'JERSEY' GIRLS: From left, front, Milania, Gia and Gabriella… (Andrei Jackamets / Bravo )
The "Real Housewives" franchise has always been more than a little troubling. The general premise — that if you put a group of well-off women together, they will spend their time buying luxury goods, obsessing about their appearance and stabbing each other in the back — is, essentially, misogyny on a stick. Which doesn't mean it isn't entertaining; for three and a half minutes last year, I thought I liked the New Jersey version, mostly because the women were actually related, which made their relationships seem less like diva-casting, and two or three of them were mildly recognizable as actual wives and mothers.
FOR THE RECORD:
'Real Housewives of New Jersey': An article in the May 3 Calendar section about the TV series "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" referred to a book written by the ex-husband of Danielle Staub, one of the women on the show. The book, "A Cop Without a Badge," was about her ex-husband but was written by Charles Kipps. —
But Danielle Staub, cast as the villain of the piece, quickly overshadowed anything else that might be afoot in Franklin Lakes. A book written by her ex revealed a past that seemed to include drugs, kidnapping and a stint as a paid escort. Yes, this is New Jersey, but Staub and her sordid back story took the franchise way beyond the usual arc of upper-middle-class cattiness and mild drunken debauchery. It also resulted in a YouTube-ready dinner scene in which housewife Teresa Giudice, mother of three young girls, became so enraged that she called Staub a "prostitution whore" and flipped a table.
Which may or may not have been sincere and/or scripted, but there were children at that dinner, Danielle's children, a fact she has subsequently made the most of, condemning Teresa and Caroline Manzo for calling her names (Caroline used the term "garbage") in front of those children. Teresa and Caroline in turn condemned Danielle for being toxic and dangerous to their own families.
Fair enough, and yet, here they all are in Season 2, forcing their children, some young adults, some still in single digits, to once again serve as a wide-eyed peanut gallery while the moms go at it. Perhaps it was the scene in which Danielle careens through the night, intent on crashing Caroline's party while her daughters huddle miserably in the back seat and try to convince her that this is not a good idea, or maybe it was when Teresa compared Danielle's vagina to the Holland Tunnel (mere minutes after we saw her get a sonogram surrounded by her beribboned young daughters) but this season seems intent on getting the attention of not only YouTube but parent groups and perhaps social services.
With a cynicism so acute it's almost admirable, the season opens with the sweetest housewife, Jacqueline Laurita, giving birth to a beautiful baby boy. This event, we are told, has healed many of the wounds in the family. But Danielle is quickly shoved front and center, with Jacqueline's husband, Chris (brother to Caroline and Dina Manzo), saying he doesn't want that woman anywhere near his family. Caroline cannot mention Danielle's name without spitting, while Dina wanders around her cavernous house lighting candles to Buddha, petting her hairless cats and saying that she has forgiven Danielle because the fellow cast member is trying to change.
But the "Real Housewives" series are never about change; they're about the opposite of change. They're about women being horrible to each other no matter what the circumstance. (In one hilarious scene, Danielle, being "a devout Catholic," enlists the aid of a priest, whose attempts at counsel she quickly drowns out with invective.) Which is fine, I suppose, if you think of the TV as a modern day Colosseum and the housewives emotional gladiators. But even the Romans didn't cut to the kids as flesh was separated from the bone. When children are participating in a television show on which their mother's vagina is compared to the Holland Tunnel, perhaps it's time to pause and reflect.
The use of kids on reality TV has always been a boggy area. When CBS put together the pint-size "Survivor" called "Kid Nation," pundits of every stripe fell all over themselves condemning the parents who allowed their children to participate. Jon and Kate have become the poster couple for What Can Happen and certainly the Balloon Boy incident proved a cautionary tale — so desperate were the adults of the Heene family to return to their past "Wife Swap" glory that they convinced their children to lie to neighbors, law enforcement and even, gasp, major news outlets.
One could argue that reality shows aren't actually real and that there are child actors involved in shows like "Dexter," which ended this past season with an infant sitting in a pool of blood. But the narrative of "Real Housewives" and so many situational reality shows is not so much fiction as it is a bleak and banal version of society's pettiest tendencies — toward gossip and self-aggrandizement, conspicuous consumption, obsession with appearance and endless, soul-stripping rationalization.
And it can't be good for kids to see their parents doing that for a living, can it?
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