This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
Last weekend the NYR Online published “Wages for Housewives,” an essay by the scholar and critic Anna Shechtman on the reality TV series The Real Housewives. The title alludes to the work of the Marxist feminist theorist Silvia Federici, who in 1974 argued that women’s housework under capitalism was always “destined to be unwaged.” What happened, Shechtman asks, when Bravo decided in 2006 to pay women wages “to be Housewives, Real Housewives, on cable television”?
Shechtman’s writing ranges across the history of media in the twentieth century, from the evolution of MoMA’s wall texts to Richard Wright’s engagements with cinema to the history of crossword puzzles, which she has constructed for The New Yorker since 2018. (“The new queen of crosswords,” The Guardian proclaimed her a year later.) Her current scholarly research focuses on the concept of “media” itself, a term that she shows proliferated among public intellectuals at midcentury. Previously she has written for the Review on the white women in Claire Denis’s films (“well-educated but resistant to learning, class-conscious yet relentlessly naïve”) and, with her sometime collaborator D.A. Miller, on David Cronenberg’s visions of “new sex.”
We e-mailed this week about using reality TV as background viewing, puzzle construction as women’s labor, and the “work that most of us do in want of a wage.”
Max Nelson: When did you start watching The Real Housewives?
Anna Shechtman: I started watching the franchise when it wasn’t yet a franchise. It was just The Real Housewives of Orange County, in 2006. I was in high school at the time, and—stay with me through this peculiar fact of my biography—I was writing crossword puzzles in my free time. I liked to have something on in the background as I tried to cross letters in my graph paper notebook, and so the OC Housewives were like my white noise. My very white noise.
The pacing of the show allows for partial viewing. If the grid I was constructing required my full attention, I could miss a scene or two, knowing that the drama I missed would be rehearsed and rehashed over the course of the episode or season. Over time, I’ve developed deep attachments to these women and to “my shows,” as I call them in the great tradition of soaps. I still never “just watch” an episode. Instead they stream alongside me as I’m doing housework—tidying my home—or writing crosswords—tidying my grids. The franchise, however, has changed dramatically since 2006. The genre has evolved—inflected by the accents of new cities and the norms of new social-media forms, which have made their way into the shows’ plots—even as the tropes have stayed the same: the portentous recommitment ceremony, the inevitable Gatsby-themed party, the same fight over who gets the best room on a “girls’ trip.”
I’m still gripped because the Housewives still manage to innovate within these tight conventions. They’re so studied in the art of feminine injury and excess—and in the production of reality TV. The most successful Housewives know how to skate the fine line between producing something real and contrived, seductive and abject. This is why I could never identify as a rubbernecker (and I don’t think most fans do). It’s not a car crash I gawk at, but a death drive I pursue, watching as the Housewives try, in their exaggerated way, to gain some mastery over their own narratives despite pressure from their castmates and producers. Because they’re women, that pressure often emerges in conflicting imperatives: to be hot but not a slut, to be hot but a good mom, to be hot but age gracefully. We know this drill. Its lack of novelty—these are scripts we can’t seem to shake—is what makes the Housewives’ repeat performances almost therapeutic to watch. It’s a Glamazon’s game of fort/da.
The “we” in your essay is a character in itself: “we enjoy” watching the Housewives quarrel, “we find” it worth paying for; “we saw” the tabloids that cover them. Of course, many readers of the piece might not watch or enjoy The Real Housewives at all, but the “we” is strikingly “remorseless” (to use Renata Adler’s word) about subscribing them all to its perspective anyway. What was the thinking behind that decision?
As you know, I felt strongly about this editorial decision. It’s not just that I wanted to enlist as Housewives fans those readers who might be tempted to hold their noses. I’m not advocating that everyone become slack-jawed Bravo viewers. It’s valid to look away in disgust. But I wanted to emphasize the recursive nature of the show: you can’t talk about the Housewives without participating in the franchises’ project, because the franchises’ project is talking about the Housewives. It’s really all the women do. Images of recursion appear through the essay—revolving doors, the Ouroboros, Möbius bands, feedback loops—and the “we” was another way to access this hallmark of the genre.
