This post was originally published on December 20, 2012.
One of my students in a popular cultural semiotics seminar recently wrote her term project on the reality television “Real Housewives of . . .” phenomenon. Not being a fan of such shows myself, it took her paper to prompt me to think seriously about the whole thing for myself. And I realized that such shows instantiate a far more profound cultural signifier than I had heretofore realized. The following analysis represents my thinking on the matter, not my student’s.
As is always the case, my semiotic analysis centers on a crucial difference. The difference in question here is not simply that between the actual realities of the lives of ordinary housewives as opposed to the reality TV versions, but also the difference between their current television representations and those of the past. That is, not only do most actual housewives lack the wealth, glamour, and business opportunities of the “Real Housewives” of Beverly Hills, New Jersey, or wherever, but their television counterparts of the past did, too. The classic TV housewife, enshrined within the history of the family sitcom, was an asexual middle-class woman who was totally focused on her children: Think June Lockhart, Jane Wyatt, and Barbara Billingsley.
That the current crowd of glammed-up, runway-model housewives of today’s “reality” shows reflects a widespread cultural return to the conservative gender-coded precept that a woman’s value lies in her erotic appeal almost goes without saying. While a few less-than-glamorous women are cast in these programs as if to head off criticisms of this kind, their existence tends to prove the rule—and even they tend to be dolled up on the program Web sites.
But this is an easy observation to make. More profoundly, however, is the fact that the reality TV housewife has become an object of desire for her largely female audience. Rather than being seen as a hapless drudge of patriarchy, the reality TV housewife is a vicarious role model, even when she doesn’t found her own business enterprise and simply stays at home. What caused this change in perception?
To answer this question, I considered the frequently reported economic fact that household incomes for the vast majority of Americans have been essentially stagnant, when adjusted for inflation, over the last four decades. Now, add to this the exponential inflation in the costs of such basic necessities as housing and transportation and you get the modern two-income family: not necessarily because both partners in a marriage want to work, but because in order to maintain a middle-class household two incomes are now more or less essential. Certainly the efforts of the women’s movement have contributed to the enormous growth of women’s participation in the workforce, but the new image of the reality TV housewife suggests that something else is at work here as well.
That is, with the housewife being presented as a fortunate woman who doesn’t have to work, it seems that American women are nostalgic for the “good old days” of a time when they didn’t have to work just to maintain a middle-class home. The fantasy now is to be a housewife, not to escape the role. That’s quite a change.
Just how much of an effect on American consciousness in general this stagnation of incomes has had is probably one of the most important social questions of our time. Can it help explain the hostile polarization of our political landscape, our dwindling sympathy for others in an increasingly libertarian environment, the growing resentment of middle-class workers (especially unionized workers) with decent jobs and benefits? I think so. And this will be a topic for future blogs of mine.