On Bravo’s hit show, the gender roles are as artificial as the spray-on tans.

By A.G. Gancarski | August 18, 2011

New Year’s Eve celebrations on television are as old as the medium itself, and just as predictable, right down to the still-annual use of Dick Clark as a presenter. The holiday, for all its scripted debauchery, is still an occasion when people take comfort in the familiar. This is especially true for certain television executives, such as the increasingly ubiquitous Andy Cohen, executive vice president of original programming and development at the Bravo Network.

Cohen is responsible for a couple of dozen shows on Bravo and rang in the New Year hosting a special in the so-called “Bravo clubhouse”—picture a talk-show set with three rows of couches and seating. Its casual mixture of the bizarre, the insipid, and the profane was impressive to behold, a measure of both the evolving American zeitgeist and Cohen’s role as an arbiter of and a responder to it.

The parade of horrors—where to begin? The show featured everything from a cat and a Chihuahua being pronounced married to an extended appearance by the zaftig bottle-blonde Meghan McCain, whose presence was inexplicable unless one knew that she has been bucking for a reality show since last fall, even meeting the head of Bravo in October and promptly tweeting “So cool, love those housewives” immediately thereafter.

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So why not include Miss McCain in this cavalcade that includes inter-species nuptials and a bevy of withered beauties who look like they’d been made over by RuPaul? It’s no worse for her “enlightened conservative” shtick than making kissyface with Rachel Maddow, after all. If the very senior senator from Arizona’s bubble-headed progeny wants a reality show, it’s no secret that Cohen’s keister is the one to kiss.

Andy Cohen has built an empire leveraged on the bet that millions of Americans—women and gay men, predominately but not exclusively—want to see big hair and big attitudes, artificial breasts and tans, and, ultimately, the televisual deconstruction, inversion, and corrosion of traditional gender roles, the ones that made this country work and once led to stable families in a society with a tangible, if imperfect, structure, in contrast to the slack-jawed anarchy of the present day.

Just as Barack Obama famously said, “I’m betting on you—the American people,” so too has Dandy Andy made his wager. He concurs with P.T. Barnum that there is a sucker born every minute, and that those suckers—in their bids for desperate escapism—will marinate in the broth of his creation, with all the agency of Vienna sausages soaking in canned brine.

Cohen’s creations like “Millionaire Matchmaker,” where a 50-year-old, mannish bachelorette from northern New Jersey advises the lovelorn rich on how to find true love, are fraught with gaps in logic, the consumption of which says a great deal about the viewers and Cohen’s expectations for them. The “Real Housewives” concept is the pinnacle of his vision, tailored to women by a man who, much like the men in the fashion industry, imparts a distinctly non-“heteronormative” vision on the women watching.

The “Real Housewives” series, which has spinoffs, like “CSI” or “NCIS,” in various locales—DC, NYC, Orange County, Atlanta, New Jersey—is a freakshow in a fishbowl. And like those initialed CBS melodramas, the “Real Housewives” spectacle is little more than a compendium of crime scene footage: assaults against decorum and decency; callow and calculated celebrations of myriad Sybaritic urges; and voracious, credit-fueled “Couture and Cristal” consumerism. “Housewives” is a guaranteed cash cow for Bravo and the whole NBC/Universal family, so Cohen will be a billionaire before any end is in sight.

It would be reductionist to claim that “if you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen them all.” Yes, the commonalities loom like the bitter fruit of a low-hanging vine. But a closer inspection of the various series, taking into account the idiosyncracies of how each locale and its denizens are treated, reveals the holistic repulsiveness of the Cohen/“Real Housewives” vision.

