“Real Housewives’” child exploitation

The Bravo show turns dysfunction into entertainment, but some of its subjects are too young to protect themselves

Topics: The Real Housewives, Children, Parenting, Reality TV, Teenagers, Television,

"Real Housewives'" child exploitation

During a recent episode of Bravo’s massively popular “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” housewives Jacquie and Dina meet at a maternity shop, to buy a gift for a fellow housewife.

Jacquie frets about her 18-year-old, Ashley, who refuses to heed her warnings about the dangers of going to clubs.

“Ever try knocking the shit out of her?” Dina says.

Both women laugh.

“I just think that she maybe needs to open a can of whoop-ass, kick her ass, and then maybe she’ll listen,” Dina clarifies. “She needs a good old-fashioned Italian beating.”

Rest assured, the RHONJs do not actually beat their offspring on camera. That would be illegal. What they do instead, on a weekly basis, is harass, humiliate and exploit them.

Consider housewife Danielle. She’s the designated villain of the program, a skeletal divorcee with a dark past and money problems. During the same episode, we see her informing her 15-year-old, Christine, that a modeling agency wants to hire her.

“When you make it big, you gonna remember me?” Danielle asks.

“Yeah,” Christine mumbles.

“Promise?” she says, nudging the girl with her sandal.

“Yeah,” the girl repeats.

Danielle then turns to her 11-year-old, who looks (if this is even possible) more miserable than her older sister. “How about you, Jillian? You’re next. Maybe I made a couple of stars. Superstars. And then we’ll get another big house eventually.”

This is what’s known, in “RHONJ” circles, as a strong pimp hand.

It’s no secret at this point that reality TV is a genre built on the perverse pageantry of degradation. For years, the basic formula has been to fill a mansion with unstable wannabe actors, pit them against one another, feed them booze, and watch them fuck and fight. As long as everyone is of age (and has filled out the required paperwork indemnifying the network) it’s all fair game. There’s no law against people making fools of themselves on national TV.

But what happens when the genre’s demographic reach starts to invade childhood — when those caught in the manufactured mayhem are too young to protect themselves?

The answer is pretty simple: Exploitation.



Sometimes, the accusations are overt, as in the case of “Kid Nation,” an ill-fated CBS effort that asked 40 children to build their own society in a New Mexico ghost town. The result was at least one complaint to state officials, accusing producers of neglect, after several children were injured during filming.

Last year, the Pennsylvania labor department launched an investigation to determine whether the Learning Channel’s hit show “Jon & Kate Plus 8″ was complying with child labor laws.

But concerns about reality TV’s youngest stars extend beyond labor laws. “What the producers of these shows are doing fits the larger pattern of commercial exploitation of children that’s been growing for the past 20 years,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University who specializes in the impact of popular culture on children. “It’s part of an amorality that’s accepted in this country.”

What makes “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” uniquely disturbing in the reality TV pantheon is the pervasive undercurrent of violence that animates the show. In an obvious effort to ape “The Sopranos,” the five housewives are framed as the capos of their respective families. The tropes are all there: the tough talk about family loyalty, the sit-downs at Italian restaurants, and, of course, the confrontations.

The producers of “RHONJ” spend much of their time striving to incite a conflict between ex-con Danielle and the other housewives. They hit the jackpot last season when a housewife named Teresa unleashed a profane tirade against Danielle, flipped a table, and had to be restrained, presumably from a physical assault. Bravo aired the infamous table flip no fewer than eight times.

Did it trouble network executives that Danielle’s children (15 and 11 years old) were watching all this? Apparently not, given that they were enlisted by Bravo to comment on-camera about the outburst.

“All that matters is boosting ratings to sell products,” says Carlsson-Paige, whose latest book is “Taking Back Childhood.” “And to do this, they bring children into a world where it’s OK to hurt them to enforce discipline, to let them see adults throwing tables, to push them into adult behaviors that have nothing to do with their actual developmental needs.”

Predictably, season two has been devoted to fomenting another conflict. During a recent episode, Danielle — informed that the other housewives are throwing a party — threatens to drive over and confront them.

The only reason she doesn’t is because her daughters, who are trapped in the back seat of her SUV, literally beg her not to. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, specifically because Danielle’s children have to battle not only their deranged mother, but a team of producers deeply invested in her derangement.

Trust me when I tell you that reality TV gins up the drama. A few years ago, producers for a short-lived VH1 series asked to film a “documentary-type” segment about my candy obsession, based on a memoir I’d written. A crew of six arrived at my home and proceeded to march me through a series of increasingly absurd scripted “scenes.” Pathetically, I went along with their requests until I was asked to “roll in candy” on my bed, something I’d last done when I was 5 years old.

As a reminder: I was an adult who voluntarily participated in an obscure show. But just imagine you’re the child of a RHONJ. Whether you like it or not, you’re part of a multimillion-dollar franchise. Your family life is suddenly scripted, and filmed, and your parents’ most vicious and petty tendencies are continually stoked for the cameras.

There’s a particularly despicable moment during a recent episode, when Caroline — the oldest of the housewives and the most besotted by her maternal ferocity — begins talking about Danielle’s children.

“Don’t you find it unusual that when you look at her children, you have children who have a light in their eyes, an expression, an innocence of childhood — don’t you think that’s lacking in her children’s eyes?”

“Oh, totally,” Teresa says. “They’re different. They’ve been exposed to too much.”

“Socially, they’re awkward,” Caroline concludes.

The idea that insulting these children on national TV might constitute unhealthy exposure apparently never occurred to the housewives, or to the Bravo execs who chose to air this exchange.

“RHONJ” is lousy with this sort of unintended irony.

At one point, we see Teresa cajoling her daughters to pose for glamour shots on their first day of school. Her 5-year-old quickly melts down. “No more pictures!” the girl shrieks, over and over. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that her overreaction probably has something to do with the camera crew that’s invaded her home, and absorbed her mother’s attention.

The housewives march through their paces completely blind to the needs of their children, and pathologically devoted to their hatred of each other. “She’s a con artist and she’s going for the weakest link,” Caroline hisses at one point, referring to Danielle.

The real con artists here are the producers, who have recruited a quintet of weak, narcissistically needy woman, and set them against one another for profit.

That would be just another day at the office, if these women didn’t have kids. But they do, most of them too young to grasp the cynical charade unfolding around them. They just see tables flipped, insults spewed and cameras merrily capturing all of it.

The ultimate tragedy of a show such as “RHONJ,” Carlsson Paige observes, is that it manages to commodify the destruction of childhood. “There’s this kind of voyeuristic excitement people get from watching other people cross over the boundaries of acceptable human behavior. It makes people feel better about themselves to sit in judgment. But it’s the kids who are paying the price. They’re screwed. It’s so so sad.”

Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of the memoir “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.”

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>