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The Real(est) Housewives of Orange County

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The Real Housewives of Orange County (RHOC) is a reality television program aired on Bravo. The show focuses on five “housewives? Jo De La Rosa, Vicki Gunvalson, Jeana Keough, Lauri Waring, Tammy Knickerbocker and their families who live within a gated community in Coto de Caza, California. I watched a marathon of the show’s second season over spring break (March 12-16) which concentrated, primarily, on the personal growth of the five housewives and their relationships with each other, their husbands / fiancées / boyfriends and their children. The show airs every Tuesday in Bravo at 9pm. Wikipedia says that Bravo is owned by NBC and that the umbrella target audience of the network is to ages 25-54, affluent, educated and tech-savvy males and females (mostly women and gay men) with high levels of disposable income. As I watched the marathon of five or six episodes there were a few commercials that stood out to me: Ranging from Queen Latifah for CoverGirl makeup, Hovercraft, an automated wheelchair-scooter for the elderly, Trio, a trendy what’s new email listserv, previews for upcoming family-friendly movies and hip new household cleaning supplies, the commercials I saw seemed to target a mostly female audience, specifically young affluent mothers.

I had watched the show before for fun, often noticing various gender, class, and racial stereotypes and negative portrayals, but never looked at the show intending to do a feminist intersectional analysis, which I am now doing. I am not surprised to say that I have found a lot more I can talk about now, especially considering I am doing a feminist intersectional analysis focusing on gender, class, race, bodies/identities, and sexualities and how the shows portrayals of specific characters creates and/or perpetuates stereotypes which could (potentially) affect its audiences.

The cast of RHOC consists primarily of White, (except Jo who is looks and passes for being White except when she uses her “spicy? Peruvian descent to exotifiy herself a little bit or to make herself stand out when she needs to, more on this later) all-heterosexual, all-upper class men and women, with the women outnumbering the men doubly. All of the women in RHOC are prime examples as Michael Messner theorizes in his article, Becoming 100% Straight, of “doing heterosexual.? They dress up, look and act the part of the stereotypical valley-(heterosexual) girl. These real housewives of the OC are anything but; from the unlimited tanning packages, fake nail tips, platinum blond hair and extensions, silicon breasts, eyelifts, face lifts, monthly Botox injections, liposuctions, and gym/Pilates memberships, these women are carefully and precisely sculpted, chiseled, and toned – after all, they have the money, why not look every cent of it? The women are shown for a majority of the episode getting dressed, shopping, or partaking in “typical girl-bonding? over lunch, manicure/pedicures, drinks, or facials while their men just show up and are there. A person who did not grow up or live in Coto might think that in California, all rich White women shop at Jimmy Choo and their only concern or drama has to do with the various men (husbands, fiancés, boyfriends, or sons) in their lives.

The importance of class does not seem to be at all important to these five housewives, until someone gets divorced and loses a majority of her (husband’s) income and is then replaced, when she has to leave the gated community because it is too expensive, by another affluent housewife who lives in Coto. These women do not shop like celebrities in that they are extravagant, but they do spend more than the average consumer. From spending thousands in shoes, purses, clothes, bar tabs, gifts, cosmetic surgery, and expensive real estate, these housewives are quite skilled in charging everything to their Black Cards. While there is no way an average person can compete with the power they have and can buy with their money, they are still one step closer to the average person, because they aren’t celebrities…yet. With the exception of Jo, the housewives have married into money or made money themselves, I thought it ironic that the one Woman of Color came into money when her family won the California lottery – it was only then could she move into Coto and take up residency as one of the fab five.
Race affects the audiences of RHOC very little, if that. Jo the only Woman of Color (WOC) is barely noticeable as a non-White female. She never does anything “ethnic? or “cultural,? she doesn’t talk about her heritage, speak in any other language other than English and she never actually identifies as a WOC unless she is trying to spice up herself to her new target audience - the music industry. There are no other People of Color in the show at all, none in the high-end stores, in the pricy restaurants and bars, in the exclusive gym, in the gated neighborhood, or anywhere – it’s Whitesville! This is definitely a show that subscribes to the notion that if the issue of race (or lack of it) isn’t brought up, it isn’t present, and if it isn’t present, it doesn’t bother anyone and the cast seem to be quite comfortable with that.

