As a teenager, my heart would pound whenever I heard my mom’s footsteps on the way to my bedroom while I was watching TV. I never closed the door (that would only look more suspicious), but I always tried to change the channel before she entered the room. Even when I would go to the restroom, I made sure to change the channel in case she came in while I was gone. I wasn’t watching a seedy film or racy show; I was watching something much worse. I was watching Bravo.
At some point I finally admitted to my mother that I watch the Real Housewives franchises, but not without averting my gaze. How could I, a feminist, support programming that argues that money is the most important thing anyone can have, thrives on conflict between women, celebrates plastic surgery, advocates for women to marry rich dudes, offers stereotypical depictions of women and people of color, and is just plain tacky on almost all levels? These beacons of antifeminism remain on air due, albeit just a tiny part, to my over-decade-long viewership.
Though I had always felt guilty watching the ultimate in guilty pleasure television, I’d never considered watching these shows as a real problem. We all need our guilty pleasures. Plenty of feminists indulge in bottom-of-the-barrel television with total awareness of these shows’ troubling representations of gender. Quite frankly, there’s a lot of fucked up things in the world; it’s impossible to make the righteous feminist choice in every aspect of life. Something like the Real Housewives franchise is a culmination of many problematic ideals and pop culture trends, including, but not limited to, the rampant consumerism of Sex and the City, cat fights in decades of soap operas and unrealistic beauty standards championed pretty much everywhere. But what if watching these shows is a real problem, something more than a source of a little guilt?
I began asking myself this question this year in response to the controversies on Real Housewives of Atlanta and the Trump presidency. The show already had its flaws: stereotypical representations of black women, slut shaming, gay bashing, physical altercations, worship of capitalism. In this past season, however, a conflict between cast members Phaedra Parks, Kandi Burruss and Porsha Williams lowered the bar too far. Here’s the run-down for those who haven’t scraped the bottom of the cultural barrel: Kandi and Phaedra used to be besties, but for petty reasons that I don’t entirely understand, they are no longer friends. In the most recent season, Kandi revealed that Phaedra was talking to another guy while her then husband, Apollo, was in prison. For more petty reasons, Porsha and Kandi became enemies, and at this time, Porsha and Phaedra were new besties. During a heated lunch, Porsha told Kandi that she heard that Kandi and her husband, Todd, concocted a plan to drug and rape her, which Kandi and the rest of the cast (minus Phaedra and Porsha of course) spent the remainder of the season denying. In the final hour of the reunion, we find out that Phaedra started the whole thing, lying to Porsha that Kandi had told her she had wanted to rape her. Whew, that was an intense season even by Bravo standards.
And how did Bravo handle this entire debacle? Phaedra was fired, but not after milking this drama for all it was worth. The normally three-episode reunion was stretched to four episodes. Fans, such as myself, sat through the first dull three hours to get closure on this rape rumor in the final hour. We were rewarded with lots of tears, yelling, walk-offs and a lame apology from Phaedra. Bravo, in typical Bravo fashion, profited off a despicable accusation and tried to redeem itself by firing the culprit.
By continuing to watch Bravo’s housewives franchise, I implicitly endorse programming that trivializes sexual assault and portrays regressive gender and racial stereotypes. However, my awareness of the error of my television choices is no small thing. As much as I enjoy Bravo drama and use this programming to escape a kind of boring life that doesn’t consist of constant shopping and day drinking, my critical mind is always aware that this is garbage. Most of the values perpetuated by the housewives should not become my values. I should avoid petty arguments; I should not become obsessed with my appearance; and I should definitely not falsely accuse anyone of sexual assault.
There’s a weird paradox going on here: watching Bravo programming is an antifeminist act, but trying to be the perfect feminist and do all the correct feminist things is actually detrimental to feminism. Patriarchal norms and structures work to police women; they expect women to operate as perfect wives and mothers and reprimand any action deemed outside the bounds of “natural” or “normal” femininity. In order to counter the patriarchy, feminism can’t recycle this control tactic, expecting perfect feminists and policing women who don’t challenge the patriarchy every second of the day.
But there’s a big but here, and that but is Donald Trump. What if the shows we consume not only perpetuate harmful stereotypes but actually allow the most narcissistic of sexist/racist/ableist/whatever-ist-I’m-leaving-out bigots to assume political office and put masses of people at risk? It’s impossible to definitively determine the extent to which The Apprentice brought in Trump votes. Even without the show, he would’ve been known as that rich guy who brands his name on everything he touches and garishly adorns everything with gold. However, The Apprentice only increased his presence; he was not just on fancy real estate and a bizarre array of failed business ventures and fake universities but on a popular television show, furthering his exposure. Let’s just take a second here: Why the hell did people watch this show? Why the hell did people watch this orange, shouting bigot and all his tweeting nonsense?
Well, for the same reason that I watch Bravo’s nonsense: for guilty pleasure. But maybe this pleasure comes at a higher price than we imagine. An article for The New York Times even argues that if The Apprentice didn’t get Trump elected, it made him “electable”: “Over fourteen seasons, the television producer Mark Burnett helped turn the Donald Trump of the late nineties—the disgraced huckster who had trashed Atlantic City; a tabloid pariah to whom no bank would lend—into a titan of industry, nationally admired for being, in his own words, ‘the highest-quality brand.’” Yeah, he probably would have still become president without his reality show because people are terrible bigots who love big money and big talk. Still, a tiny part of me wonders about Trump’s tiny margin of victory. Maybe a reality show was the thing that cinched the oval office, or at least boosted his reputation to make him “electable.” It’s a stretch, but didn’t we think not that long ago that it was a stretch that Trump could become our president?
Perhaps a positive takeaway is fans’ response to Phaedra’s atrocious accusation. I apparently wasn’t the only one who thought the show had gone too far, but more vocal fans called for her termination and were rewarded. Sure, the Real Housewives franchise and reality television as a whole will remain problematic, as we saw over the summer with the sexual assault controversies of this summer’s Bachelorette. But we also see 1.) that sexual assault does not make for great reality TV, no matter how many hours a network stretches the dramatic reunion; 2.) that fans’ voices are being heard by networks; and 3.) that viewers realize the importance of television as a means to spread or hinder damaging ideals and practices. Watching trash on television has become something of a survival technique, a way of escaping depressing news or hard times in life, but if we’re going to watch trash, maybe we can at least remove some of the most toxic garbage.
I’ll give Roxane Gay the last word here. In the introduction to her famous essay collection Bad Feminist, Gay proclaims: “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. . . . I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world. . . “(xi). And one way of trying—as Gay tries throughout the book in essays about several pop culture heavy hitters from The Hunger Games to tweets about Chris Brown—is to keep your critical eye open even while enjoying your guilty pleasures. And when reality television goes too far, we must call it out. Sorry Phaedra.
Featured image: Hmm. . . you don’t say, Phaedra? (Image source)