There’s something going on with women on television these days. As the TV critics have noticed, shows about the lives of women have been proliferating over the past few years: the fall 2011 lineup featured several such debuting sitcoms (Whitney, New Girl, and Two Broke Girls), and that spring saw the airing of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, a sly, self-mocking portrait of twenty-something girlfriends muddling their way through life in New York City (clearly a challenge to Sex and the City, though Dunham’s vision is very much her own). The fall 2012 lineup added to the roster The Mindy Project (about a gynecologist with a barren romantic life), and this year’s mid-season listings gave us the premieres of Red Widow (featuring a housewife forced to carry out the mob work of her late husband) and The Carrie Diaries (a Sex and the City prequel). And though Carrie Bradshaw’s show itself, certainly one of the mothers of these more recent additions, went off the air almost a decade ago, various other women-centered shows (The Good Wife, Gossip Girl, and Desperate Housewives among them) are now well into their mature years. In a rather literal enactment of this general phenomenon, Two Broke Girls has recently displaced Two and a Half Men, taking over the time slot previously occupied by that show.
At least since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, and with series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Maude, and Golden Girls, prime time television has frequently featured female protagonists in starring roles, with plot lines centered on the difficulties of balancing career and family and the intensity and sustaining power of female friendships. The female-centered series currently dominating the listings undoubtedly focus on, and gain narrative momentum from, similar issues; and yet it would be a stretch to call them unambiguously feminist. The sexual emancipation advocated by the Sex and the City characters consisted in large part of a rather untroubled acceptance and appropriation of a woman’s status as sexual object, and many subsequent shows seem to be similarly walking a fine line between celebrating the robustness of their heroines’ interior lives and revealing their bodies for all to see. They are also, for the most part, distinctly apolitical.
Perhaps the avatar of these developments—and also, I should admit here, the focus of my own personal preoccupation with these television products—is Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, whose loosely ordered programs took their inspiration from ABC’s Desperate Housewives but are vastly more successful than those of their scripted predecessor. There have been seven Real Housewives series, with the original (Real Housewives of Orange County) soon to begin its eighth [End Page 113] season, as well as spinoffs such as Bethenny Ever After, Don’t Be Tardy, and Vanderpump Rules. Reportedly a half-billion-dollar enterprise, these programs combine in one irresistible confection the appeal of female-focused narratives and the current mega-phenomenon of reality television, and the episodes have attracted as many as 2.9 million viewers, most of them representatives of the target demographic of women in the eighteen to forty-nine age range (especially the median age range of thirty-somethings, my own peers). In one way or another, all of the female-focused shows currently dominating our television listings are voyeuristic, if not frankly titillating (the narrative potential exhibited by a title like Two Broke Girls even verges on the pornographic, though certainly the show itself, which airs on CBS, will likely never go there). But with the Real Housewives our scopophilic impulses are only enhanced by the knowledge that we are peeking in on the lives of non-actors, and in this sense it is perhaps the “Real” of the title that accounts for a certain intensification, in these shows, of the ubiquitous allure of the female element.
The appeal of Real Housewives is somewhat paradoxical, though, since for all of the thrill of the forbidden that swirls around these productions, their narrative arcs are relatively tame, or at least predictable, focusing on the trials and tribulations of marriage, motherhood...