer too. I would propose, in fact, that our gratification at seeing these women humbled also fulfills a somewhat loftier aesthetic sensibility, one grounded in the realist ethic requiring that grandiosity always be reduced by the intrusion of one or another sort of moral imperative or reality principle. This is a lesson that these women seem compelled to learn, or at least give evidence of having learned, just as surely as the novelistic Bildung tends to center on the deflation of a character’s narcissistic fantasies (all those Great Expectations, whatever they may be). Underneath all of the recriminations and the heightened drama of the reunion shows seems to lie a demand for compulsory self-examination and self-doubt, with the question at issue not so much that of who did what to whom, as that of whether a cast member is capable of taking criticism, willing to admit her guilt, and trying somehow to change. The contempt lavished by the New York housewives on the self-involved Jill Zarin, in other words—and her reunion show attestations of self-questioning, epiphany, and reform—are not really that different from the introspection and retrospection engaged in by Emma and Elizabeth, who must relinquish false self-assurance and learn to appreciate others more deeply (although in Jill’s case, alas, the vaunted self-improvement did not prevent her from being cast off the show in the fifth season). This is a principle that seems to be built into the very structure of these shows: for if each cast member is granted her own story line, featured in her own domain as embodied by her house and as signaled by the introductory clips, and given a voice in the confessionals in which she expresses her point of view without mediation, then her appearance in another woman’s plot counters this self-regard by making her, for that moment, merely a character in another protagonist’s story. Surely this is in its own way equivalent, mutatis mutandis, to the shifting balance of multi-plot novels like Anna Karenina or Middlemarch, which follow multiple characters who are at times given heightened narrative attention and at other times not; or to that of Bleak House, in which Esther is alternately confessional narrator and common community member. In all these cases, the structures serve as architectural embodiments of the ethical necessities and unavoidable difficulties of cosmic space-sharing.
Of course I do not mean to imply that there is any conscious effort on the part of television producers to school these women in humility in the same way that realist novels are inherently (if only, at times, implicitly) concerned with questions of social reform and personal growth. Rather, it seems to me that the novels and the television shows are enacting a shared realist agenda, and its foundation in the feminine, from opposite directions: that novels often feature female protagonists because they are, for better or worse, especially amenable subjects for such efforts, and the television producers have absorbed this meliorist objective almost by a process of cultural osmosis (and then in turn reflect it back to viewers) precisely because the cast members are women. In other words, with female protagonists questions of moral improvement through self-abnegation are practically a given, as are plot lines that take the form of conversion tales—or at least stories in which transformation and self-improvement are prominently at stake. One might ask, for example, whether a reunion show for a series featuring a group of men would naturally center on questions of whether one or another cast member is good at taking criticism. Or else, if male-centered reality shows have by now imbibed this ethic (and perhaps they have—Top Shot, the History Channel series about gun-shooting, that readymade male metaphor, revolves around the issue of teamwork), then their protagonists are in the company of Dickens’s Pip and Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempré, men with epic dreams but whose destiny as heroes of realist novels involves a more accurate accounting of the costs of ambition—inevitably a kind of emasculation.
Frequently, during the reunion specials, cast members participate in viewing moments from the season that has just aired (or refer to having watched the season in entirety at home), and it is often this experience of witnessing their own behavior from the outside that inspires them to admit deficiencies or promise reform. Thus conversion reveals itself as ontologically bound up with an act of empathy—the experience of seeing oneself from the perspective of the other—that is also a form of self-objectification and, in its own way, a fundamentally narcissistic undertaking. Indeed, perhaps the inherently specular structure of the television shows captures in intensified form the dynamics of vision that are more latent and implicit in realist texts, with their complex exchanges between subjectivity and objectivity and the moral paradoxes that attend such transpositions. In this regard, it is no wonder that in Bleak House Esther’s efforts at transformation and self-integration are figured by her acts of peering into the mirror: genuine attempts at self-knowledge that are also instances of body-conscious navel gazing. It is also no wonder that such moments of inwardness and introspection in realistic fiction are often figured as sexual violations, as strange as that may seem. In the realist field of vision, comprised of proliferating gazes, the rendering of oneself as an object, whether to the eyes of another or to oneself, is a thoroughly ambivalent gesture, at once self-fetishizing and self-martyring.
