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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Tag Archives: reality stars

Is it just me, or do you find yourself wondering how grown women find so much to fight about on the Real Housewives franchise? Sure, there are people we might not care to hang out with, and once we are out of middle school we usually just avoid people we don’t like rather than engage in confrontation after confrontation.

That means we would not likely not be cast as a "Real Housewife," or any so-called reality television show.

While we might enjoy the drama of their conflicts, there is more to the Real Housewives, sociologically speaking, than meets the eye.

Part of the success of the franchise is that it offers a glimpse into the lives of (mostly) affluent people, allowing us on the inside to see what they consume: the clothes they buy, the furnishings and finishes in their homes, their cars, and their vacations. As I discuss in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, non-celebrity participants reinforce the idea that anyone can achieve this level of wealth, that you can be famous—and wealthy—just for being you, the ultimate reinforcement of upward mobility.

Besides getting an inside look at their stuff, which we might alternatively find appealing and excessive, we might also view the participants as sympathetic sometimes and superficial; we get to alternatively judge, despise, and talk about these women with others. (Ironically one of the biggest sources of fights between cast mates stems from believing that others are talking about them behind their backs.)

The Real Housewives enable us to focus on a few hand-picked groups of women to represent the wealthy in America, a group that has been much maligned in recent years and not very well understood, even by sociologists who seldom gain access to study them.

Sociologists define the upper class as those who derive most of their income from investments rather than income, and so it is unlikely that most of the participants in this franchise are truly members of this group. Yet they serve as stand-ins, as do traditional celebrities, allowing us to overlook those who hold not just fabulous possessions and wealth, but power as well.

This franchise also focuses almost exclusively on women. Although husbands and boyfriends are occasional participants, they typically don’t drive the shows’ storylines. Conflicts between the women are central narratives, as are the women’s focus on their appearance, from regularly showing them having their hair and makeup done, working out, shopping and undergoing cosmetic surgery procedures. They have time to lunch and drink in the middle of the day (which producers doubtlessly encourage to lubricate brewing conflicts).

Not only does the way these women are portrayed via editing and casting reinforce regressive notions of femininity, but their constant conflicts reinforce the age old stereotype that women can’t get along. Their fighting seems inevitable due to jealousy or other highly emotional (and seemingly irrational) reasons. Although many of these women are strong, successful entrepreneurs, in the end they are portrayed as self-involved and superficial.

It’s not just the wealthy we are able to judge and criticize by watching, it is wealthy women in particular who are under the microscope. In the process, we might walk away thinking money and women don’t mix, or at least when they do nothing substantial results.

By contrast, consider a truly wealthy woman like Melinda Gates, for example, and the philanthropic work to which she and others like her have devoted their time and money. She and her friends probably wouldn’t create as much drama as the Real Housewives casts do, but their lives would paint a very different picture of what it means to be a woman of means.


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Did you know that PBS was a pioneer in the reality television business?

An American Family first aired in 1973, featuring a Santa Barbara family and their five children. In addition to offering an inside glimpse into family life, the family experienced major turmoil during the filming.

Wife Pat tells her husband she wants a divorce, and eldest son Lance comes out as gay. Perhaps difficult issues under any circumstance, but considering the public nature of normally private events, they made for dramatic television. (Keep in mind that the American Psychiatric Association had just declassified homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses that year too).

In a bizarre twist of reality becoming a work of fiction, HBO is debuting a film called Cinema Verite on April 23, a dramatization of the behind-the-scenes life of the Loud family during the filming of their family.

(KOCE owns the west coast rights to the series and will rebroadcast the original series starting this weekend).

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote about the Louds in his 1983 book Simulations, referring to the show as a “truth experiment…neither a question of secrecy nor of perversion, but a kind of thrill of the real” (p. 50).

Baudrillard passed away in 2007, but my guess is he would find the latest development to be further evidence of the endless reflection between “reality” and simulation, making the two indistinguishable.

Weren’t we already supposed to glimpse “behind the scenes” during the original series? This alleged distinction is something Baudrillard refers to as “an absurd, paradoxical formula—neither true nor false: but utopian” (p. 50).

Part of the thrill of celebrity culture today is the illusion that we are regularly allowed behind the curtain. But are we?

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Would you pay to see reality show participants in person?

Promoters of “Reality Rocks Expo” are hoping fans will pay $35 to meet people who have appeared on shows like Celebrity Rehab, The Real Housewives, Survivor, and a variety of other programs this weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

There’s nothing new about paying admission to get autographs and meet famous people—its some of the workshops at the expo that are most interesting.

For an additional $25, attendees can attend workshops to learn to “Create, Produce and Pitch your Reality TV Show,” “Brand Yourself: Using Social Media to Advance Your Career in Reality TV,” and meet casting directors.

One workshop in particular stands out: “How To Become A Host/Reality Star – Parlay your 15 minutes of Reality Fame into a Career.”

As I write in the last chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, so-called reality programs can create the impression that we all have a shot at a career, just for being us. At a time when unemployment has remained stubbornly high, the price of admission and a workshop may seem like a legitimate investment in a career that could potentially pay off big.

As a 2010 Forbes magazine article detailed, a handful of reality stars have been able to cash in big, but as the magazine reported in 2007, most do not. The glut of reality stars means that paychecks for personal appearances have declined for all but the top stars. Some might also become infamous and have trouble finding work after their FIGURE 1.215 minutes are up.

Besides the financial long shot, being on a reality show might have a personal toll, as making one’s private life public can have a downside.

In my research of celebrity fan magazines, one thing remained consistent throughout their century of publication: the promise of a better life. Reality TV also offers the promise. But does it really deliver?

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