Surreal Housewives: On Bravo's Hit Show, the Gender Roles Are as Artificial as the Spray-On Tans

Article excerpt

NEW YEAR'S EVE celebrations on television are as old as the medium itself, and just as predictable, right down to the still-annual use of Dick Clark as a presenter. The holiday, for all its scripted debauchery, is still an occasion when people take comfort in the familiar. This is especially true for certain television executives, such as the increasingly ubiquitous Andy Cohen, executive vice president of original programming and development at the Bravo Network.

Cohen is responsible for a couple of dozen shows on Bravo and rang in the New Year hosting a special in the so called "Bravo clubhouse"--picture a talk-show set with three rows of couches and seating. Its casual mixture of the bizarre, the insipid, and the profane was impressive to behold, a measure of both the evolving American zeitgeist and Cohen's role as an arbiter of and a responder to it.

The parade of horrors--where to begin? The show featured everything from a cat and a Chihuahua being pronounced married to an extended appearance by the zaftig bottle-blonde Meghan McCain, whose presence was inexplicable unless one knew that she has been bucking for a reality show since last fall, even meeting the head of Bravo in October and promptly tweeting "So cool, love those housewives" immediately thereafter.

So why not include Miss McCain in this cavalcade that includes interspecies nuptials and a bevy of withered beauties who look like they'd been made over by RuPaul? It's no worse for her "enlightened conservative" shtick than making kissyface with Rachel Maddow, after all. If the very senior senator from Arizona's bubble-headed progeny wants a reality show, it's no secret that Cohen's keister is the one to kiss.

Andy Cohen has built an empire leveraged on the bet that millions of Americans--women and gay men, predominately but not exclusively--want to see big hair and big attitudes, artificial breasts and tans, and, ultimately, the televisual deconstruction, inversion, and corrosion of traditional gender roles, the ones that made this country work and once led to stable families in a society with a tangible, if imperfect, structure, in contrast to the slack-jawed anarchy of the present day.

Just as Barack Obama famously said, "I'm betting on you--the American people," so too has Dandy Andy made his wager. He concurs with P.T. Barnum that there is a sucker born every minute, and that those suckers--in their bids for desperate escapism--will marinate in the broth of his creation, with all the agency of Vienna sausages soaking in canned brine.

Cohen's creations like "Millionaire Matchmaker," where a 50-year-old, mannish bachelorette from northern New Jersey advises the lovelorn rich on how to find true love, are fraught with gaps in logic, the consumption of which says a great deal about the viewers and Cohen's expectations for them. The "Real Housewives" concept is the pinnacle of his vision, tailored to women by a man who, much like the men in the fashion industry, imparts a distinctly non-"heteronormative" vision on the women watching.

The "Real Housewives" series, which has spinoffs, like "CSI" or "NCIS," in various locales--DC, NYC, Orange County, Atlanta, New Jersey--is a freakshow in a fishbowl. And like those initialed CBS melodramas, the "Real Housewives" spectacle is little more than a compendium of crime scene footage: assaults against decorum and decency; callow and calculated celebrations of myriad Sybaritic urges; and voracious, credit-fueled "Couture and Cristal" consumerism. "Housewives" is a guaranteed cash cow for Bravo and the whole NBC/Universal family, so Cohen will be a billionaire before any end is in sight.

It would be reductionist to claim that "if you've seen one episode, you've seen them all." Yes, the commonalities loom like the bitter fruit of a low-hanging vine. But a closer inspection of the various series, taking into account the idiosyncracies of how each locale and its denizens are treated, reveals the holistic repulsiveness of the Cohen/"Real Housewives" vision. …