When people become corporations: Product placement and gender construction on Bravo TV's “The Real Housewives of New York City”
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This dissertation examines Bravo TV's reality show The Real Housewives of New York Cityand the commercial environment surrounding it, to document how cast members use the program as a vehicle for product placement. These cast members have conceived relatively large entrepreneurial empires by using the show as an infomercial for their books and a variety of other products, including jewelry, clothing, and skincare. Integrating American Studies and media/communications scholarship, I explore how the promotion of these products revolves around the cast members' own life stories and physical bodies. Although existing scholarship has documented how consumerism exists at the center of most television narratives (on reality television and scripted shows) and how the normative female body is disciplined and restricted in Western culture, I introduce the notion that these cast members are branded individuals, or what I call “people-as-corporations,” in an effort to illustrate how their reality show personas, bodies, and entrepreneurial endeavors become one. I analyze the show itself as a “camp performance” (due to its over-the-top representation of femininity and conspicuous inauthenticity) that grants cast members the necessary representational artificiality to promote themselves as personified corporations, and notably not as actual housewives. This show grows out of the intertextual progression of programs such as Sex and the City and Desperate Housewivesyet despite Bravo TV's knowing ironic wink at an audience presumably fluent in pop-cultural artificiality and intertextuality, these Real Housewives successfully promote normative commercialized lifestyles and female bodies. They advertise a particular neoliberal version of self-reliance that places all responsibility for success with the individual while ignoring structural economic inequality. Through what I call a “post-class performance,” viewers are taught that discussions about class identity in the United States are a faux pas - instead entrepreneurship and conspicuous consumption are promoted as the road to cultural inclusion and respectability. In other words, class is performed, not a socioeconomic category. The introductory chapter presents the theoretical foundation and explains how reality television creates campy artificial environments conducive to product promotion. Chapter 2 describes how close relationships between people and their possessions created respectable, white, televised housewives decades before the Real Housewivesduring television's infancy. This chapter draws parallels between the single-sponsor system of the early days of television and the current ubiquity of consumer products advertised on reality television to explore the naturalization of gendered and racialized consumerism. Chapter 3 documents how Bravo TV perfects the use of product placement by creating programs sufficiently campy to include commodities en massebut also people-as-commodities, i.e. the mass-production of celebrity that Bravo TV calls “bravolebrity.” These millennial celebrities are not expected to portray authentic human interaction - they are free to promote their product lines. Chapter 4 zooms in on cast member Bethenny Frankel's Skinnygirl brand in order to document how the disciplined body is marketed as empowering to women. Chapter 5 explores how, for instance, Jill Zarin and Alex McCord represent modern versions of the US housewife. She no longer derives her social respectability from cake-baking - instead she maneuvers successfully in an urban economy of product promotion. This chapter describes how Jill and Alex promote fashionable clothing and decorative items through fictionalized tongue-in-cheek narratives based on their own lives. Chapter 6 explores how the aristocratic or financial “upper class,” exemplified by Countess LuAnn de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan, naturalizes an economy based on individual initiative, as opposed to fair distribution of wealth, by teaching viewers to “perform” a deserving attitude toward wealth and privilege. The Conclusion sums up my findings.