Anna McCarthy’s essay, “Reality TV: Neoliberal Theater of Suffering,” provides a fascinating analysis of the cultural and political ideologies (and functionalities) underlying reality television. While reading her piece, I was struck by McCarthy’s cogent claim that Reality TV “showcas[es] the structures of civic subjectivity formed where trauma and governmentality meet” and “illuminate[s] the ways trauma works in the service of self-governing, as part of neoliberalism’s outsourcing of state functions into the private realm” (21, 31). Reality TV is perhaps one of the most potent weapons of neoliberalism, in that it normalizes the celebration of the private individual and revels in competition while, at the same time, offering uplifting “rags-to-riches” stories (think of the many American Idol / The Voice / America’s Got Talent auditions in which a person with deep personal trauma overcomes his or her past to compete on the show). In this way, Reality TV offers the promise that anyone can “make it,” so long as he or she works diligently and “believes.”
In Lauren’s post below, she asks “what is going on” with the Real Housewives franchise. I would like to posit, however, that Real Housewives offers an instructive manual for how to succeed in a neoliberal society through representing the women as entrepreneurial while frequently focusing on the emotional transformation of the women (many of whom deal with addiction, divorce, and general drama). This is perhaps particularly evident in the Real Housewives of Atlanta, where the racial makeup of the cast (almost entirely Black), suggests that the riches of capitalism are available to anyone focused enough on attaining them, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. In the opening credits of season one, we hear cast member Lisa state “If it doesn’t make me money, I don’t do it,” suggesting that her wealth is due to her diligent work ethic and strategic decision making. Similarly, cast member NeNe says “I don’t keep up with the Joneses, I am the Joneses,” and Sheree asserts “People are intimidated by my success.” These three statements encapsulate the neoliberal ideology espoused by the women throughout the show: success is about the individual hustle and the willingness to do whatever it takes. If you play the game right, you’ll make it big. The show's focus is on each individual woman's attempts to navigate the elite world of Atlanta, and the role of the state is entirely absent in the program (disclaimer, I only watched the first 4 episodes). In one episode, DeShawn decides to organize a fundraiser for her charity and aims to raise one million dollars. She is shown taking the lead and reaching out to powerful players in Atlanta as an individual, and we are meant to take pleasure in - and praise - her charitable endeavors rather than ask why the State is not providing such services. Her event focuses on the consumer market; she auctions of dates with the other Real housewives and sells expensive jewelry and other merchandise to encourage the elite to donate to her cause while treating themselves at the same time. This mentality of giving while spending is not only (seemingly) more palatable than the idea that citizens would need to pay higher taxes for socialized services, it also suggests that the State is not a necessary actor in offering social goods to the less wealthy. Our faith can be firmly placed in the morality of the individual, who we trust will give back to the community.
The Housewives also demonstrate that, while they may have reached the pinnacle of success, neoliberal self-improvement is a never ending process. Thus, NeNe must deal with the trauma of discovering the man she thought was her father may not be biologically related to her, and at the same time must decide how much financial support she will offer to her extended family. NeNe seems offended that her aunt wrote her a letter in which NeNe is asked why she does not give more money to her relatives, suggesting that wealth is an individual responsibility and achievement. And while it is alluded that NeNe grew up lower class, we are not given the full story of how she met her husband and attained her present status (details that may disrupt the notion that the social ladder is an easy one to climb). Ultimately, we are meant to identify with NeNe’s emotional struggles and celebrate in her individual successes, rather than question the larger structural forces that prevent most of the population from achieving the same things. NeNe’s story sells us the idea that the private sphere has room for everyone, and by following the Housewives’ examples, we might learn how to carve our own way into this elite world while avoiding the mistakes the Housewives make. The Real Housewives franchise offers us a prime example of the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideology in Reality TV.