02.26.09

Wives Gone Wild!

Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise doesn’t just showcase America’s funniest home catfights. It’s a post-feminist nightmare that preys on women’s shallowest, least-attractive qualities. And I can’t stop watching.

Even before the start of Bravo’s back-to-back episodes of the season finale of The Real Housewives of Orange County and second-season premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City, I was already transfixed, pinned at the edge of my living-room sofa as the coming attraction caused my heart to race:

“HOLY CATFIGHT!” screeched Bethenny Frankel, one of the New York posse, as she was broadcasted reading a New York Post Page Six banner item about the show’s feuding, arriviste cast members.

“To exploit your life is revolting but to explore your life is exciting,” Kelly Killoren Bensimon said. “I wanted the world to see I have a strong moral code. I just wanted to be authentic and genuine.”

Embarrassing as it is to admit, especially since I like to think of myself as a feminist—if not exactly in practice, then surely in principle—my particular reality-TV craving is for sit-dramas powered by a distinctly voracious strain of enmity-cum-amity between two-faced, fire-breathing, airtime-hogging females.

The current formula goes something like this: Trail a geographically specific coterie of attractive-enough extroverts with double X chromosomes and manageable personality disorders. (Read: OCD, histrionic, narcissistic, paranoid, borderline.) Toss a Cinderella- or Stockholm Syndrome-type victim into the mix and presto! The claws come out, the viewers tune in.

“Reality TV looks for someone who is a drama queen—feisty, forthright, a colorful character—at the same time, without so much pathology that they won’t crack up on the set,” confirmed Dr. Jean Cirillo, a Long Island, New York, psychologist who evaluates reality-TV participants. “They want women because they don’t resort to bodily injuries as men do. They choose a person who has exaggerated traits that everyone has to some degree, whether it’s sexual aggression or cattiness. Their conflicts make for a good story. If everyone was nice to everybody all the time, there’d be no plot.”

Ergo, Bravo’s winning soap triad: The Real Housewives of Orange County, which premiered in 2006, followed by last spring’s The Real Housewives of New York City, and this past fall’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta. (A fourth series featuring New Jersey housewives is in the works.)

Rejecting old-school notions of feminist solidarity, Bravo's she-beast housewives are constantly vying to stay ahead of their own pack, even if—no, especially if—it demands catfights, gossip mongering, and disloyalty. Without ever pulling a punch, they engage in actions that are as ruthless and harmful as physical violence, TV's unlady-like ladies’ alternative to professional wrestling’s simulated battering and theatrical chest-beating. More specifically, the housewives’ antics, both verbal and nonverbal, are diagnosed as “female relational aggression," a socio-psychological term referring to the specific way girls and women use relationships to hurt another, pitting individuals against each other, and forging alliances to deliberately exclude someone. A barbed tongue remains a female's most lethal weapon, instigating a war of words curdling with ridicule and betrayal.

No one knows this better than the media-savvy sextet of New York City housewives, or “skinny bitches,” as they called themselves, clinking Champagne flutes. In last week’s premiere episode, which filmed the cast mostly summering in the Hamptons, fangs were bared because Alex and Simon McCord, the show’s wannabe socialite couple from Brooklyn, had been written up in New York magazine, wherein Simon made a dig at one of the other housewives, Jill Zarin, implying she was déclassé because she was from Long Island. She, in turn, retaliated by getting Cindy Adams, the New York Post gossip columnist, to print the banner headline item that earlier prompted Bethenny's "Holy catfight!" alert. It said that Simon was a lush, prone to insults. Would the adversaries come to blows when they spied each other at the same East End party? If only!

“The women are larger than life, both in their personal lives and the way they live,” said Andy Cohen, a senior vice president at Bravo, explaining why the company saw potential for a series after receiving a videotape of some of the Orange County housewives. “We wanted to see if there was a modern Peyton Place where women were redefining the dream of what it means to be a modern housewife.”

Is this guy for real? The last time the words “dream” and “housewife” were paired in the same sentence was when they were put to death back in 1963, the year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.

But I’ll grant Andy this: The housewives appear to occupy a mesmerizing parallel universe where they are fed, driven, dressed and groomed, their needs met without ever lifting a finger. They are definitely more diva than domestic and I can’t envision any one of them ever imperiling their manicures for a sink full of dishes. Consequently, given the cratering economy and national belt-tightening, it seems perfectly plausible that viewers would get a voyeuristic lift either from the small-minded squabbling of those who supposedly enjoy an embarrassment of riches, or simply from ogling the luxe appurtenances of Gotham’s pico-population that need not cut back on their limousine-style living.

“If you’re a single mother or a women at the bottom of the female pile facing a low glass ceiling, a program about women of leisure, living by the post-feminist argument, 'girls gotta have fun,' who are rich, with a wealthy man as a provider, and the means to pay attention to their bodies so that they remain ever-desirable to men, this is the highest goal to which a woman in fantasy can achieve,” explained Dr. Phyllis Chesler, a professor emeritus in psychology and women’s studies at New York University, as well as the author of Women’s Inhumanity to Women.

“It's a guilty escape,” she added. “You're eating chocolates for the mind."

Personally, I have no problem with mind candy or high-maintenance housewives either. A hypocrite I would be if I did, considering 1) I thrive on these dopey shows and 2) I’m disinclined to step outside without a full face of makeup. But, what makes the Bravo women dually cringe-inducing and comical is their supreme self-involvement and absolute lack of self-awareness.

Consider this: During a phone interview with the New York City housewives’ newcomer, the enviably leggy and majorly full-of-herself Kelly Killoren Bensimon, she explained her reasons for joining the show:

“To exploit your life is revolting but to explore your life is exciting,” she said. “I wanted the world to see I have a strong moral code. I just wanted to be authentic and genuine.”

