It was while watching an episode of one of my favorite guilty pleasures, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” that it really hit me. For the most part, I’d gotten used to watching these rich, self-indulgent women spend thousands of dollars on useless frippery. It was just a window into how the other half (or really, the other one percent) lives. But this time, watching Lisa Vanderpump and her daughter Pandora coo over $100 wedding invitations set my teeth on edge. They would be spending $15,000 on invitations, invitations destined to be momentarily admired, envied, and pitched into trash cans (recycling bins if we’re lucky).
Is it time to retire reality TV about the flashy super rich?
Last year, 15.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty. And what’s considered poverty? For a family of four it’s $22,162 — just over $7,000 more than what the Vanderpumps blew on invites.
I’m not saying that the extremely wealthy don’t deserve to burn through their money any way they see fit, or that they don’t give large quantities to charity. What I’m suggesting is that, given what’s going on in the world, maybe I’m a little sick of watching the actual burning.
Really, observing these pampered stars shop for diamond necklaces or swan about designer boutiques, scooping up armfuls of pricey dresses like bored teenagers at H&M used to be, well, fun. It was fantasy, a chance to say, “If I won the lottery I’d never buy those shoes,” or sniff, “Money doesn’t buy taste” or admit, “Man, I wish I had that car/purse/luxury item.”
But as the spending prospects for most people have become less about saving pennies for a designer bag and more about cobbling together just enough scratch to cover rent but maybe (though not necessarily) food, the aspirational fantasy aspect of this kind of reality TV evaporates like cheap (or maybe very expensive) perfume. What used to be fun now seems like rubbing salt in a wound. I recently read an article which joked that we shouldn’t be dragging the one percent to the guillotines, but the fact that anyone’s even thinking about the French Revolution (Marie Antoinette’s supposedly misinterpreted crack about eating cake has crossed my mind more than once) is telling.
For once, what we’re seeing on reality TV actually might reflect a real world trend. The disconnect between most people (the 99 percent) and the super rich (the remaining percent) seems to have grown. While luxury goods took a hit during the recession as wealthy shoppers felt less confidence in the economy and — yes — a pang of guilt about indulging themselves, these days conspicuous consumption is back in vogue. Sales for Prada went up 75 percent in the third quarter (twenty-four percent of that in North America). Neiman Marcus is up 88 percent. Tiffany’s is up, as is Coach. Life is good — for some.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have unemployment sitting at 9 percent, another wave of foreclosures ahead and the Occupy movement, which has given the frustration of the American public, if not a voice, at least a presence. As shaggy and discombobulated as many of these ad hoc organizations seem to be (it seems that every time I read an article about Occupy Wall Street or Occupy L.A. or Occupy Anywhere, at least one person quoted is a chronically homeless free spirit who makes money by braiding hair and goes by the name of Waffles), they have put the plight of the shrinking American middle class front and center.
Which makes watching, say, Kim on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” host a baby shower for herself that’s more over the top than most debutante balls a little more gag inducing than it used to be. Okay, it would have always been gag inducing, but now you can add “an affront to all viewers on a budget” to the list of transgressions against good taste. Yes, it’s probably necessary for us to see shots of the cake, the chandeliers and the table settings so that the sponsors who threw that stuff in for free get a marketing bang for their buck, but if no one watching can afford this stuff, what’s the point? Would it be so terrible to let this aspect of these shows — the profligate spending – become background noise instead of lovingly filmed with actual retail pricing highlighted on the screen?
During the Great Depression, people gravitated toward the escapism of Busby Berkeley musicals about the frothy, silly adventures of the very rich and beautiful. Maybe “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” is serving the same purpose today, I don’t know. Considering the show debuted to record ratings (3.2 million), the grumbling Internet backlash against the family doesn’t seem to be making much of a dent. But lately I’ve been thinking I’d rather watch fictional rich people’s stories about silly misunderstandings and long lost love than, well, real rich people’s stories about shopping and spending (or even fake rich people’s stories about shopping and spending, given how many of the real housewives have declared bankruptcy). I’ll still tune in for the drama and the catfights, the bad marriages and the middle-aged regrets, but I’d happily skip those chyrons showing me exactly how much a dress or in-home tanning machine would set me back (I won’t be buying, thank you very much). At least Busby Berkeley musicals had great dance numbers.