Last season, “The Real Housewives of New York City” started to fall apart. Like many reality show participants, the Housewives were all too aware of their own roles and too obsessed with promoting their products and businesses. So Bravo, the network that airs all of the “Housewives” shows, fired half the cast and brought in three new women, one of whom was Aviva Drescher. Drescher, who is Jewish, was considered the replacement for fired housewife Jill Zarin, best known for sparring with more successful ex-castmate Bethenny Frankel. Both Aviva and Jill (who reportedly know each other and hang out in real life) are terrible, stereotypical examples of Jewish women, albeit in quite different ways. Together, they exemplify every bad cliché that exists about Jewish women on television.
Some of the things that made Jill a compelling person to watch on television were the same things that made her a terrible person to watch on television. She self-identified as a “yenta,” and during the first season of the show she was shown trying to matchmake on multiple levels (she introduced a cast member with young children to a friend who did admissions for a prestigious Manhattan preschool). But as we learned more about Jill and the show brightened her star, her negative qualities came more sharply into view. She was nosy, bossy and loud. She inserted herself into every possible storyline, including ones that had nothing to do with her. She lectured others about how to dress for a wedding, how to express sympathy, and how to have a fight. In one particularly cringe-worthy moment, she saved an angry voicemail message from Frankel and played it for anyone and everyone who would listen. Sometimes, watching Jill was like watching a cartoon character come to life.
Let’s get something straight: I believe that the world would be a far better place, and women would be far better off, if Bravo had never invented the “Real Housewives” television reality show genre. But unfortunately for women — especially those of Orange County, Beverly Hills, New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey and Washington, DC — there is obviously some deep human need for a glimpse of the lives of the rich and ostentatious, and what better, albeit sexist, prism than the lives of the privileged women? And so the endless viewing of luxury living and staged catfighting, where men are either non-existent, or as interesting than the furniture, became a staple of American television.
Then just as nearly every successful reality series from “Survivor” to “The Voice” has made aliyah to Israel, so came the “Housewives” concept. The staged reality series about wealthy Israeli women, “HaMeusharot,” (“Wealthy Women”) and the timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate. Right around its premiere last summer, Israeli social protesters pitched their tents on Rothschild Street and the ‘tycoons’ become public enemy number one. It was as if the series premiere of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” coincided with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street.
You’d think people wouldn’t have been in the mood for the rich and famous. But the show quickly drew an audience and received relatively strong ratings for the financially struggling television channel that airs it.
For the past few days, I’ve been planning to write about a young woman from the “Teen Mom” series on MTV and her apparent suicide attempt. I’ve been pondering this genre of “teen fertility reality TV” for a long time, particularly whether there’s a genuine educational benefit and how that benefit might weigh against the toll the instant celebrity takes on the young, troubled women who are its stars.
But I kept getting sidetracked from this line of thought by reading my fellow Sisterhood bloggers’ incisive thoughts on the fallout from the Anthony Weiner scandal and feeling like I should weigh in, too.
I particularly appreciated the opinion that the media’s behavior throughout this week has been appalling. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was at Nancy Pelosi’s press conference last week, when she was discussing the budget, unemployment and other crucial issues. When she announced she wouldn’t be answering queries about Weinergate, the major networks stopped their feeds. These networks clearly demonstrated their priorities about which moral crisis mattered to them — the one facing a single hapless congressman versus the one facing most of the country.
Jennifer Pozner’s new book, “Reality Bites Back,” is out this week. In its pages, she takes our favorite “guilty pleasure” genre of TV to task for racism, sexism and manipulation of its audience. Pozner spoke recently with The Sisterhood. Her satirical book trailer is below, and the interview follows.
Sarah Seltzer: How did your interest in paying close attention to reality TV develop?
Jennifer Pozner: I basically started monitoring reality TV in 2002 when “The Bachelor” began to air. I sensed a new backlash meme was about to start. People were saying “oh, it’s just a fad.” But I knew that wasn’t the case because of media economics. It’s really easy to think shows come and go based on what viewers want to see but that’s not true. It’s more what advertisers want to pay for and what networks want to design for their advertisers. And reality TV is up to 50-75% cheaper than scripted shows, and it nets networks hundreds of thousands of dollars of product placement. So I thought we’d see more of this kind of show. I was hoping I was wrong but unfortunately I wasn’t. And I thought someone had to write this book.
In the world of Israeli popular culture, the most popular maternal figure at the moment is a very different kind of Jewish mother — a proud Arab Muslim who prays five times daily, calls the Koran her favorite book, obsessively puffs on a hookah pipe and proudly wears a keffiyah.
Futna Jabber is one of the five finalists on Israel’s version of the reality show hit “Big Brother,” after viewers voted week after week to keep the vivacious 37-year-old on their screens for more than three months. So popular was Futna, that she didn’t even have to worry in the last round of voting: None of her housemates nominated her for eliminations. The results of the final eliminations will be announced Thursday on the show’s finale.