Robin Givhan: 'Real Housewives of New Jersey' Lowers the Bar Even Further

All smiles, for now, Garden State entrants in the "Real Housewives" oeuvre: from left, Jacqueline, Teresa, Danielle, Dina and Caroline.
All smiles, for now, Garden State entrants in the "Real Housewives" oeuvre: from left, Jacqueline, Teresa, Danielle, Dina and Caroline. (By Virginia Sherwood -- Bravo)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

There appears to be nothing more deliciously entertaining than a group of women engaging in conspicuous consumption and the kind of high-volume, petty squabbles that might unkindly be referred to as catfights. This would explain Bravo's ever-growing "Real Housewives" franchise, in which viewers are invited into the lives of women who are sorta-kinda friends to watch them light one another's fuses and wait for the inevitable explosions.

"The Real Housewives of Orange County" came first with its cast of California women with money, big houses and plenty of free time during which they could make mischief. It was followed by spinoffs focusing on housewives in New York and Atlanta. The New York crew was presented as party-hopping socialites. The Atlanta ladies were mostly the nouveau riche wives of athletes. (The shows, by the way, use the term "housewife" loosely as often the women are divorced, divorcing, never married or, in the case of one Atlanta character, cavorting with an unnamed man whose sole purpose appeared to be serving as her sugar daddy.)

Now the cameras have come to rest on five women in the Garden State. "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" premieres May 12, but the Bravo network broadcast a 30-minute teaser last week. And if the preview is an accurate indication of what is to come, the show will revel in stereotypes about tough-talking Jersey girls, desperate cougars and Italian Americans. The preview was a bit like "The Sopranos" on estrogen, with alpha housewife Caroline Manzo extolling the virtues of street smarts over a college education and noting that her family "is as thick as thieves." In a trailer for upcoming episodes, tables are overturned and stemware is shattered in rage, the source of which is yet to be explained.

The relationships are complicated by both blood and marriage, promising to make every benign encounter fraught with dysfunctional family tensions. Caroline and Dina Manzo are sisters who are also sisters-in-law because they married brothers. Their good friend Jacqueline Laurita is also their sister-in-law because she married their brother. There's also Teresa Giudice, who married the kid she played house with as a schoolgirl. She spent much of the preview discussing whether she should invest in bigger "boobies." And the final match tossed onto this volatile mix of emotion is Danielle Staub, a mother of two who is going through a divorce. She lifts weights in a bikini and announces to the camera that she can't be a struggling single mother -- no, no, not her -- and thus, someone is simply going to have to rush in and rescue her. She did not appear to be kidding, and she most definitely is able-bodied.

There is no defending "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." In fact, there's no excuse for any of the shows, no matter how delightful it was recently watching faux New York housewife Kelly Bensimon ooze pretentiousness as she explained to another faux housewife that she, Kelly, is the most fabulous of all.

But, buried in all of the housewives' inexcusable behavior, there is a lesson. Really.

The shows don't reveal to viewers anything about the way in which a particularly insular social world works, because none of the characters ever gets close to the highest rungs on the social ladder -- at least not when the cameras are around. On television, all a viewer sees is the desperate straining to grasp what is way out of reach -- all the prestige and benefits of being at the top of the social ladder.

The characters on these shows spend a significant amount of time explaining how they feel blessed to be so wealthy and socially popular. And the shows are stuffed with scenes from charity parties that serve as antidotes to the casual trips to the mall that result in five-figure jewelry-buying and shoe-buying sprees.

"New Jersey" promises to do more of the same. In the teaser, Caroline and her husband go into a jewelry boutique where he buys her a suite of diamonds. She explains how he gets so much pleasure from buying her things that sometimes they'll be walking past a car dealership and he'll pop inside to purchase a car for her just because he can. Isn't that sweet?

One might assume all that promiscuous spending at a time like this would stir outrage or jealousy. But if the housewives offer any lesson, it is that all the money in their lives does not succeed in making their lives enviable. It only seems to make their homes more crowded with stuff and their behavior that much more appalling.

The most valuable lesson to be learned from "The Real Housewives" may be that we still have the capacity to even be appalled. This is different from being morally outraged or incensed by man's -- or woman's -- inhumanity to man. And we're not talking about the kind of angry disbelief that accompanies, say, the reading of financial news these days.

With "The Real Housewives" we are reminded that we can still be astonished by rudeness and incivility. And perhaps that's a good thing. Our jaws can still drop over the little things: the snide comment, the social climbing, the disingenuous behavior, the inability to say "No, thank you, I have enough."

The New Jersey housewives are especially awful because they don't come with the cloud of elitism or privilege that hovers over the other women. They're from New Jersey, for heaven's sake, not Beverly Hills. They should be salt-of-the-earth. They should be better behaved and able to recognize their pretentious behavior for what it is.

Popular culture has provided the common vernacular to help us know a place even if we've never been there. Orange County is conservative, but it can't shake its connection to West Coast eccentricity. Atlanta has been cast as the new South and filled with the black bourgeoisie. New York's reputation is defined by nightlife, glamour and money, money, money. And New Jersey? Despite its wealth, its physical beauty, its cosmopolitan residents and all the other things that its tourism bureau would want visitors to know, it is still perceived in popular culture as working class, average and normal. New Jersey is a state always striving to disprove its reputation.

So the housewives of New Jersey start without a glossy sheen. There's no sleek facade the show is chipping away at, no exclusive club being cracked. These aren't iconic women being demythologized. The New Jersey housewives are ordinary women behaving badly. They remind us of the importance of civility and restraint by showing us how dreadful life would be without them.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company