And so while the female body is in many ways the main focus of the television shows’ attention, and while the fascination for viewers is certainly rooted in a kind of primal voyeurism, the experience of spectatorship and its effects is far from straightforward. For as we gaze at the figures presented to us with varying degrees of erotic allure, watching the many practices of luxuriating in, tending to, or enhancing the body, we simultaneously hear these women’s voices and, in the confessionals, enter into their private thoughts. (To be sure, one suspects that much of the reflection and self-reflection of the confessionals is as much for show as anything else. Yet many of these women are remarkably forthright and thoughtful: Kyle Richards’s tearful descriptions of her difficult relationship with her sister Kim, also a cast member on Beverly Hills, seem, for example, surprisingly genuine and circumspect, and several of the women on other of the series, such as Kandi Burruss of Atlanta and Bethenny Frankel when she was on New York, are, palpably, truth-tellers, at least for the most part. And in any case, the ultimate unreliability of any first-person narration, which is always shaped for the benefit of one listener or another, is something we learned from novels long ago.)
It is perhaps this perfect simultaneity of object and subject status, impossible in verbal texts that must make a choice between first- and third-person narrations or else alternate between them, that makes the confessionals so compelling but also, in a way, so disconcerting. As scholars of literature have long noted, the archetype for the confessional genre, itself one of the most influential literary forms in the development of the realist novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was Augustine’s fourth-century Confessions. Explicitly a spiritual autobiography that traced the pilgrim’s path from error to enlightenment, Augustine’s work also revealed the inherent structure of virtually any confessional, retrospective, first-person narration in which the narrator, or disembodied subject, views the past self as a character, or an embodied object, as it makes its wayward way through time—with present and past figures of the self remaining distinct until the latter catches up with the former, either at the end of the narrative or the (not fully representable) moment of conversion. To the extent that the Housewives confessionals present both figures of the self at once (in the sense that the detached, reflective self is just as much a beckoning object of the gaze as is the body-bound character who behaves badly in the scenes displayed—which means that that buxom blonde or brunette must also be embraced as a cogitating creature), we are met face-to-face with the basic but ultimately ineffable truth that we are truly at once subjects and objects, thinkers and actors, minds and bodies, inhabiting time and outside of it, both knowing and benighted. And so the paradoxical simultaneity whose representation can only be approached in realist text is in the television spectacle given full and immediate expression.
But the bodies on view in these shows are not just erotic objects, for they further testify to the sobering realities of the corporeal condition—which, like Moll’s pregnancies, seems to be portrayed most aptly, or poignantly, as a female affliction. Vicki Gunvalson’s hospitalization for internal bleeding on season six of Orange County, her daughter’s cancer scare the following season, and even D.C. housewife Michaele Salahi’s multiple sclerosis (which many suspect to be fabricated as a cover for anorexia) are all genuine health concerns that put the lie to the collective fantasy, supported by various forms of cosmetic augmentation, of possessing a perfect body. Indeed many of the women or their female relatives are portrayed most prominently as patients: Jill Zarin’s daughter, burdened with arthritis, and her stepdaughter, born with a facial deformity, are known mostly for their imperfections, which have inspired Zarin’s charity work. As in realist novels with their myriad physicians (Allan Woodcourt in Bleak House, Charles Bovary in Madame Bovary, Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch, and innumerable others), doctors’ offices are some of the most frequented interiors in the television series.
Certainly these medical episodes are as far-reaching in their implications as they are in the realist novel—a genre that is virtually predicated on the lures and impingements of the material world and the vagaries of the body, that elevates the maladapted of the human population (the orphans, the sinners, the sick, the needy), and that irresistibly circles around questions of healing and reform. If at its heart the genre itself satisfies our impulses of voyeurism, curiosity, and the urge to air private matters, then there is perhaps no more appropriate setting than the doctor’s office to enact these dramas. As in the novel, the television physicians tend to be perfectly ambiguous creatures, compassionate healers who are also authority figures and wielders of an objectifying diagnostic gaze that effectively nullifies the subjective uniqueness of the heroine. It is worth remarking in this context that in quite a few novels the female protagonist’s imprisonment in the home and her imprisonment in her body often become conflated in her marriage to a doctor (Drs. Woodcourt, Bovary, and Lydgate are the husbands of Esther, Emma, and Dorothea respectively, and many of the television housewives are similarly partnered with physicians, often plastic surgeons).