The most topical of all the “Real Housewives” series at the moment is the one set in Beverly Hills—which should more properly be titled “Camille Grammer and Friends,” given how much the latest season centered around the dissolution of Camille’s marriage to actor Kelsey Grammer. For the benefit of rolling cameras and her eventual alimony settlement, which she hopes is in the $60 million range, Mrs. Grammer spent early episodes of the season feigning shock as Kelsey flew to New York to be in a play and then revealed that he wanted to be rid of her, having replaced her with a 29-year-old. Hell hath no fury like a housewife scorned, of course, and Camille has spent her segments finding ways to make allegations against her husband’s character, such as charging that he is bisexual.

The intro to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” features all of the starlets asserting the credos by which they claim to live in soundbite form, a convenient technique for framing purposes. This device is employed in all shows in the series, allowing the viewer to decide for herself who her favorite—and least favorite—characters will be even before the action begins. These assertions are often laughably ironic, such as in the case of Mrs. Grammer, who talks of her need to get out of her husband’s shadow, even as it is obvious that, were it not for her husband’s prominence, no one would have heard of her.  She aspires to independent fame, but—like all the housewives—is defined by relation, by title. The season finale found her at the Tony Awards with a visibly detached Kelsey, who was clearly repulsed by his wife and the reality television invasion of his sphere, to the point of wearing sunglasses inside a dark limo. Camille’s drama, like that of quite a few of these women, indicates the title of “Real Housewife” is clouded with internal contradictions.

Many of these women are, even when the show begins, on the back end of some prominent rich fellow’s first marriage. Like a past-his-prime athlete being shown the door by a team tired of his diminishing performance, these women routinely are readying themselves for midlife divorces, which provide the drama—and occasionally the humor—of the series.

April 2011 coverIn “Real Housewives of New York,” LuAnn is introduced to the viewers as a “Countess” by dint of her marriage of European royalty. Predictably, it is revealed soon enough that the Count is through with her, which led her nemeses on the program to refer to her as the “Countless”. Her waterworks over the next few weeks of episodes would’ve been enough to flood a delta. That said, she got her groove back by recording a dance single entitled “Money Can’t Buy You Class,” a 4/4 floor-filler lowlighted by her voice, reminiscent of Klaus Nomi with estrogen treatments.

Countess LuAnn, throughout the New York series, has repeatedly found her femininity questioned by her rivals on the program. They say she looks like a drag queen and allege that the barest hint of an Adam’s apple mars her neck. Throughout most iterations of this series, the women make digs at each other’s femininity or authenticity, and perhaps to shield themselves from such critiques, they embrace exaggerated versions of femininity.

Probably the most prominent example of this is Kim Zolciak, notable for being the only Caucasian woman on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and known also for releasing, even before Countless Luann, her own instant club hit, “Tardy For The Party.”

But in the show’s universe, Zolciak is most famous for her collection of identical blond wigs, which she claims cost almost $500 a piece. The question of what her natural hair looks like has gone unanswered, even as she jumped from lover to lover—from the never seen or named “Big Daddy” to a lesbian music remixer to a defensive end for the NFL Falcons—in an attempt to assert herself through aggressively promoting her sexual identity in the few years she has left before menopause.

Many of these women find themselves in similar situations and either, like Zolciak, project promiscuity or retain a “permanent house guest” or trusted confidant—who is invariably a younger gay male, one who in some cases functions as a surrogate child for a barren marriage.  In any event, the women are losing a race against time, vainly holding on to the vestiges of their youth, that same youth that led them to make myriad compromises of previous identities in attempting to forge some new, fabulous, celebrity self.

Those who a decade or two ago asserted that the culture war was being lost couldn’t possibly have imagined that something as vapid yet revelatory as “The Real Housewives” would ever come to pass—but looked at in that context, the spectacle makes a certain sense. That these women aren’t particularly “real,” or in many cases aren’t housewives in even the loosest sense of the word, is fitting. They are simulacra, served up for the needs of a culture characterized by spiritual blankness and an inability to discern between right from wrong. If this is how the culture war ends, pity the winners.

A.G. Gancarski writes and teaches English in Jacksonville, Florida.

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