The (D)Evolving Dreams of an Everyday Housewife: Bravo’s Postfeminist Status Olympics

This is so good. In the NY Times Magazine recently, Carina Chocano traced the strange […]

David Zahl / 12.1.11

This is so good. In the NY Times Magazine recently, Carina Chocano traced the strange subversion of the word/concept “housewife,” particularly how the Bravo “Real Housewife” brand has taken the conventional notion of the word to its semantic extreme opposite. What was once a term that connoted humble domesticity, frugal compliance and resignation now signifies unfettered indulgence and plastic ambition, not to mention a revulsion to any actual housework. Yet ironically, as Chocano points out, the archetype has maintained its judgmental undercurrent, serving as a backboard against which to define ourselves: a lightning rod for disdainful self-righteousness in other words (“At least I’m not like ______”). That is, where it represented the ideal of what women should be, now it represents the ideal of what they should not be. Chocano views the absurdity of this new Bravo incarnation as reason for hope – and she may have a point, in so far as these shows’ supreme cartoonishness helps us to laugh at our collective pettiness, and the futility of identity “olympics.” But of course, the popularity of these shows is probably also an indicator of just how much we are bound to the scale of judgment.

When it comes to domestic goddesses, I’ll personally take Ina Garten over both the Orange County ladies and Martha Stewart any day – her prowess in the kitchen may be intimidating, but the amount of butter she uses just oozes grace; instead of making us feel better or worse, she’s content to put the “comfort” in comfort food. How easy is that?!

It’s still easy to visualize those two clichés — the feminist and the housewife — in neat opposition to each other, which says something about their respective staying power. Yet each of them has radically changed — the housewife even more so than the feminist. Once upon a time, our cultural conception of the housewife was one of conformity, banality and stifling domesticity (the dread June Cleaver syndrome). But just as the ’70s feminist obsession with housework gave way to sex-positivity, girl-power and reproductive choice, the vestigial housewife of the 1950s morphed into the turbo “homemaker” of the 1980s, the anxious “soccer mom” of the ’90s, the overscheduled “SAHM” (stay at home mom) of today and possibly, next, the radical home-schooling homesteader of the post-apocalypse. The word “housewife” is now just as likely to evoke extravagance, indulgence and freedom as it is domestic servitude. For an example, consider the subjects of the “Real Housewives” franchise on Bravo, who have about as much in common with June Cleaver as Cleaver had in common with Cleopatra.

The “real housewives” of Bravo fill their days with shopping, grooming, lunching, gossiping and feuding. What they don’t do, naturally, is housework — although some of them (though by no means all) do take offense at the suggestion that they employ others to manage their households and do the drudge work. They’re so far removed from housewifery that they’re not even all married. Whether they are single, married or divorced, whether they work or have children and whether they came by their money through marriage or made it themselves (thanks, in some cases, to the promotional opportunities afforded by being on the show), it’s the ability to pass for ladies of means, leisure and indulgent patronage, whether or not that’s what they actually are, that most seems to fill them with pride.

At a time when we’re constantly being reminded that marriage is undergoing transformative change and becoming increasingly elusive for more and more women, the real housewives have professionalized the role of housewife in such a way that their housewifeliness exists almost entirely outside the parameters of marriage. Even more than the Martha Stewart-style domestic-lifestyle gurus who previously dominated, the Bravo housewives have turned the role of housewife into a job — one that sells a lifestyle brand to a generation at once ideologically opposed to and functionally cut off from such a lifestyle.

Of course, it’s the contradictions inherent in the term “real housewives” that make up the core of the brand. Back in the ’70s, when the women that Brunsdon wrote about were busy creating a new idea about themselves, a housewife was something a middle-class woman had to resist becoming by default… [Atlantic Monthly writer Katie] Bolick alludes to the famous Gloria Steinem quip about women becoming the men they wanted to marry. The real housewives, in many cases, seem to have become the women the men they wanted to marry would have married had the whole enterprise not gone bust.

One way to think about the “Real Housewives” shows is as a kind of perverse, televised postfeminist-feminine-status Olympics. Here’s how it works: A group of highly competitive, thoroughly confused women are pitted against one another in five events: wealth, youth, beauty/body, husband and glamour career. In order to participate, the housewives must qualify in at least three of these categories. They need not have all of them in order to win, but it helps. Some categories trump others. For instance, wealth trumps beauty, and husband trumps glamour job. Kids-plus-husband trumps job, too — especially if the process of acquiring them leads to a show of one’s own. Every show features at least one aggressive instigator whose job it is to ratchet up the jealousy and paranoia and keep the interpersonal conflicts coming. All you really have to do to be a real housewife is take pride in your privilege, your leisure, your profligacy and your willingness to amplify the melodrama at every possible opportunity. You can’t win unless somebody else loses.

As a competition, this is not so terribly different from what previous real housewives, the disciples of Martha Stewart, were engaged in. The big difference is that it isn’t designed to make you feel bad about your incompetence or lack of ease or shortage of creativity or crushing scarcity of time (as Stewart seemed intent on doing). A few channels over from Bravo, on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, a new generation of post-Martha Nigella Lawson types is focused on the sensual and communal pleasures of home cooking — just as across the cable landscape, a new generation of crafters and gardeners and decorators and D.I.Y.’ers offers visions of what it would be like to spend your days ministering to domestic surroundings. Yet these shows still cater to a set of proto-housewife fantasies: the fantasy that there is a gracious, lovingly created domestic sphere that needs tending, where you can swan around your beautiful kitchen, dipping your manicured fingers in bowls of chocolate or whipping up tiny crème brûlées for unexpected guests. Also, the fantasy that there is such a thing as unexpected guests who drop by expecting crème brûlée. The real housewives are nothing like these people, and therein lies their appeal and, perhaps, their virtue. They are not gracious or accomplished or poised. They do not handle themselves with aplomb or display grace under pressure. Nor do they have housewifely advice to hand down, tips on getting the kids to eat their vegetables or saving on the grocery bill. In short, they will never make you feel bad about yourself.

In his 1826 essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” William Hazlitt wrote: “Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. . . . The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud.” The real housewives are part of that cloud: the embodiment of the mixed messages inherent in the tangled word “housewife,” not to mention in our tangled ideas about how women should live, what they should do, how they should self-identify, how they should be judged. Maybe the real housewives’ willingness to turn everything we were once taught to want and then reject (and then want again) into a crazy drag show is progress of a kind. Maybe they’re the perfect un-self-conscious embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the categories we keep trying to fit into, in the way they remind us that, either way, it’s complicated. Maybe they’ve managed to subvert the idea of the “housewife” once and for all, crawling into its navel “Matrix”-style and exploding the myth from the inside.