At the same time, as much as they demonstrate their prowess on the female body with its various troubles, the doctor characters are in attendance mostly as appendages to the heroines, and in this sense they are, figuratively speaking, carried on the shoulders of the women. Once again, the complex power dynamics that inhere within narrative realism are especially evident on the television shows, in which real-life doctors display their expertise with an aura of professional gravitas while simultaneously revealing themselves as obsequiously reliant on their famous clients (or wives). In this regard it is perhaps the behavior of the psychotherapists in particular that is the most startling, or even offensive, since they not only allow the cameras into the inner sanctums of their consulting rooms but also, in several instances, actually accompany their patients on filmed excursions elsewhere—to sea (Dr. Amatar in season three of Bethenny Ever After) or to parties (Taylor’s therapist on the second season of Beverly Hills). Realism’s commitment to transgression in its broadcasting of mysteries can go too far, at least when all of the persons involved are actually living, and the collusion of these mental health professionals—notwithstanding the endorsement of their patients, as well as the likelihood that many of the secrets revealed in these consulting rooms are in one way or another fictional—has to be viewed as both a professional and an ethical violation.
It is worth pausing here to address why Taylor’s psychologist (in Beverly Hills) was brought in in the first place. Having been called upon to help his patient through a crisis of self-worth stemming from the effects of a violent marriage—one, for her, in a lifelong series of brushes with domestic abuse—during a season that commenced with the announcement of her husband’s suicide after the end of filming, this therapist evidently had a weighty responsibility, though from the tone of the show one could hardly tell. Our knowledge of the tragedy only barely cast a pall over the titillating dramas enacted in a relentlessly sunny locale, and the return to the subject at the reunion special was awash in familiar recriminations: Was Taylor’s decision to be on the show really an attempt to save her and her daughter’s lives—since, as she claimed, Russell couldn’t have murdered them with all those cameras around? Was her publishing of her memoirs just months after her husband’s suicide really an attempt to spread the word about domestic abuse? Or did she just want to be famous? After obligatory nods to the seriousness of the situation, the disputes resembled any other Real Housewives argument questioning a woman’s motives, and we were left as viewers with the haunting vision of Taylor’s cosmetically enhanced, battered, and subsequently reconstructed face, wondering what could possibly constitute the interior life of a woman who so vociferously announces her own denigration (indeed, whose very efforts at finding a voice only lead her to reaffirm her status as victim, the “weakest” of the group of women) and who presents for visual consumption a body that is wasting away for lack of eating. (Her physical appearance was then pounced on by cast mates who, while claiming to believe Taylor’s weight loss to be the result of stress and grief, clearly suspected her of being narcissistically preoccupied with her body image, but whose own operatic pronouncements of concern were also all-too-clear evidence of body envy.)
Like Esther’s oscillations between self-effacement and narcissistic self-preoccupation, or between telling her own story and attempting to disappear within it, Taylor’s alternation between self-promotion and (both metaphorical and literal) self-belittlement seems to me both a private psychic drama and an epiphenomenon of the genre that houses her. In this case, however, our recognition of realism’s inherent callousness is heightened by the apprehension that, whatever the complex motivations of Taylor’s husband and the actual circumstances of the suicide, this much reality—the actual broadcasting of private troubles, as opposed to their documentation in fictional narrative—can lead to real harm. Viewers have similarly wondered whether MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom—which constitute a franchise similar to that of the Real Housewives shows in terms of subject matter and appeal (although the class context is quite different and the positions these young women are in much more disturbing)—may actually encourage teenage girls to get pregnant in order to audition for roles in future seasons. To the extent that those who do make the cut are often catapulted to the cover of Star with their dazed infants in tow, one is almost nauseated at the thought of what the future holds for them and their babies. It is in relation to such matters of actual life and death that the serious ethical dimensions of reality television make themselves visible. It is also a sense of the deeper consequences of applauding self-exploitation, rather than all of the banalities that are voiced about the frivolousness of reality television, that should, if our culture maintains any sense of decency and restraint, presage the end of the genre—though whether we indeed possess any such moral awareness very much remains to be seen.
In this context, two examples from Orange County come to mind. Allegra, a highly enhanced creature and the proudly submissive wife of an older, domineering, and none-too-dashing husband, is going in for surgery on her sinuses; while she’s at it, she’s getting a rhinoplasty, which she insists she has only signed up for because she’s going to be under the knife anyway. The other women protest and demand that she own up even more—that she admit that the plastic surgery she wants to have is not only a byproduct of a medically more significant procedure, but also a genuinely desired form of self-improvement. Allegra refuses and instead plays up her nasal suffering, with the footage of the operation then offering up grotesque images of what is removed, as if to support her point.