At least when I asked Ramona (yet another New York Housewife, whose most-notable trait is her repeated tendency to unapologetically saunter in a party flagrantly late then storm out without any reason whatsoever) why she thought women were drawn to the show, she told it like it is: “We may live a little more luxuriously but all women can relate,” she said. “What makes me happy? Me, myself, and I.” (I remained faithful to the succession of her wording.)

Without any sense of irony, Ramona and Kelly, like nearly all of the other Orange County, Atlanta and New York City housewives, never offer a wink-wink to the audience to convey an understanding that their notoriety is nothing but reality-TV dross (one exception: the comparatively unpretentious New York natural-foods chef, Bethenny, who, though not a housewife but a divorcée with a spine of steel, said of reality TV, “Either go big, or go home!”) Despite their self-delusions, none of the women are remarkably talented or creative, though some are philanthropically inclined and all are opportunistic. So why on Earth aren’t we simply flipping the channel?

“It’s a female outlet for aggression, with the viewer achieving vicarious pleasure,” reasons Dr. Cirillo. “You can identify with the aggressor or you can identify with the victim. In the happy ending, the victim wins and you can vicariously enjoy her retaliation against the other woman. She gets back at the biggest bitch.”

Similarly, Andrea Lavinthal and Jessica Rozler, authors of Friend or Frenemy: A Guide to Friends You Need and the Ones You Don’t, point out that Bravo’s "bitchy jackals," as the authors call them, are an extreme version of real personages and that watching them enables the viewer to glory in self-superiority.

“This makes people feel better about their own lives,” confirmed Lavinthal. “The women have all this money and you think if you were that rich, you’d never act like this. Or maybe these shows make you feel better because you’ve been in a similar situation where you have a friend who you’re a little bit afraid of.”

OK. I'm ready to reveal my secret now, make my confession. Three years ago, I almost had my 15 seconds of fame on a Bravo pilot. It was intended as a reality-TV equivalent to Sex and the City and was the brainchild of a downtown, female writer who would play the Carrie Bradshaw character, with three sidekick friends, a gay guy who did something like party planning, a cute, late-20s, hipster chick from Brooklyn who made T-shirts and yours truly, who—in real life separated from her husband, newly single mother of a teenage son, the author of a tell-all, erotically graphic memoir and a short-lived sex columnist for the New York Post—would play the role of Samantha.

After my screen test, when I was picked, I won’t lie, I did feel as if I’d been discovered—found and filtered out of the amorphousness and namelessness of all humanity, thanks to the right people finally realizing I emanated a special sparkle, making me more luminous than ordinary mortals. If my stars remained in alignment and I also played my cards right, I could create a future that extended far beyond the 900 square feet of my apartment.

The episode of the pilot in which I made my first and only appearance took place on the "set" of a Tribeca restaurant that had closed for the afternoon of our shooting. The gay guy, the T-shirt girl, and I were seated at a table where, before the taping, we made our introductions, though we were supposedly gathering as BFFs of the downtown writer who had some really huge news to share. Making a delayed entrance, she breathlessly took her seat, nearly self-detonating with excitement as she launched into a riff:

“He-proposed-last-night-and-now-I’m-engaged-but-OHMIGOD!-can-I-ever-be-faithful-to-one-man-for-the-rest-of-my-life?-Everyone-tell-me-what-you-think-because-I’m-hysterical!!!!!

Suddenly, I had an out-of-body experience. As the other two "friends" offered flat congratulations, asking the obvious, like “When’s the wedding?” and “Are you excited?,” I was hovering above, sickened at the burlesque I was making of myself: tricked out with professional lash extensions that I’d gotten earlier in the day, a brand new, cleavage-bearing Roberto Cavalli floral silk-corset top, the better to show off my artificially enhanced breasts, my brunette hair styled, sprayed and sexily mussed, as if I’d just gotten out of bed, and my mouth, perfectly Restylane-plumped, had its own little motor that was churning out sarcastic, cynical quips about the virtues of marital infidelity:

“No man can give you everything so be discreet and take the pressure off your husband by outsourcing your needs to one or more paramours and that way you’ll be happy at home,” I deadpanned, or said something along those lines.

Right then, I could feel the camera and klieg lights glowering at me, their intensity amplifying and distorting my character, driving up the outrageous quotient so that I, now under the spell of Agent Orange-contaminated fairy stardust, was transformed into Gorgon-headed monster, hissing and spitting at men, decrying them as good for only two things: the bed and the bank.

The producers loved me.

I wanted to slither down a gutter storm drain. So I pulled a “Ramona” and walked off the set, refusing to come back. Short of bribing me with a Caribbean weekend getaway, the producers tried everything to get me to return, from the possibility of my own reality show if this one took off to warning that if I refused to cooperate, I could forget any future in TV, not that I ever had such ambitions, at least not until Bravo came along. Every time the phone rang and the caller ID revealed it to be the production office, I would let it go to voicemail, praying for a rescue mission from a witness protection program for reality TV escapees.

Today, I remain thankful for whatever higher power intervened, protecting me from signing the consent waiver that would have sealed my ignominy. But, to play it safe, I am religious about watching the Real Housewives, a terrifying and humbling reminder, “There, but for the grace of God go I.” But still, somewhere in the back of my brain is the notion that if given a second chance, with the help of the right hairdresser, makeup artist and cleavage-bearing designer dress, I could go pedicured-toe-to-pedicured-toe with any one of those New York skinny bitches.

Elizabeth Hayt is a writer in New York, a former New York Post sex columnist, and the author of I'm No Saint: Memoir of a Wayward Wife.