Generally, I bristle at the term “guilty pleasure.” There’s plenty in life to feel guilty about but if we respond to something, isn’t that a testament to its hidden richness, power or complexity? (Yes, I’m talking about this, or this).
But there is a pleasure I feel supremely guilty about, which is my abiding fascination with a particular Bravo show involving a particular group of alternately neurasthenic, neurotic or clinically hysterical women residing in New York City—or at least I’m told it’s New York City, though they never seem to occupy physical spaces I have ever actually seen in person.
Truthfully, I feel more guilty about my guilt over watching this show than I do for watching the show itself. But the truth of the matter is, self-justification or rationalization or not, I think the show (and less frequently its other variations) are stunningly telling about female power relations. And I think it’s true.
That is not to say I believe these women actually behave like any women I know (the conspicuous consumption and entitlement is the most frustrating, if invigorating, element of the show). This is, after all, more the tenor of Bette Davis/Joan Crawford femininity—femininity as nearly a kind of drag. But, that said, there are shadows, skittering glimpses of things I do understand about the way many women are bred/forced/encouraged to show/conceal/wield power.
The show brings up painful reminders of the mercenary quality of sixth-grade-girl-cliques. But it also reveals, at times, even subtler ways that women of a certain age (this is, after all, the rare show where all the women are over 35) must protect themselves, must perform. Must wear the mask of femininity, even when the mask becomes a gorgon one.
So this is what I tell myself when I do watch. The larger question for me is why I feel a keen sense of shame even writing about this show I have yet to name. Because, after all, the pleasure I get is not incomparable to the guilt-free experience of savoring Margo Channing assert, “I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut,” or watching Regan and Goneril circle each other, ready to pluck out eyes.