The American dream, the myth that never was, is alive and well. But only as propaganda entertainment, in the Style magazine of the New York Times and in the glossy Hearst publications but above all on television programs like The Real Housewives.
The idea of an American Dream was to advance the notion that anyone at all could reach the lofty wealth of robber barons like Rockefeller and Frick, that all of us are like runners in a race for riches and that we are all blessed with equal opportunities to a life of leisure and happiness if only we work individually very hard for it.
This deliberate but attractive fiction originated in the frontier spirit where every man and every woman could reach for the stars so-to-say as long as they competed incessantly for the prize, a carrot and stick psychology that has and had Americans working extra hard at an ephemeral materialistic success.
Those who did not succeed were considered to be failures in the economic struggle for survival of the fittest and meanest. It makes for a hollow existence where everything in life is subsumed under a money making philosophy.
To strengthen the fiction that being rich is making you noble and good is undertaken by the PBS programs like Upstairs / Downstairs where the slaves gleefully humiliate themselves to serve their masters or betters as the case may be. Downton Abbey, a caricature of all of the worst British upper class foibles and their misdeeds vis-à-vis their inferiors, i.e. their servants is lauded as an entertaining television series and touted as a fine representation of civilized behavior.
The Housewives on the Bravo channel, a reality television program which never becomes real but is staged and scripted with allowances for personal but also controlled outbursts is an American fiction drama. It displays the most immature behavior while the over-costumed and the overly made-up protagonists indulge in personal attacks and petty differences of opinion.
I prefer the Italian Housewives from New Jersey, they are as common as dirt but nevertheless very passionate and dramatic, an Italian opera buffa with all the folderol of clothes and make-up. Teresa and her brother the former stripper Joe Gorga are truly the pieces de resistance. They scream and cry and do not even pretend to be high-class like the awful low-brow cafe society ones in New York City.
The Housewives in Miami are terrible; most of them shrill South Americans who had to flee their countries. The ones in Atlanta seem to be more like the queens on the RuPaul Drag Race Season show on the Logo cable television channel and the ones in San Diego are colorless.
Only the Beverly Hill Billy Housewives have some gusto, and I am looking forward to see pusillanimous Lisa VanderPump doing her pseudo high-class British accent again. The sort of accent that barmaids put on in a London pub when they are trying to impress you – but watch out for shades of the Drei Groszen Oper by Brecht in which the poor downtrodden house/barmaid Lotte Lenya sings about her oppressors: – und wenn dan der Kopf fällt sage ich: Hoppla ! (and when their heads roll, I say: Oops…).
It is cleverly designed so that we may imagine ourselves equally indulging in our worst excesses and moods while lounging in elaborate Byzantine surroundings with surgically enhanced bodies, being hung with extraordinary baubles, clad in tight or flowing couture outfits and high platform shoes. These shows deliberately promote the fiction that rich is wonderful and richer is better and that one’s own dignity as a human being is entirely immaterial.
The fascination that rot and decadence has over us is a sign of the times when empire is fading and the old shibboleths have lost their power. The fictional American Dream has become the American Self Hypnosis. True isolation and emptiness of spirit is being sold to us like a panacea for curing our insecurities and need for substance. It is the worst of times and it percolates into everything from sham presidential debates to the doctored news.
Television shows like the Housewives are fully intended to make us forget that we live in a capitalist totalitarian universe by advancing the idea of individual choice, of which there is none. They are the Janus face of the gloom and doom industry of contemporary Hollywood mega-movies. In the last it is the single hero (and now women are leashed into battle gear as well) destined to overcome by himself and herself all alien opponents and terrorist predators, trying to convince us that we should do battle for survival without any communal solidarity.
We are being reduced here to lonely and passive observers, like laboratory animals who are strapped into machines, sadly reacting to what is being done to them and who are not even recognized as oppressed casual victims. Those are the tactics of the holders of our attention that make us easily controllable and that is the bondage of the slave mentality that modern day capitalism demands.
The Real Housewives shows us our serfdom and serves as a warning about the easy slide into complacency because it glorifies a dire rentier attitude that fully takes its status for granted. Its quite cleverly hidden repulsiveness like that of the deathly predator movies demonstrates how far we have entered a path of no return within the present destructive system. It reinforces and justifies the obnoxious ads that seduce us into an artificial and dis-enhanced lifestyle in thrall to a destructive materialism. Morris Berman wrote about the disenchanted world (“Coming to our senses”, Shuster 1989) and there is no better illustration for it than these television series
Gui Rochat is an art dealer and consultant, specializing in in seventeenth and eighteenth century French paintings and drawings. He lives in New York.