Gender, Power, The Real Housewives and The Help
Ostensibly, these are real people living their lives in front of the cameras, although footage is edited and crafted to be “good TV.” Recent episodes depict the trials and tribulations of wealthy women in Beverly Hills as Adrienne and Lisa balance their work lives with their personal lives, Kim and Kyle deal with sisterly issues, Camille and Brandi work through being newly single, and Taylor struggles with marital issues and (alleged) domestic abuse.
This season has been like watching a train wreck, you can’t look away even when you know a train wreck has already happened and that it will be ugly. The news had already reported that Taylor’s husband committed suicide. On the one hand, I didn’t want to see it at all but it has been fascinating to see how they’ve edited the stories to skirt the issue, yet also suggest factors that might have led to it.
Sociologically, it has been uber-fascinating and troubling since the story line is really about an abused spouse seeking solace and assistance from friends. She is deep into the cycle of violence, yet the entertainment factor of the show comes from the drama created as people misunderstand and have no idea how to help alleviate the situation.
A recent episode featured the (allegedly) abused spouse and her husband turned away from a party by the hostess and all of the friends because the husband had sent an email threatening lawsuits based on previous on camera mention of the abuse. As they turned the couple away from the party, it was obvious that they were sending their friend off with her (alleged) abuser, armed with information that she had told them about the abuse. This was not a safe situation by any means.
The show focuses on beautiful appearances and social class achievements. The women celebrate high heels, sparkly jewelry and clothing, and experiences afforded them by their (apparent) wealth. Some of the women are dependent on men for their wealth and fame while others are depicted as their own source of support. In either case, they spend most of their time gossiping and hosting parties for each other, but clearly the women on the show deal with deeper issues that what may first meet the eye.
By contrast, the movie, The Help presents a story of fighting injustice through diverse large and small ways. Medgar Evers was briefly depicted to give the historical context and culture of fear (when he was murdered) yet most of the situations focused on the day-to-day activities of household tasks and child rearing.
The film depicts some of the life issues in the segregated south from women’s perspectives on both sides of the class and race divide. There are characters representing the extremes such as racist Hilly, hardworking Abilene, and no-nonsense Minnie. (However, those extremes can also be perceived as stereotypes as they reinforce ideas about who white and black women would be in these situations.)
Skeeter, Abilene, and Minnie see injustice and speak out about it. They are all attempting to change the system, the society, to alleviate the injustice so that they and others would not have to experience it.
The Housewives, on the other hand, see potential danger for their friend yet their way of dealing with it is not on a systemic level; it is a purely personal (and self-involved) perspective. They define the domestic violence issue as a personal problem, not as a symptom of societal dysfunction.
The Housewives could do much more to deal with issues such as domestic abuse, yet the focus is on their individual lives rather than how this is a problem with a wider reach. Wealthy women have long worked for charities, albeit mostly for those that benefit their social position or personal experiences. (A great book on this is Susan Ostrander’s book Women of the Upper Class.)
On previous episodes, Taylor’s charity work for survivors of domestic abuse was mentioned, but after she was “outed” as an abused spouse, there was no other reference to domestic abuse as a social problem.
Why are the Housewives focused on the personal aspects rather than the political? Perhaps unlike Skeeter, Abilene, and Minnie, their higher social class position doesn’t motivate them to challenge the system. The system works for them (theoretically) since they have access to financial success and the “better things” in life. Why challenge a system that seems to work? When problems occur in the upper levels of the social hierarchy, one isn’t likely to challenge the system, one just finds ways to either resolve the problem for that person or one moves on. Abilene and the others don’t have that luxury.
Those in the higher levels will not join the fight to address systemic problems until those problems affect them in insurmountable ways or they clearly understand how societal issues make those problems intractable.
Until the Housewives see that they are negatively impacted by our society’s socially constructed gender hierarchy, they are not likely to fight for resolving injustice. Instead, they are likely to keep getting cosmetic surgery, shop and eat out, and host parties while they talk about their friends and acquaintances who have personal problems with money or relationships. This might be great drama—and great ratings—but it will not create social change.