On its face, this is a simple enough dispute; and yet the social and representational ramifications are extraordinarily complex. The list is long: the yearning for beauty and physical perfection, even to the point of surgical intervention; the question of Allegra’s own desire and how it fits in with—or perhaps reaches beyond—her marriage’s power dynamic (the fact that Allegra’s husband is also both a lecherous creep and a moralizing Christian certainly complicates the matter further); the demand for honesty and a public acknowledgment not only of the fact of augmentation but also of its moral implications; the resistance to accusations of self-obsession and the attempt to offset them by emphasizing one’s bodily suffering; the graphic footage of cutting into a beautiful body and revealing the effluvia coursing underneath the surface; the various forms of competition among these women, demanding qualities at perfect cross purposes with one another (who has the best body?; who is the most “real”?); the insistent trade-offs between violation and self-protection, desire and restraint, modesty and showmanship—all these reverberations seem to multiply without end, and, in the very fact of their literal enactments, go even beyond the struggles portrayed in novels.
For surely Allegra’s real-life surgeries, like Taylor’s actual self-starvation, are undertaken in part for the benefit of viewers, and however implicated readers may be in the business of prying and violation that underwrites novelistic realism, members of a television audience impose a far more brazen form of violation on the living objects of their fandom. Indeed, if introspection and self-revelation are always bound to bring out something ugly (Esther’s investigatory efforts in Bleak House, for example, result in a fevered delirium that leaves lasting scars on her face, the objective correlative of unsightly truths now liberated from suppression), novelistic characters are at least spared the indignity of actually being seen by readers in their physical state. Needless to say, television heroines are afforded no such luxury, despite the eyeliner they apply before unleashing their inner demons—and despite the caveat that they are also, obviously, willing participants in their own objectification. Lately some of these complex for-profit invasions have come to border on the unsavory and the perverse, or at least to reflect a form of hybrid voyeurism aimed at the female body in which, for what might presumably be presented as progressive reasons, carnal appetite and a fascination with physical abnormality are combined in equal measure. Aviva, one of the recently cast New York housewives, lost a leg in a childhood accident and has two different prostheses—one for flats, one for heels—both of which require the attention of her pedicurist; and Sundance Channel’s newly offered Sex and the City lookalike, Push Girls, is about four gorgeous paraplegics. Esther, at least, could recognize Allan Woodcourt as her future husband because, rather than fetishizing her scars, he hardly seemed to see them. In this sense the conflicts documented by the television shows seem to defy the prospects of correction, resolution, and ultimately personal satisfaction that are offered, however ambivalently, by the narrative arc of the standard Bildungsroman, or novelistic plot—except that Allegra, Aviva, and the Push Girls, unlike fictional characters, are also the rich and famous stars of reality television shows.
In another scene in an earlier Orange County season, Tamra, having recently separated from a controlling spouse and having begun an affair (well-documented in supporting footage) with a younger man, mentions to Vicki, facetiously, that she’s thinking of undergoing vaginal reconstruction: she’s pushed out four babies, after all. Vicki, who doesn’t like to talk about sex and whose own marriage is going downhill fast, responds that since she has undergone two caesarean sections, her own female organ is as good as new. Whether the editors were aware of the joke in the scene (what’s the good of a pristine vagina if it’s not going to any use?) or of the various dichotomies and paradoxical concatenations that it presents (loose woman versus prude, mother versus whore) is unclear, though the exchange must have resonated, if only unconsciously, as telling enough to merit inclusion.
Perhaps more than anything, moments like these reveal that at the heart of these television series are questions of desire—its consequences; the obstacles to its fulfillment; the difficulty of navigating between being its object and its agent; its residence in the body. The fascination with childbirth and motherhood as it is documented by the shows is certainly a sign of our interest in these complex negotiations, to the extent that what captivates us, at least in part, are the marks made by, and on, the children: what forms of bodily integrity are lost in the process of birthing them; what the effect of a mother’s unchecked desire has on them. Certainly the psychic consequences of having a famous mother or of being a child featured on her mother’s television show are in no way explicitly addressed. And yet much of our marveling at these women surely has to do with the apparent incompatibility of their various roles and activities, as well as the range of possibilities presented in attempting to achieve some balance that seems forever out of reach. Pregnancy or surrogacy? Liposuction or personal trainer? Nanny or (who are we kidding) nannies? Each choice comes with a cost, and no matter the wealth of the cast members, the lesson, well in line with the realist epistemology, seems to be that no, you cannot have it all.
