It's no secret that North American women are addicted to The Real Housewives reality television franchise. Whether it's following Camille's divorce in Hollywood or gossiping about Ramona's ridiculous outbursts in NYC, women just can't seem to get enough of these feisty females. And now, as Shaw Media begins ramping up for the first Canadian version of the franchise (The Real Housewives of Vancouver will begin airing in April on Shaw Media's Slice channel), we northern gals can enjoy the on-air antics of our very own privileged princesses.
Is this really the "reality" that we want to support?
Granted, The Real Housewives franchise, like other reality shows, is one part truth mixed with two parts fiction. Brilliantly written and produced with respect to entertainment value, these television shows are designed to provide us with an escape from reality, offering sensational storylines and tabloid talk.
The question remains, however, whether these shows have a much deeper impact than pure escapist fun.
Over the past two decades, Canadian men have consistently been two to three times more likely than women to rise to leadership roles in the corporate arena. Women are still fighting to break through the glass ceiling and dispel the very stereotypes perpetuated by popular media.
Critics argue that shows like The Real Housewives put women into the gutter of society, suggesting dangerous stereotypes and discriminatory thinking. Just look at the cast line-up for the new Vancouver series:
Christina Kiesel is described as a "free-spirited blonde," a "lady of leisure" and "a modern-day Brigitte Bardot" in her Slice bio. Twice divorced with no kids, Christina's best friend is an outspoken hairdresser, sought after by Vancouver's elite.
Reiko MacKenzie is "a Japanese-Canadian bombshell," who enjoys mixed martial arts and collects exotic sports cars. Not only does her bio mention that she's married to "a soft-spoken venture capitalist," it also makes a point of mentioning that she abandoned her career in order to "turn her focus to being a mother and looking after her family."
Ronnie Seterdahl Negus's profile focuses almost entirely on materialistic possessions. Not only does she own a 200-acre Napa Valley vineyard and four houses in a gated West Vancouver community, she also has a private jet and a luxury yacht.
Mary Zilba is a former Miss Ohio (very Canadian indeed), divorced and ready to take the dating world by storm. She used to have a successful singing career, but put it on hold to raise her three sons. The profile explains that Mary is sweet and considerate (which may have something to do with her hair colour - she's the only brunette in the group), and that she lives in a luxurious waterfront penthouse condominium overlooking the city.
Finally, there's Jody Claman, the only cast member to garner praise for her current career. A successful clothing and food store owner and self-made businesswoman, Jody likes to refer to herself as "Martha Stewart on acid".
Frankly, some might argue that it's hard to tell what's worse - the fact that these women allow themselves to be presented in such one-dimensional fashion, or that we as viewers can't get enough of it.
Designer labels don't bring success
From the fully loaded Escalades to the over-the-top soirees, The Real Housewives franchise does a brilliant job of equating success and status with materialistic possessions and excessive consumption. In fact, that's part of the appeal. These women are wealthy, influential and powerful, but for what reasons? Instead of focusing on fulfilling careers, strong friendships and loving families, the main selling points of the series are often salacious gossip and catty behaviour.
One might indeed infer that we're headed down a dangerous road in our culture - a road where it's impossible to tell what's real and what's scripted. And while most of us are perceptive enough to tell the difference, it's still a tad troublesome that reality TV producers tend to focus on seemingly psychotic, superficial women as their central characters. While every nuance of these shows is plotted, shot and edited for dramatic effect, they're still based on real-life people. And from Twitter wars to Today Show tiffs, it's tough to tell where the scripted story ends, especially when some cast members of the franchise behave the same way off-set as they do on.
More importantly, when all is said and done, how can we expect young women to strive for personal achievements, break down barriers and build a better future when we provide them with a limited view of what a successful woman should be?
Finding an answer
Documentary film director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, set about to answer this exact question in her recent film, Miss Representation. Newsom's documentary addresses the connection between how women are portrayed in the media and the huge disparity between men and women in positions of power (i.e. politics, women CEOs, etc.). The film challenges the media's limited and often stereotypical portrayal of women and girls, while at the same time publicizing startling facts and statistics regarding women and power.
Indeed, while women have made great strides in leadership, it hasn't been easy. The collective message that our youth overwhelmingly receive is that a women's value is dependant on her beauty and sexuality, rather than her capacity as a leader.
According to official government data, women made up almost 48 percent of the Canadian workforce in 2009. Yet only 0.32 percent (roughly 26,000 of more than 8 million women) held senior management positions. On the other hand, of the 8.8 million men in Canada's workforce in 2009, nearly 0.62 percent were able to rise to leadership roles.
Interestingly, companies that have made an effort to increase female representation at the senior levels see obvious benefits. A recent study of Fortune 500 companies found that those with the highest representation of female managers saw their returns to shareholders far outpace their rivals.
Why watch these shows?
Should we ban shows like The Real Housewives from television? Not exactly. In Miss Representation, Newsom interviews actress Geena Davis, who insists on the importance of watching reality TV shows, like The Real Housewives, with our teenage daughters. She believes that this is one of the best ways to bring up questions about gender bias and dispel negative stereotypes.
The reasoning goes that in doing so, we can instil in our children a better understanding of reality. That is, the real thing (and not the semi-scripted kind).