January 19, 2012

Gender, Power, The Real Housewives and The Help

imageBy Sally Raskoff

clip_image002The time has come to admit that I watch some of the “Real Housewives” shows, most recently, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. These shows are fascinating from a sociological perspective. 

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.

clip_image004A 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.


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You may expect too much of the Real Housewives. Women in general may be impacted negatively by the gender hierarchy, but the Real Housewives receive many positive benefits, since as women at the highest levels of the hierarchy, they are not likely to relate to many women of other classes. Also, in The Help, Celia Foote is an exception to the rule in treating Minnie as a friend and helping her leave her abusive husband.

Women are strong, real fighters. Women go through a lot and most men don't realize it. Housewives and The Help, show what lots of women around the world go through.

I believe everything that you said. Women do go through a lot and i don't believe that men can see what all women can do. Women are very strong and they have good mentalities and know a lot of things that you don't think they would know, They are strong willed and will do what they think is best for not only themselves but others.

The Help was a wonderful movie and it really did show how important the role of women is in society.

In the Help, woman gender roles are really shown and not in a good way. There is a lot of sexism in the world today and the movie really showed how hard women work and that they are very strong people.

I agree about women being strong, and having major roles in society, but we are not helping our case by going out to get plastic surgery, or go out shopping all the time. Thus shoving women right back into the stereotypes given to us. This article is a prime example of how we still try to buy our happiness, and not even focus on the real deeper issues at hand.

I know by myself watching the Real Housewives on my TV gives me a good laugh every now and then, but it then makes me realize how fake they are by getting all these plastic surgeries to make themselves look "better." We as women shouldn't have to fulfill the stereotypes that were given to us. We should have to buy our way to be happy, or feel that we have to look a certain way to be happy. It just all disgusts me.

this show could just be a whole screenplay and just having all that drama and other stuff going on in that show is just a role.

The show really gives viewers a good look inside the lives of the wealthy women in society and how they interact, dress, think, and overall live. With the recent death of housewife Taylor Armstrong's husband, Russell Armstrong,the program is especially is interesting to watch. It gives the picture of the falling out of their relationship and possibly a clue to why he committed suicide.

This was an interesting article. I think, based on the social connections of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and the different types of research in sociology, a sociologist can conduct a sample of field research. The show is, after all, being captured in their natural environment.

Watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is very interesting I agree. You can see the world through these women's perspective which is very different from most people's. These women have money and don't think much beyond what they are going to wear to the party, where they are going for vacation, and what their next surgury will be. You also get to see the sociological perspective; how they all interact and behave as a group not just each individual woman. You also see the power each of them has, the ability to control behavior of others.

So true. The Housewives are so caught up with their wealth and social standing that they truly believe that money can make all their problems disappear; unfortunately, we know this isn't the case, and they're only breeding more social chaos by publicly doing nothing about it. The viewpoint from The Help was very contrasting because they don't have the influential power of money to solve their problems; thus, they have to battle society head-on.

I think that shows like these do not truly depict "real housewives" in America. They glamorize the role of being a housewife. In our society, there are many dual-employed marriages, yet the wives end up taking on the extra household duties. Even wives who do not work are not accurately represented in these shows.

Personally, I believe that all of this is true. The values of the housewives and the things that they choose to spend their money on and waste their time with are so insignificant compared to the other issues out there. I really wish they would take the time to address the abuse, they have the spotlight and the power in the media to really make a difference. Its unfortunate that people with such influence in our society do not make use of it, and others like the characters of Minnie and Abilene struggle to speak the littlest things on their minds and are punished when they do so.

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