Collectivity is also the spirit of the Wages for Housework Movement. “We are all housewives!” Silvia Federici says, ushering the feminist who wants to disavow the title (as retrograde) and the working-class woman (who maybe never got to claim the title in the first place) into identification with the housewife’s particular form of “privileged” servitude. She should understand her unpaid labor as work and fight against her exploitation. In some way, I wanted to echo Federici here: “We are all Real Housewives!” On their shows, the Housewives increasingly discuss their performances as work—contract disputes surface as plot points—but the work that they do (producing femininity, producing content) is work that most of us do in want of a wage.
One of your current scholarly projects is how and when the word “media” entered the vernacular in English, and the tangle of associations and anxieties it brought with it. What were some of those anxieties, and where do you see their lingering influence in the rhetoric around shows like The Real Housewives?
This is a big one. The media concept is centripetal, drawing all sorts of other fraught terms (communication, technology, art, entertainment) into its orbit. Looking at how and when it gathered these other concepts can point us to changes in the production and distribution of culture across industries. This is the subject of my next book: Why did journalism start being identified as the media? Why did we stop talking about various arts and start talking about different artistic mediums? What’s the difference between celebrity and media personality? Between cultural studies and media studies? Between social networking and social media?
One of the pervasive cultural anxieties that the term “media” exacerbates is the slippage between art and commerce. We might be tempted to call various art forms mediums, whereas media signals a commercial product. But that distinction doesn’t hold up under pressure. The Real Housewives can actually help us see how much the media concept has muddied the waters between art and commerce in contemporary TV production, especially when we consider the show as a franchise. We know what a “media franchise” is—think of Star Wars or any other intellectual property that can be licensed across different mediums (movies, TV shows, video games, etc.). This noun is always singular: Star Wars is a media franchise.
An earlier notion of “franchise,” which emerged before the media concept was popularized in the late 1950s, is the “retail franchise,” in which a company, say McDonald’s, allows individuals to own one of its restaurants in return for royalties. This noun can be pluralized: a highway is dotted with McDonald’s franchises. Because they’re mostly produced by different independent production companies, the Real Housewives shows are franchises in this original sense, licensed by Bravo (like a McDonald’s), and they are franchises in the newer sense, part of the Bravo media universe (like Star Wars). They occupy a cultural space between Lucasfilm and Happy Meals.
You’ve also been writing recently about the history of crossword puzzle construction, a job that you’ve shown has historically been just as fraught an arena as reality TV for sorting out “the terms by which women are judged.” Do you see any useful parallels in that respect between crosswords and reality TV?
My book The Riddles of The Sphinx, which comes out early next year, is partly about the history of the crossword puzzle as a form of women’s work. Crosswords were invented in 1913. For decades, they were written by and associated with women—with the New Woman (who was as inscrutable to patriarchy as the puzzle) and bored housewives (who had the time to “weave with language” and often had college degrees that they weren’t otherwise putting to work in the home). Now their production has been masculinized; the majority of crosswords are produced by men, and they’re associated with nerds, a male-coded stereotype.
To answer your question, I’m clearly invested in recovering forms of labor that, precisely because they have historically been performed by women, aren’t readily legible as work. We see that in the history of reality TV and in the more recent history of the content-creation economy, too. We’ve been taught to identify this kind labor as “fame-whoring” or “clout chasing”—not work at all.
Crossword puzzles, the media concept, reality TV: part of what you stress about all these subjects is their overdetermination, the fact that they all seem to generate a linguistic or conceptual overload. By harnessing “the limitless signifying power of language” to the grid, you’ve written, the crossword puzzle “acts as a window into our fantasies, tastes, and unyielding fixations,” just as the media concept seemed at midcentury to point to all “the technical, ideological, and environmental conditions of modern life” at once. What appeals to you about these excessive, too-much subjects?
You’re right that I’m drawn to overdetermined, “too-much” concepts. (I tend to like people who are “too much,” too.) In my scholarship and criticism, I’m always looking for ways to tease out the latent meanings of words that seem to signify so much that we simultaneously assume we know what they mean (because they’re so ubiquitous) and can barely grasp them (because they’re so capacious that they lose almost all specificity): media, culture, labor, data.
Language is always my way into a project: whether it’s wondering what the difference between mass media and mainstream media is, or what the shared etymology of the housewife and the hussy can tell us about the evolution of gender norms since the sixteenth century. I’ve always wondered if I shouldn’t have studied philology instead of media studies. But then I wouldn’t get to justify my excessive Housewives watching as “work.”