Last December, I sat in my friend's living room, glued to her television as we watched one of the last episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I was completely hooked on The Real Housewives series. I loved the characters and their loud, crazy, dramatic interactions with each other. I loved taking sides by celebrating some of the "housewives," and vilifying others.
I would share the latest gossip with my friends on Twitter and Facebook: "Did you see how "crazy" Ramona was when she confronted Kelly on The Real Housewives of New York? Why is Camille Grammer (star of the Beverly Hills series) so evil and desperate?"
I saw The Real Housewives series, and other shows like it, as fun, accessible entertainment -- escapism.
I was wrong.
Even though that Real Housewives viewing party happened just seven months ago, my days of celebrating and promoting the show are long gone. I can no longer stand to watch a program that -- while brilliantly produced and written with respect to entertainment value -- perpetuates a horrible stereotype about women: that they are hysterical, unhinged, and conniving.
I have realized that I can't see reality shows like The Real Housewives as mindless, fun escapism anymore. These kinds of shows put women right into the gutter of a society where bias and discrimination against women are still strongly prevalent.
The impetus for my change-of-heart towards The Real Housewives came after I watched the final cut of my friend Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary, Miss Representation.
Miss Representation explores the under-representation of women in positions of power and the limited, often disparaging, portrayal of women in the media.
Her documentary brilliantly addresses the connection between how women are portrayed in the media -- both in news and entertainment -- and the connection to the huge disparity between men and women in positions of power, from the boardroom to Capitol Hill.
In my life and career, I have fought for more women to serve in public office; I don't think we can make real progress in our country until women have not just one seat at the table, but have half the seats at the table. I look up to the women CEOs who run Fortune 500 companies -- all 15 of them. I dream of a day when there are so many women CEOs that I won't be able to remember all their names.
But how can we expect young women to want to serve in elective office or lead a large corporation when we generally provide them a limited view of what women can be? With respect to reality TV, the primary role models that producers offer to girls are of women, or should I say characters, who are crazy and superficial.
Yet, despite what I believe to be a key part of my life's calling -- fighting for gender equality -- I somehow managed to compartmentalize the horrible way women are portrayed in reality shows from the way I view women in the rest of my life.
I was so stupid.
After I saw Miss Representation, I was grappling with my obsession with The Real Housewives. It just didn't feel right to watch the show anymore. But the fundamental shift in the way I view entertainment came when I asked my friend's 12e-year-old daughter, Erica, about her favorite TV show. I naively expected her to mention a Nickelodeon program or a show like American Idol. Her answer, "The Real Housewives of New Jersey."
I was overwhelmed with guilt. I was supporting a show that could negatively impact the way young women like Erica see themselves in the world. She only liked the show because people just like me watched it and actively promoted it to their friends. Why would The Real Housewives series appeal to her? Because the show is so popular that Erika is constantly exposed to references about it in her world. She hears adults talk about the show with great excitement; she sees at the grocery store checkout aisle, Real Housewives of New Jersey star, Teresa Guidice with her young daughters, on the cover of In Touch magazine.
Erica is a smart, creative girl. I remember her as a bookworm who would tug on my shirt to tell me, with excitement, about how she saw Hillary Clinton on CNN. But now her favorite show is about women who spend themselves into bankruptcy and call each other "prostitute whores?"
I shouldn't have been surprised that a girl Erica's age is interested in the show. Earlier this year, Andy Cohen, host of Watch What Happens Live! on The Bravo Network, had 13-year-old Ben Weiner as his guest. On live television, Mr. Cohen proclaimed Ben Weiner to be a "housewives super fan."
The Bravo Network blog even praised Ben for displaying a "cattiness beyond his years." Is this what we've come to? Praising a 13 year old for being catty like a Real Housewives character?
To be clear, The Real Housewives is a small part of the problem. Other reality shows like The Apprentice, Bridezilla, and The Bachelorette also portray women in equally, and often more egregious light, as they are filmed behaving with little forethought and showing a complete lack of intellectual drive and self-control.
And for the record, the concept of reality programming or as I call it, semi-scripted television, is not one I object to as a genre. I love shows like Bethenny Ever After and any other show that doesn't make women look like superficial, mentally ill, narcissistic assholes.
I have grappled with why Erica was allowed to watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Don't her parents see the problem? Or is she just watching the show without them?
Unfortunately, preventing kids from watching television in order to shield them from shows like The Real Housewives doesn't work as well as it used to. The advent of YouTube and Hulu has made it much easier for them to watch TV without actually turning on a television. I can't believe I long for the days when my mom would come into the living room, turn off the TV, and push me to do my homework. It was that simple.
Growing up in the late 80's and 90's, I remember that parents used to be concerned about how talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show would negatively impact kids with respect to their interpersonal interaction with others. "Trash TV" was derided by many cultural critics, but especially parents. These days, most reality shows would make Jerry Springer blush.
I particularly worry about The Real Housewives series because the show combines luxury and glamour with dysfunction. Jerry Springer didn't make his characters appealing so much as he made them into objects of pity.
The same dysfunction we saw on shows like The Jerry Springer Show is now displayed on The Real Housewives, but this time, it's beautified and appealing, "Hey girls, you can pull off your friend's wig while you drive your Bentley -- its the best of both worlds!"
The big problem with reality programming is that most of us, including adults, forget these shows are far from real--everything is tightly scripted, shot, and edited. And The Real Housewives characters are exactly that, real life people who have been assigned a fake persona. As much as we have a difficult time remembering this point, how can we expect kids to understand that reality television is not real, especially based on the facts presented to them?
This problem is only intensified when the narratives of these reality shows are extended via television interviews and social media. We can see The Real Housewives cast members duke it out on Twitter and Facebook. Most parents wouldn't object to their children watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show, but last year we witnessed the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta going at it, right on her stage. Turn on the Today Show and you can watch cast members from The Real Housewives of New Jersey verbally strangling each other.
Young women and men have every logical reason to believe these shows are indeed "real" when cast members behave in the same way on the Today Show, a news program, as they do on the actual Real Housewives shows. They don't end their "act" like an actress or actor would when promoting a film.
As much as I would like to see kids ignore these shows and as much as I hope parents will stop them from watching, I am a realist. So, I look to the advice Geena Davis offers in Miss Representation. She thinks that it's critical to watch TV and movies with your kids as often as possible and to actively knock down gender bias or negative stereotypes when you see them -- especially in shows where you would least expect gender bias or negative stereotypes. I think this is useful and effective counsel, especially if you allow them to watch reality programming. We need to instill an understanding of what's real and that conversation is certainly not going to come from the television industry.
We are headed down a dangerous road in our culture where the line between real and scripted is no longer very clear. As much as I think that kids are smarter and more perceptive than we give them credit for -- this is one area where I don't think we should take the risk.
In 2009, musician Lily Allen released a song entitled "The Fear," a tongue-in-cheek exploration of celebrity culture.
In the chorus, she sings, "I don't know what's right and what's real anymore. And I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore."
If we're not careful, an entire generation of young women will embody those lyrics.
I'm going to do my part and change the channel.
Follow Yashar Ali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/yashar