With their fast cars, petty troubles and expensive hobbies, we’re fascinated with how the other half live. Harry Browse argues that this desire to gawp at the lives of the rich is not only unhealthy, but downright perverted.
It’s impossible to avoid the onslaught of so-called constructed reality television. Launched in 2014 to satisfy a growing demand for the sub-genre that lurks in the uncanny valley between Big Brother and Hollyoaks, ITVBe hosts its finest work. It’s shining beacons of programming are The Only Way is Essex and The Real Housewives of Cheshire; the latter trailing just behind the former in the channel’s ratings. Both shows uphold a belief that wealth is the means and measurement of personal happiness, fulfilment and success. On the surface we’re presented with a voyeuristic glance at how the other half live but beneath lies a misery that money cannot hide. If Channel 4’s Benefits Street was slated as ‘poverty porn’ then these glistening gems of ITVBe are ‘elite erotica,’ and it is just as toxic.
The show’s pornographic depiction of decadence overwhelms the conversation; while the Real Housewives discuss Rachel’s turbulent divorce over a glass of champagne, I’m googling the bar they’re sitting in.
In this particular realm of TV programming, the complexity of the human experience has been replaced with graphic materialism. It’s most explicit example being ITVBe’s The Real Housewives of Cheshire – a UK spin off of the hit US reality franchise. Now in its eleventh series, the show follows eight wealthy ‘housewives’ from the affluent county of Cheshire as they balance the hardships of shopping, drinking and arguing in restaurants. The show does touch on serious issues such as mental health, but its pornographic depiction of decadence overwhelms the conversation; while the Real Housewives discuss Rachel’s turbulent divorce over a glass of champagne, I’m googling the bar they’re sitting in. When these moments of gravity occur, a wide shot of a Range Rover parked outside a luxury boutique is never far away; providing a moment of relief for the viewer who’s tuned in to gawp at Dawn Ward’s £11 million mansion. Wealth is the pain relief of choice for the real housewife. After all, wouldn’t you rather cry in the backseat of a Porche?
Swap the the designer dresses for a bargain Primark frock, Manchester’s swanky restaurant district for a city centre Wetherspoons, the bottles of Moet for cans of Stella and you’ve got yourself a hen party brawl worthy of a Channel 4 documentary.
Yet, money has never been an antidote for pain. Dawn Ward, the self-titled ‘Queen of Cheshire,’ is the show’s stand out star and its most miserable. She’s always the first to bite when there’s drama. Glass of bubbly in hand, her face drops like a deflated bouncy castle. She locks eyes with her prey – one of the girls who gave her a dirty look at her charity fundraiser – and she attacks. Swap the designer dresses for a bargain Primark frock, Manchester’s swanky restaurant district for a city centre Wetherspoons, the bottles of Moet for cans of Stella and you’ve got yourself a hen party brawl worthy of a Channel 4 documentary. The same rules don’t apply to the rich. They don’t get documentaries, they get constructed reality, a genre which basks in their excess without holding their behaviour to account.
Executive Producer of Sky One’s Pineapple Dance Studios, Johnathan Stadlen, said in an interview with the BBC that a constructed reality series should make people think, “I wish that was me or I’m glad that’s not me.” The life of a Cheshire housewife sits awkwardly in the middle. The Real Housewives franchise has tried its best to redefine the gendered term but has ultimately failed to transform it into a symbol of empowerment. Those who argue that the housewives represent a brand of 21st century feminism do so on the premise that these women earn a lot of money and are therefore liberated from the typical view of a housewife as an economic subordinate. This would be a convincing argument if the life of a real housewife didn’t seem so bloody miserable.
You can’t blame the housewives for choosing a life of ‘elite erotica’, in the same way you can’t blame real porn stars for the exploits of the porn industry. They’re also victims in our urge for constructed reality TV. When I watch The Real Housewives of Cheshire, I see eight women desperate for their stories to be heard in all their complexity and nuance. However, once they’ve been filtered through the machine of constructed reality television, their lives come to represent nothing more than yet another gendered ideal; a domestic fantasy populated with diamonds, fast cars and bottomless brunches. If this is what freedom under capitalism looks like, then I think it’s about time we changed the channel.