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.