Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oh To Be White, Rich & Thin

(My Wednesday post on Eat Our Brains)

Bob hates reality TV. What he really hates is the elimination at the end of so many reality shows, where someone is ritually exiled from the group, their torch is put out, the supermodel tells them they’re ‘out’, they are fired, or they are told to pack their knives and go. Which may explain part of the appeal of the show that has snagged Bob. Folding laundry one night, searching the TV for something to distract him, he came across The Real Housewives of Orange County. And now he’s a fan.

The Real Housewives follows six white, upper-class straight women who live in Orange County. They depict the Orange County lifestyle, which according to the show is gated communities of McMansions, Republicanism, rampant materialism and boob jobs. Cameras follow them around to catch them at their most entertaining worst. We are there when one of them goes to a consultation with a plastic surgeon to get her breast implants removed because her doctor says her DD’s are the cause of her back issues and her husband complains that he doesn’t want her to go too small.

Part of it is the unsparing but uninsightful eye of the camera. We see what the women do and what they say, but other than superficial commentary from the women themselves, we never get any real insight into why, for example, Vicki is so driven and controlling in her business and with her children, or why she drinks so hard at parties. (“They say I did a ‘woo-woo’ shot with the bartender,” she says, “but I don’t remember it.” A pause. “I don’t!” And then we see her on film, doing a shot with the bartender and shrieking ‘woo-woo!’ with him.) There is an old saying that people who marry for money earn every dime. The same might be said for these women, who may not have married for money, per se, but who certainly pay a price for their devotion to what they call ‘the OC lifestyle.’ Many have been married a couple of times, several have difficult issues with children, all of them have issues with their bodies.

Bob finds the show to be as compelling as a car wreck. He can’t stop being fascinated. At the same time he’s forever appalled by the fake hair, the botox, the excessive make-up, the clothes, the giant houses, the money, the waste of it all. Still, much as the camera works to catch them at their most stereotypical (Quinn, 52, dating a 26 year old or Tamra, who at 40 has just become a realtor, showing a house that comes with a Ferrari, Jeana, the ex Playmate, complaining that her husband only married her for her looks and the sex and when she gained weight, there was nothing holding their marriage together any more) and there are plenty of ‘do they realize what they look like’ moments, there are also moments when they become people it’s hard not to care about. Particularly in their dealings with their children, sometimes troubled, sometimes materialistic, sometimes touching, but usually as complex, flawed and human as any parent, anywhere.

There is a long strain in America of wanting to see evidence that the rich are not better, but that they are shallow, vain, materialistic and that we, the middle class, actually live more fulfilling lives. It’s a staple of movies and television. It’s part of our fixation with Brittany. We like to think that being rich means being out of balance. The Real Housewives of Orange County caters to that. It’s a cartoon of bleached hair and tans. It works to catch every shallow moment. There’s few moments of poignancy. It’s mostly fast food television, simplistic, superficial. It’s the opposite of The Sopranos, a fiction that dramatized the complexity of the emotional lives of people who could have been portrayed as just as tasteless and excessive. Of course, part of the problem is that The Real Housewives isn’t fiction. Heisenberg’s recognition that observation alters the object observed is really happening here. People are working for the camera and those moment of feeling probably happen off camera, in private, behind closed doors. Even if it sometimes seems as if these people have no shame, that they will say and do almost anything on TV, it’s true that their secret selves, mostly hidden even from them, are probably completely hidden from us.

The season ended last night. I suspect we’ll be there next season, watching to see if Vicki ends up at Hazelton.


Blogger Ted said...

There is a long strain in America of wanting to see evidence that the rich are not better, but that they are shallow, vain, materialistic and that we, the middle class, actually live more fulfilling lives.

Do you think this is a specifically American attitude? Isn't there a long tradition in Christianity (and other religions) of viewing wealth as spiritually bad?

Heisenberg’s recognition that observation alters the object observed

I know this isn't really your point, but that wasn't what Heisenberg discovered.

January 23, 2008 9:47 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I know Heisenberg is really famous for the uncertainty principal, which holds that if you know the location of a particle, you can't know it's position, and if you know the position, you can't know it's momentum. But as I understand it (and this is a limited understanding, I mean, I certainly couldn't even begin to follow the math) that related to the observer effect? or did someone other than Heisenberg make that observation?

January 23, 2008 9:57 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Wouldn't it be awesome to have a show like that where the "contestants" could be voted out? And, say, start over as hippie ceramic artists in Flagstaff?

January 24, 2008 12:55 AM  
Blogger David Moles said...

My understanding is that what Heisenberg discovered was that particles don't really have a defined position or momentum, just a range of probabilities for each, and the higher your ability to estimate one, the lower your ability to estimate the other.

He seems to have given an observer-interference example as a thought experiment ("Heisenberg's microscope"), which is probably where the confusion comes from. (I mean, apart from the fact that quantum mechanics is confusing to begin with, for those of us who grew up this far from the Planck scale.)

January 24, 2008 1:03 AM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Ted, I think what sets the contemporary American attitude apart is the idea that the rich must be unhappy in this life.

January 24, 2008 1:04 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

Thanks for providing that explanation, David. That may have been more useful than what I was going to say, which was this: Heisenberg uncertainty has effects even when no observation is involved. For example, black holes evaporate because of virtual particles appearing near their event horizons; those virtual particles are a result of energy-time uncertainty, which is equivalent to position-momentum uncertainty. Short-lived particles are popping in and out of existence all the time, whether anyone's looking or not.

David, that's an interesting point about the contemporary American attitude toward the rich. But I took Maureen to be commenting on the idea that the rich behave badly, not that they're unhappy. And the idea that the rich behave badly is, I think, very old.

January 24, 2008 4:18 AM  
Blogger Jackie M. said...

Ted, what are you objecting to exactly? I'm not sure that Maureen's usage in that throw-away comment was inconsistent with either the Copenhagen interpretation, or Heisenberg's role in popularizing it.

I mean, aside from the fact that housewives are macroscopic, and therefore QM effects are negligible.

(I have nothing to add to the discussion about the actual content of the post... other than after reading Maureen's post and looking at the RHOC website, I then spent the rest of my afternoon feeling depressed and weary about the whole thing.)

January 24, 2008 4:21 AM  
Blogger Jackie M. said...

Sorry, Ted, cross-post.

January 24, 2008 4:23 AM  

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