Every Sunday evening, I look forward to crawling into bed and indulging in the "Real Housewives of New Jersey" on the Bravo Network. After what is usually a full day of completing school assignments, this show provides a means for calming my mind and easing my anxieties. Although I use this program as an escape from my academics, it may actually be subliminally teaching me a thing or two. "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" projects messages onto its audience that can potentially both positively and negatively impact their perspectives of culture, gender roles, and societal norms.
On a recent episode, the ladies attended a fashion show where a portion of the proceeds was donated to a charitable organization. While the television program wants the viewer to believe these women are doing such a wonderful thing by contributing to a charity, the reality is that their main motive in attending the event is to see friends, preview the latest styles, which they will soon purchase, and enjoy free drinks along with a five-course meal. In fact, I do not believe they even mentioned the specific organization the event was benefitting! Their monetary contribution is the way they justify being good citizens and how they validate themselves. As Greg Dickinson states in his article titled, "Selling Democracy," these "'civic-minded' [women] can have pleasure, style, and civility all in one simple purchase" (280). These housewives are so caught up in their own personal agendas, they assume that someone else will pick up the slack and resolve the important issues. So by just giving some money, they believe they are making a fine contribution because other individuals will become enabled to foster the needed change. In watching this episode, the viewer loses the idea that there are many ways to participate in society that are void of consumption, such as volunteering their time or conducting some research to actually become knowledgeable and passionate about an issue.
The "plot" of the "Real Housewives of New Jersey" usually entails luxurious shopping sprees, fine dining, and lavish celebrations. It portrays the women as having achieved the good life through the continual consumption of material goods. Although they live in enormous homes and have everything they could ever need, it simply is not enough. In Susan Strasser's article titled, " The Alien Past," she states, "...manufactures convince consumers to buy more of what they already have by offering more options" (386). These women epitomize that point, as they revel in newness and frequently buy updated versions of items they already possess. This also conveys the idea of commodity fetish, whereby the women are ignorant of the items social relations, its origins and the resources and labor that it required. Rather, these commodities just become things that promote their social status and happiness. Price is never discussed and the viewer is led to believe that the more products purchased, the better life will be.
While the show unfortunately fosters negative messages in regards to citizenship and consumption, it also cultivates positive statements about family and gender roles. The importance of family is made clear through the strong bonds between the women and their husbands and children. They often come together for family meals and openly communicate through in depth conversations about issues going on in the workplace and at school. This season, one of the housewives named Teresa, has been working diligently to repair the relationship with her brother. These acts convey to the viewer that people can overcome obstacles and the love and support found in family can prevail. With so many broken homes in this country, it is important to highlight perseverance and hope in this context.
This show also does a nice job of emphasizing the strength and power women possess. It illustrates that this is no longer a male dominated world, as these women are involved in successful business ventures and highly regarded projects. While I recognize that their husbands have also been quite successful and probably laid the foundation for their wealth, these women have exercised great ambition and worked hard to achieve many of their goals. For example, Teresa wrote a couple of cookbooks, which both made it onto the New York Times Best Seller list. Young women who watch this show may feel empowered after seeing what ordinary females were capable of accomplishing.
I believe the producers of the "Real Housewives of New Jersey" need to shift the focus of the shows content. There should be an even greater emphasis on the family bonds and achievements of these women and much less focus on the material goods they purchase and events they attend. While we the viewers may not mind how the show is currently constructed, the underlying messages can subconsciously impact our future behaviors and decisions; therefore, it is important that the messages being presented are as constructive as possible. Thankfully, through my Communications 411 class, I have become much more media literate and have the ability to see beyond the surface and dissect the shows subliminal messages; however, that may not be the case for many of the shows viewers...