What the Hell Has TV Done to Real Housewives?

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Does Jill Zarin have anything in common with June Cleaver? If you watch any of the Real Housewives shows on Bravo, you have to wonder if kids are growing up now not knowing what a "housewife" is. June Cleaver, if you don't remember black and white TV, was Beaver and Wally's mom on a CBS sitcom that aired in medieval times (the late 1950s). Great gal, she was, too, played by actress Barbara Billingsley, who died last fall at the age of 94.

Jill Zarin is one of The Real Housewives of New York City, known by its Twitter hashtag #RHONY. She's the bottle redhead who lives in a high-rise apartment that looks like a mini-Versailles, all mirrors, gilt furnishings and yappy dogs. She's a flinty woman who has feuded with everyone on her reality show, notably with Bethenny Frankel, who spun off into her own Bravo reality series, Bethenny Ever After (nee Bethenny Getting Married), and recently sold her Skinny Girl cocktail brand to Beam Global Spirits, a liquor bottler, for $120 million.

All of the Real Housewives in the Bravo franchise have piles of money. They occupy high-end real estate in NYC, Orange County, Atlanta and New Jersey (the D.C. and Miami housewives didn't draw viewers, so their shows were zarched).

Jill's dough comes from her husband's upholstery fabric company. Her best friend (this week) Ramona Singer, a 54-year-old blond with eyes set on perma-bug, has a business reselling overstocked retail goods; Ramona's husband owns a religious jewelry company. Their fellow RHONY girls are: Countess Luann de Lesseps, divorced from the count but still using the title as she tries to launch a recording career; Sonja Morgan, divorced from one of the banking Morgans and now facing bankruptcy; Kelly Killoren Bensimon, divorced from a fashion photographer and known as the housewife with the darkest tan and lightest hold on reality; Cindy Barshop, a single mother of twins who made her money running a pube-waxing salon; Alex McCord van Kempen, married to metrosexual ex-hotel manager Simon, and trying to start a modeling career despite advanced age and bad teeth.

I mention these arcane details for those who've never watched this show. And bless you for having better things to do. I spend most evenings curled up next to my best friend, television, and know more about the lives of the Real Housewives than I know about most of my human friends. Definitely more than I know about older women in my family who actually were housewives during the June Cleaver-Harriet Nelson-Carol Brady years.

I know, for instance, that Sonja Morgan recently had to deal with a clogged toilet in her Upper East Side townhouse. To unclog it, she stuck her bare hand into the bowl and pulled out a BlackBerry that had fallen in, presumably out of a pocket and not ... somewhere else. Just before doing this, she said: "I mean, you know, when you go to the bank and they say, 'What is your occupation?' And I say housewife. That, eh -- housewife. And it kind of sounds light. It's not. I'm married to the house."

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Who pops into your head when you hear "housewife": June or Jill?
June Cleaver was married to Ward, who carried a briefcase to work while June stayed home, baked cakes and vacuumed their modest two-story home in a starched cotton shirtwaist dress and pearls. The Cleavers lived in Mayfield, a fictional Midwestern town where kids played ball on vacant lots and were never the subjects of Amber alerts. June's biggest worry was Wally's pal Eddie Haskell, who liked to talk other kids into mischief. "Dear, do you think all parents have this much trouble?" June asked Ward after Wally and the Beav got into a little scrape. Answered Ward: "No, just parents with children."

Leave It to Beaver had a shrewd, dry wit about it. The kids sounded like kids and the adults were unfailingly polite, with just a hint of sarcasm under all the "dears" and "honeys." June never raised her voice. She didn't cry or hit or embarrass her sons by, say, getting rip-roaring drunk on pinot grigio at one of their birthday parties (did you see Ramona at her daughter's Sweet 16 two weeks ago?).

I know, June was fiction and Jill and Ramona are "real." But come on, who'd you rather bring a report card home to? Mothers of the 1950s and '60s may not have modeled themselves on June Cleaver, but are Jill and her posse what define "housewives" now?

Amusing as they are to watch, they really are horrible people. Ever see them cook a meal or have something like a "moment" with their kids? Do they ever have a conversation or perform any act of kindness that isn't self-serving? The Real Housewives, even after watching themselves for several years, still come across as preening, whiny shrews too busy lunching, shopping and Botoxing to care that their kids are turning into snotty little Eddie Haskells. (I've picked up clues by watching these episodes like the Zapruder film.)

The Real Housewives are constantly jetting off for another "girls' getaway" to some exotic resort, but what exactly do they need to get away from?

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 5 million women in this country who identify as full-time homemakers and/or stay-at-home mothers without outside employment. (That reminds me of an old Bella Abzug quote: "I prefer the word 'homemaker' because 'housewife' always implies that there may be a wife someplace else.") That's compared to 72 million, or roughly 59.5 percent of all American women over age 16, who work outside the home or are currently looking for work.

There are, according to the same set of census statistics, only 154,000 stay-at-home fathers or "househusbands" in the U.S.

Not one of the ladies on any of the Real Housewives shows would fit the census' category of "housewife." After all, they're TV stars. They're married to being rich and famous. The next U.S. Census should have a new box to check: "reality show housewife." Those numbers are soaring.


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The Beave
The Beave

Barbara Billingsley's greatest role may have been in Airplane.  "Cut me some slack, Jack!"

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