As a critic of the reality TV genre I’d be a failure. I can’t step far enough away from the emotions aroused in me. If I ridicule I feel guilty. After all, these are human beings making a spectacle of themselves. I have on occasion made a spectacle of myself, though not, thankfully, on television. I might do it again. So who am I to sneer?
Which brings me to Real Housewives of Atlanta. Last weekend, when the infant I was minding had an afternoon nap, I took advantage of his parents’ Foxtel and trawling, came across housewife Kim and her boyfriend Kroy.
Actually, Kim didn’t start out with Kroy. She was finishing up a relationship with someone known as Big Poppa, whom I never got to see. Big Poppa lavished Kim with everything she could possible want, including two exceptionally pneumatic breasts and a feckin’ great diamond. But Kim isn’t the type to be satisfied by the superficial. Having all the stuff didn’t do it for her. Big Poppa was not emotionally (or reading between the lines, sexually) available, and Kim was over him.
And then along came Kroy. No, I have not misspelled his name. Football player. Cute. Shy. Within weeks, Kim and Kroy were pregnant. In three back-to-back episodes I watched them move house, give birth and get married. Kim gave birth in her blonde wig and full makeup. I worried for the baby, trying to latch onto those pneumatic breasts. I don’t know how she changed his diapers with those false nails. I don’t know why I sat there watching this unfolding spectacle, except that I was enthralled in the worst of ways, and I could not look away.
Luckily for me, just as we moved onto Housewives of Orange County the infant woke, and released me from the spell.
Watching this kind of television leaves me feeling as if I’ve scarfed down vile junk food because I’ve let myself get to a stage of hunger where anything will do, and I should really put my finger down my throat and hawk it all back up again if I know what’s good for me.
After watching Housewives, I realise I avoid reality TV not for aesthetic or intellectual reasons, I wish that were the case, but because it makes me far too emotionally uncomfortable. I cringe and sweat and chew my fingers, and cover my eyes and put my hands over my ears, and want desperately to do something to stop the participants from revealing their tender underbellies. Be more careful with yourselves, I want to shout. Don’t show all this vulnerability to the world! People will laugh at you and mock you and look down on you! You will be judged, oh, how you will be judged!
But none of them seem to care. Indeed, they frequently enter into adversarial public exchanges with their critics, and thrive. Obviously, I need to drink a cup of cement and harden up.
On the other hand, one thing I have learned from the popular series Downton Abbey (which I watch because my household does and it would be churlish of me to absent myself from a bonding ritual and anyway, it is FICTION) is that there’s always been women who HAVE IT ALL. Wealthy women may not have been allowed employment outside of their stately home, but governing the household, which was their task, must have been akin to being CEO of a small to middling business. Add to this birthing the next generation, demanding social duties, responsibilities to the poor, dress fittings, spousal support, and marrying your daughters well, these upper-class women had careers, husbands, families, social lives and the wealth to engage all the assistance they required to maintain the lifestyle. Just look at this picture of Lady Cora.
Nothing much has changed, except having it all is no longer an ambition realised only by the well-bred. It’s far more egalitarian, however, the need for an income to support the lifestyle remains fundamental. You probably can’t have resident childcare if you live in public housing, for example, unless you have your mum or gran living with you and you don’t have to pay them to mind the children while you go to work.
I have to confess that I was almost banished from the Downton Abbey ritual when upon watching Captain Crowley (Crawley?) releasing his fiancée from her vows because the war had left him unable to be a full man, I laughed like a horse.
I would not have done this, of course, had Downton Abbey been reality TV. Even if they’d used the same mawkish language (and of course they would, probably worse) I would not, could not have laughed. I likely would have bawled.
I prefer the protection of fiction when I consume television for relaxation. I want a resolution to the drama, and catharsis. I don’t want to have to think about anybody’s real life issues going on and on and on until the show is cancelled. I don’t want to watch someone weeping as they endure a verbal onslaught from a self-important celebrity judge of whatever. And honestly, the thoughts and concerns of some of these reality stars are, well, numbingly, numbingly banal. I can only hope the taste for this unmediated drivel decreases in time. Otherwise we might find ourselves regressed to public hangings.