As a working mother who lives in the Washington-metro area, I admit that I was dreading Bravo's new program The Real Housewives of D.C. (began August 5). I took some comfort in The Washington Post's scathing advance review of it:
Every word of the title is wrong, except "the" and "of."
Real: What can that even mean anymore?
Housewives: Remember when that bordered on slur? The surgically taut eyes of certain Real Housewives must ache from wink-winking every time Bravo has them say the name of the show.
D.C.: Always the ultimate artificial no place ...
What woman in her right mind would submit to this charade?
Bravo's botox-injected shouting match that makes women look like idiots is coming to my town. In their defense, Bravo insists that the D.C. series will have more intellectual and political content, being socially relevant. But I doubt it. Bravo, which used to toy with cultural irony regarding materialism now cloys us with "real" Lindsey Lohans (sans the talent) and slightly better-educated Snookies as a way to boost the ratings.
I'm no snob when it comes to reality TV. I love Top Chef (also Bravo) and confess to have sobbed more than a few times while watching The Biggest Loser -- both of which actually have some moral content. What is the point of the Real Housewives? Is this pure escapism? Is it an alternative reality for recession-weary women? A mirror into middle-class aspirations? What women secretly wish to be?
Whatever it is intended to be (my tween daughter says that it is only supposed to be "funny"), the main problem with the Real Housewives franchise is that it depicts women using stereotypes in a way to entertain that, if inflicted on any racial or ethnic group, would give rise to legal action, boycotts, and public outcry. It pictures women as grown-up mean girls, the sort everyone hated in high school and who have now parleyed their cruel social climbing to the bigger stages of New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and D.C. The shows denigrate women by implying that they get ahead by being materialistic gossips and marrying the right men. Even the criticism lends itself to demeaning women. Example? The mostly-liberal Washington Post likens the word "housewife" to a "slur" and asks what woman would "submit" to the being on such a show.
Excuse me, both Bravo and WaPo, but "housewife" is neither glam-reality nor a slur, especially in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. And women here are not the submissive type. Washington women toil at raising their children, work at home and in offices, run businesses and the federal government, volunteer at non-profits, and serve in religious communities. The real women of D.C. spend their time caring for others, nurturing the next generation, and trying to make the world a better place. We sit in traffic jams and on corporate boards. We are creative, energetic, busy, and often overwhelmed. And, for what it is worth, we are too invested in working hard and doing good to spend even an hour watching a show that does not come close to the reality of our lives.
When I think of my D.C. housewife/mom friends and neighbors (who are politically and theologically liberal and conservative; who are Christians, Jews, Muslims, and secularists), I do not think of some faux-Hollywood glamor. Instead, they bring to mind the description of the good wife of Proverbs 31. Although this passage is often hijacked by conservative Christians to keep women "in their place," it is a surprisingly apt description of contemporary women -- and most especially, religious feminists. In the words of the writer of Proverbs, the "capable" wife "works with willing hands" and "rises while it is still night and provides food for her household." She is savvy, charitable, just, creative, strong, and dignified; and she "opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue." She "looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness."
The Real Housewives of Proverbs 31? It would be closer to reality than any of the Bravo celebri-wives, who make a mockery of the ancient wise words "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Could that be the actual point Bravo is trying to make? Maybe. But I suspect not.
Diana Butler Bass blogs at Christianity for the Rest of Us and The Huffington Post, and is the author of A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. This article is cross-posted from Beliefnet.