This lesson was particularly at stake in Bethenny Frankel’s now off-the-air spin-off, whose focus was not only the heroine’s wild success (Bethenny’s show-business and brand-marketing activities are by now almost legendary) and her rags-to-riches trajectory, but also her continuing problems: anxiety; the scars left by childhood abandonment and neglect; the difficulties of marriage. As a woman who started off her life in the public eye in a glaring state of deficiency and desire—throughout most of her time on Real Housewives of New York City she had no prospects for a husband or a child and an apparently uncertain career future, and she desperately wanted all three—Bethenny was a ready-made novelistic heroine. But to the extent that the traditional end of such a plot (marriage, baby, an influx of wealth) was just the beginning of the spinoff, it makes sense that the show, in order to go forward, would necessarily have to feature her enduring problems. Among novelists, Tolstoy, for one, preferred to upend conventional literary expectations and place his weddings at the beginnings or the middles of his narratives, and he was well aware that what followed had at least in part to be the documenting of troubles, since “all happy families are alike” and only unhappiness can be narrated, protracted, and given credible serial embodiment. Like Tolstoy’s novels, then (and I am quite aware of the near-absurdity of these comparisons), Bethenny Ever After circled around the notion that marriage, far from solving the problem of desire on which the human story is founded, may only complicate it further—especially when the intimate details of that marriage are broadcast for all the world to see. That the news of Bethenny’s impending divorce has recently hit the tabloids is thus perhaps only to be expected—though Bethenny, having transcended the reality TV circuit and now firmly ensconced in her new talk show, will not be airing this particular chapter of the ongoing domestic drama.
What was perhaps most surprising about Bethenny’s reality show was the extent to which it perpetuated the long-established housewife formula and frame: the focus on domesticity, its conflicts, its demands. Bethenny made sure we knew that, in the midst of all the frantic goings-on of her flourishing career, she was managing to cook all of her daughter’s meals, and indeed, it was likely her culinary prowess that, in the absence of the other attainments associated with housewifery, helped her land the New York series in the first place. Bethenny may be the most active and independently famous of the housewives, but there is no hiding that each one of the women, if only by virtue of appearing on one of the shows, is plainly a public figure who spends as much time outside of the house as in it, or for whom the home is also a flourishing place of business. The premise of these shows is further belied by the actual lives of the cast members, since no matter what sort of endorsement of normative domestic arrangements on the part of the American public is being responded to in these depictions of daily life, marriage does not seem to have fared well among the housewives themselves. Taken as a whole, the series have in fact featured multiple divorces, as well as related subplots concerning financial bankruptcy and loss of social status attendant on such break-ups (for, respectively, New York housewives Sonja and “Countess” Luanne). And though the paradox of the series’ titles is part of the appeal, the contradiction is pushed underground, as though the shows can only thrive if cooking and even cleaning (which Bethenny for one claimed as an obsessive pastime) remain unalterable parts of the setting.
If any society could be said to be the principal inheritor of the social influences that Watt saw as almost alchemically propitious for the development of the realist novel in eighteenth-century England—industrial capitalism, Puritan values, the relatively recent entrance of women into the marketplace and their emergence as public subjects—then surely we in contemporary America are convincing claimants of that legacy. With us, too, these social influences have their paradoxical effects, since the resurgence of traditional values among my coevals in Generation X (our growing interest in the diamond ring and white dress) must in part be a reaction to the various forms of liberation achieved by our mothers. But however distressing the persistent collusion of contemporary “realist” genres with the current form of the capitalist individualism from which they developed—the expectation they inspire that anyone among us might be rewarded with our very own reality show if we’re just enterprising enough—even more disturbing is the extent to which these shows seem to embody all of the forces holding back a society that, in many ways, has begun moving in new directions. The shows cannot ignore such developments entirely: a season of New York featured a subplot championing gay marriage, or at least championing those who champion gay marriage, and the producers of Orange County for a time seemed to be flirting with the prospect of including a lesbian in the cast. But these possible new configurations exist only at the margins of the series (in the New York season the question of gay marriage was addressed only euphemistically under the rubric of “marriage equality,” and it soon became clear that Orange County had ceased its musings on inclusiveness). Understandably so: a single and ambitious career gal might be easy enough to cast in terms of her housewifely path, but gay men and women would be significantly tougher. One might even say that, as potential protagonists, they threaten a representational frame that appears to be becoming increasingly outmoded. Nineteenth-century novels gloried in housewives and housewives-to-be because they took this affirmation to be an ethical and egalitarian act—that of putting the second sex in the spotlight—but they also kept their heroines relegated to that status as a principle of their realism. Contemporary realism need no longer conform to such assumptions, and it is time that we begin to imagine others.