As part of my semi-annual check-in with current TV shows, I've been sampling the various reality shows about housewives. You don't have to like any of them to treat them like National Geographic, though that assumes they aren't the freak show kind of reality show.
Like how the first several seasons of The Real World on MTV gave a strikingly -- and painfully -- accurate view of contemporary youth culture of the early-mid-1990s. Then it devolved into gimmick-driven plots and casting based on freak show / Jerry Springer principles. You could learn a lot about the state of the world in 1992 from watching the original seasons, and really get a feel for the massive change in direction that the entire culture was taking at the time.
I've only seen two episodes, but Pretty Wicked Moms has a great contrast between a mother who would have half-way fit in back in the '70s or '80s (Emily) and her quintessentially 21st-century foil (Miranda). Emily is, by today's standards, pretty laissez-faire around her 2 year-old, unless she acts up, which results in punishment. Her daughter is outgoing, polite, and generally cheerful.
Miranda is crippled by OCD, scheduling her nearly 2 year-old son's day down to the half-hour, and lets him throw tantrums and even slap his own mother without punishment (she's insistent on the no-spanking rule). Her son is withdrawn, bratty, and embarrassing in public. And while both mothers are blonde, Emily is a go-with-the-flow Celtic type, and Miranda an overly orderly and micro-managing Nordic type.
Now, hypothetically, the differences between the kids could be inborn, and the parenting styles of the two mothers turn out different because they're reacting to different initial conditions. But I don't buy that as a general explanation. There has been such a dramatic and rapid change in parenting styles over the '90s and 21st century. That seems much more likely due to plasticity in the adult's choice of preferred parenting styles, than to such a broad change in how newborns begin life.
The show feels a little grotesque, but it is hardly rare to find hyper-OCD mothers like Miranda these days. Apparently "critical response" is negative, but then the target audience probably wants either extreme caricature for freak-show value, or whitewashing portrayals for phony uplifting value. Pretty Wicked Moms might cut a little too close to the bone.
The Real Housewives of New Jersey is definitely a freak show -- When Guidos Attack. The Real Housewives of Orange County feels that way too -- No-Longer-Girls Gone Wild. Same old boring attention-whoring and parading that's the norm among young people, but with way more leathery skin.
However, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (at least the current season that I've seen) focuses more on how the parents are raising their kids, and how they relate to each other as fellow parents in the community. Perhaps because Beverly Hills is close to the entertainment industry that produces TV shows, they haven't taken the approach of finding the grossest caricatures of out-group members to cast for a freak show (e.g., quasi-Pakistani guidos from Noo Joyzee obsessed with family honor and vengeance, gated-community Republicans from the OC, sassy independent black women from Atlanta, etc.). You actually get more of a fly-on-the-wall look into mainstream American parenting trends of the 21st century.
Often a single event will showcase so many separate though related trends. Like when one of the housewives throws a birthday party for her four year-old daughter. Each pint-sized attendee is over-shadowed by one or both parents, so that there ends up being far many more grown-ups than children at a child's birthday party.
In the good old days, when these parents were themselves children, the parents of the guests only showed up long enough to drop them off and pick them up. A birthday party is supposed to be one of those protected events where little squirts outnumber the grown-ups and get to run wild, a carnivalesque turning of the tables for one day. Being surrounded by so many grown-ups makes the kids feel like they're being supervised even more than usual, or that it's actually a celebration for the grown-ups.
And the OCD mothers running around constantly managing the children's activities at what is supposed to be a more go-nuts kind of occasion, when before they just left us alone to play among ourselves.
It being Beverly Hills, the festivities are a lot more elaborate and expensive, but I saw the same thing -- minus the rented ponies and llama -- while driving through a middle-class suburban neighborhood not far from mine.
You also get a very good overall impression for how vapid and childish women tend to remain when they're cut off from broad social contact, and instead interact only with nuclear family members and superficially with other community members. It keeps their social maturity level stunted at around that of a 10th-grader.
So over the past 20 years of the "family values revolution," we've returned to the state that Betty Friedan was bemoaning in The Feminine Mystique, and that is shown well in the character of Betty Draper on Mad Men. The exodus from the domestic sphere that raised the maturity level of the average woman by the 1980s was not so much about working for a wage vs. working as a homemaker -- it was about having broad social contact vs. kin-only contact. Just getting out of the house more, and being more connected to all those people out there.
For instance, you don't see Betty Draper volunteering at a local church, in the way that many mothers, younger and older, had taken to by the '80s height of the religious revival. Or organizing a bake sale with the other neighborhood mothers (or women in general) to raise funds for the school, library, and so on. Or donating time, money, or effort to a local historical preservation society, of the kind that were really hitting their stride in the '70s and '80s.
Inequality is a lot worse, and growing, since the Fifties, so today's neo-mid-century housewives are definitely more competitive and crass than their most recent incarnations. Still, it's striking how Leave It to Beaver the world of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills feels like. No sense of a tightly knit community -- defined by actual affective ties, not by the mere lack of open animosity or violence toward one another.
Cohesive communities belong not to the Eisenhower years (the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), but to the Reagan years. The communal bonds of church life and of town hall meetings that you see in Footloose, the Hill Valley preservation society raising funds to save the town square's clock tower in Back to the Future, the entire city of New York showing up to rally around the Ghostbusters, the Cheers bar where everybody knows your name -- you don't feel that in Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. There, it's more isolated nuclear families with at most superficial "bonds" among the family units.
So, if you're looking for a more educational experience from those 1000 channels you're paying for, tune in to Lifetime or Bravo for these two exceptions to the freak show rule of reality TV.