This show depicts a common portrayal of the perfect body image. Thin is in. All of the housewives, their daughters, husbands, sons, friends, boyfriends, and fiancées are in very good shape – the only thing I don’t understand is the camera never records anyone in the gym or purging after a meal. They are just magically thin, even though they are constantly eating out and drinking sugary alcoholic drinks. Tammy’s daughter Megan was some 250+ pounds when she was little and she told this sad story of being teased and picked on when she was a child because she was so fat. Now, she just smokes a lot and stays perfectly skinny, looks like she is sending out the message that she would rather have lung cancer than be overweight. I also found the lack of eating disorders among the characters interesting, no one has an eating problem and everyone who lives in Orange County seems perfectly healthy and skinny. Deborah Sarbin comments on the media’s impact on women and their body image:
“In terms of the media, we continue to face the relentless homogenizing of the female body. Makeovers, fashion’s downsizing in contrast to the reality of average size increasing (Richard Klein [1996] 1998, p. 37), the pressure to be whatever one is not [forever young, forever slim], all fly in the face of natural progression, deny change and so infantilize women by freezing their appearance in their 20s.? (Sarbin, Deborah. The Short, Happy Life of Plus-size Women’s Fashion Magazines.)

Each of the five women has had something cosmetically “fixed? and their daughters are well on their way to having breast implants or nose jobs. Debra Gimlin in Cosmetic Surgery: Paying For Your Beauty says that “…the women who undergo plastic surgery are simply making do within a culture that they believe judges and rewards them for their looks.? This is very true in the housewives in the OC. They see their image as identities that can be bought and modified, they are “turning ‘abnormal’ bodies into ‘normal’ ones, plastic surgery succeeds: the woman who participates in plastic surgery comes to possess the foundation (i.e., a normal body) of a normative self.? (Gimlin, Debra. Cosmetic Surgery: Paying for Your Beauty.) Cosmetic surgery seems almost second nature to the cast of RHOC. If they need it, they get it. But who is to say if they need it for not? A fierce competition is seen within the circle of the fab five. They are still loving and caring friends, but nevertheless are conditioned by our patriarchal society to judge and compete with each other. One housewife even got breast implants not too long after she moved in to Coto because she noticed that the other housewives were more endowed than she was naturally. Gimlin writes that “Women participate in cosmetic surgery in a world that limits their choices and in which the flawed body is taken as a sign of a flawed character.? (Cosmetic Surgery: Paying for Your Beauty.) I believe shows like this one and characters like these housewives create a near-impossible goal unnaturally to which the average person tries so desperately to achieve naturally.

In terms of sexuality, there is only one type in RHOC – heterosexual. Other sexual identities are not even talked about at all. None of the characters identify as gay/lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Even the most minor characters are straight. In the perfect world of the gated Coto community every couple heterosexual, rich, and White; this is apparent in almost every reality TV show on the market right now, “consequently, there has been a growth in reality shows that focus on heterosexual sex, relationships, and marriage.? (Fairclough, Kristy. Women’s work? Wife Swamp and the reality problem). The reason the media focuses on the heterosexual couples is because that’s what they think the majority want to see, and that is what they think the majority is comprised of. No matter the benefits to be had if the media exposed audiences to a diverse group of identities and introduced variety in a positive light – no that would just be a great use of a mass media communication tool, that wouldn’t benefit the top one percent of the world (ironically comprised of old rich White straight men) financially, would it? Ah, well. I’m off to watch an episode of Desperate Housewives. Reality TV is not for me at all, at least DH is fiction and I know that similarities between the two shows are simply coincidental and not at all indicative of present day society…or are they?

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