Housewives in catfights: TV’s misrepresentation of the domestic woman

Love it or hate it, the Real Housewives series is enormously successful. The reality programme documents the real-life dramas of wealthy housewives, with little attention given to their almost exclusively male partners. Programmes entirely about women, let alone real ones, are so few and far-between that this series might easily be mistaken for feminist TV. Sadly, it represents exactly the opposite.

Real Housewives largely follows women who live of their husbands’ wealth. Be it in Beverly Hills, Miami, or New York City, this show supports outdated stereotypes of marriage, and more specifically, wives. The men work, while the women deal with affairs of the house. This reinforcement of traditional gender roles is hardly liberating or inspiring for the thousands of women who watch such programmes. The representation of the housewives is rarely flattering. They tend to come across as superficial, narcissistic, and just plain bitchy. I don’t doubt that there are many positive aspects within their complex personalities, but in order to create drama and keep viewers entertained, the production teams seem to specialise in teasing out the nastier elements of their interactions.

So herein lies my issue with shows like this: the ‘reality’ that they display not only isn’t even vaguely real, but it plays into negative, and harmful, stereotypes. Programmes like this completely undermine the harsher realities of being a housewife, perpetuating the notion that there is little more to the job than manicures and catfights.

Another problematic show that this inaccurate portrayal of housewives brings to mind is Desperate Housewives. Here we have more women, with homes as immaculate as their hairstyles, who seem to have nothing to do other than to poke their noses in everyone else’s business. Each of them seems to represent a negative stereotype about women: Bree is neurotic, Gabrielle is portrayed as an over-sexualised object, Susan is weak and dependent on men, and Mary Alice is vengeful. Lynette struggles with balancing a career and a family, giving up on her career aspirations to be a housewife, while her husband continues to work. Compared to the others, she looks permanently exhausted and dishevelled. For a woman, clearly a career and a family are incompatible.

What’s really sad is that these programmes are made and set in the 21st century. They aren’t exploring the difficulties of navigating gender relations and the changing nature of a woman’s work in a time when they’re actually relevant. The women in Mad Men, for example, are developed and complex characters in a time when the roles of both housewives and professional women were changing. There is a point to their portrayals, one that makes for genuinely interesting viewing. This could not be more polar opposite to the women on Real Housewives, seemingly the only point to their portrayal being entertainment at the expense of their complexity. Their superficiality makes them seem less and less real. We don’t empathise when they’re upset, we just sit back and enjoy the drama.

I’m hoping that our fascination for these shows stems from the fact that we’ve moved past this archaic view of the domestic sphere being the woman’s domain, and so these women’s lives represent something unfamiliar. Sadly, I think it is more likely to come from a particularly unpleasant cocktail of internalised misogyny and morbid enjoyment of others’ discontent. When the presence of women in the media is still so much smaller than that of men, female-driven shows like Real Housewives need to do more of a credit to the women that they represent.

Image: Lucy Southen

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