Watching the emotional gladiators: The Real Housewives of Vancouver

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It really must be a hard life to take on the pivotal role of attending dinner parties for the upper crust and colourizing fancy cocktails. Even harder when you're having trouble getting along with associates that television executives have picked out to be your 'friends.'

But real and harsh reality sets in when we find ourselves watching reality TV shows that amount to the daily excursions of the 'trophy wives' of the 1 per cent. Where they eat out, what they argue about, where they shop, what they argue about again -- these dull yet lavish routines of the ultra-wealthy are fascinating to so many of us.

Piranhas in a fish tank

We're living through severe neo-liberalism. The wealth gap is pretty much a canyon and there's a growing recognition around who is benefiting from this austerity. And what better way to escape from these tribulations than to watch the most excessive and ridiculous members of power and prestige as they fumble about their daily lives like piranhas in a fish tank.

Take for example the Canadian adaptation of thereality series franchise The Real Housewives. Canadians of all demographics, some who weren't even engaged with earlier version of the series, waited in anticipation to see what Canada would have to offer to this phenomenon.

Here's what they got: The Real Housewives of Vancouver features five of the city's wealthiest women, who can't for the life of them make it through one hour in an upscale downtown restaurant without tearing each other to shreds. It's arguably the harshest of the version of this series to date.

There is a major disconnect between life for your everyday resident of Vancouver and the decorative facades of the 'real' housewives, who somehow managed to survive an entire season never having seen the rain. Maybe that's why we watch it.

A window into the world of the 1 per cent?

Here's how Sheila Sampath, who has written on TV and culture for Shameless Magazinedescribes it: "It serves as an interesting window into a world a lot of us might not ordinarily have access to. As we watch people argue and squabble...we are reminded that these are really people we are watching... who might have more access than the rest of us but are also flawed... I think it also breaks down some of the myths around meritocracy and distribution of wealth."

In the show, obviously, we are not introduced outright to a radical analysis of systems of power and how they operate to ensure 'success,' but a mocking of the entitlement of this rich women is implied through the production.

As Marusya Bociurkiw, Associate Professor of Media Theory at the School of Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson University, told me, the fascination with the wealthy is not a new thing. It's always been there, through the works of Jane Austin and her characters' endeavors to rise, to the California beach shows of the 1990s, such as 90210. We've just entered into an era where our imaginations of the rich and (somewhat) famous can be fulfilled in a 'reality' format.

Misogynist representations of women

And it's always the women these reality franchises focus on, isn't it? There is no judging or ridiculing any of the wealthiest men across these cities, nor any critique of how they got access to their money. Are we to accept their innocence as privileged agents who are shy to the spotlight, or do we look at the continuing social structures that scapegoat women and ridicule their position, wherever it might be?

Marusya points out how, though the Real Housewives portrayal is not feminist by any means, "Every genre deals with issues in some way.. and serves our interest in being part of the world."

So Real Housewives ends up being subversive in its non-traditional depiction. The off-screen husbands and partners seemingly have no sway in how the women spend their money and organize their wealth. Though the show clearly reinforces the misogynist representation of female frivolity and cantankerous relations and offers little diversity in areas such as race, it also indicates a level of female autonomy in the men's absence.

It's probably true that Reality TV serves the purpose of being another option on our ever-increasing tray of possible opiates. And it's probably true that it works to keep us distracted from what is going on.

Like the Roman Empire preserving its power through the crude entertainment of gladiators, reality TV's emotional gladiators keep us fascinated and offer an escape from our anxiety amidst a crumbling financial system.

Popular culture exists, and though we know who often controls the message, it doesn't mean we can't observe critically. We can watch because it's part of our culture, and we don't have to let it bolster our disenfranchisement; instead, we can see it as offering us something to work with.

As media-conscious activists we have the power to take as we will and use the rest as ammunition for our own forms of resistance and expression. One foot in and one foot out, culture jammers have been doing this for years.


Tania Ehret recently joined rabble as a contributing editor. She's been involved in all sorts of fun organizing around Vancouver, from participation in the anti-war movement to opposition to the Enbridge Pipeline. She finished Langara College in Peace and Conflict Studies and has had reports published in Socialist Worker. She believes deeply in melding the worlds of social justice and multimedia/arts, making activism accessible to as many people as possible. 

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