NOTE: This post is part 5 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister.
Because most daytime TV shows target women—specifically heterosexual women in their mid-20s or older, women who either have or want children, who are married or are very interested in being married—these shows all devote at least some time to the ways in which women can identify their flaws, hide their flaws, and make themselves more desirable to men in general. Nearly every show will devote some time during the week to talking about how to get into relationships, how to fix bad relationships, how to spice up bland relationships, and how to avoid common relationship mistakes.
Still, even in this landscape, Bethenny is singularly obsessed with relationships. Every episode I watched included at least one segment on relationship issues, and these segments frequently consumed thirty to forty-five minutes of air time. Each segment has a different name—one is a Relationship Roundtable, another is Top 10 Common Relationships Mistakes, another is the Relationship Torture Wheel— but they are all the same. A panel of people will discuss pretty generic issues of trust, loyalty, sexual incompatibility, and communication. According to my wife and various internet sources, I’ve learned that Bethenny is well-known for having experienced a number of high-profile of relationship failures, which either makes her an expert on these issues or it makes her uniquely unqualified to dispense relationship advice five days a week.
It’s hard to tell whether she keeps returning to this topic because the producers have determined it’s entertaining or because of the more practical matter that this show is incapable of drawing good guests. More than the host or the slick production values, quality guests are essential to a daytime show thriving. If Clooney is there, people are watching. But nobody is tuning in to see third-rate comedian Chuck Nice, who appears so frequently on Bethenny that he must live in the studio attic. Certainly nobody is tuning in to see fifth-rate comedian Mike Cannon who is so unfunny his jokes are like humor antimatter. Nobody is programming a reminder into their phone to watch Bethenny because some person from Jerseylicious is there, ready to opine. More than any other factor, this dearth of remotely interesting guests is probably why the show was canceled, and surely the cancellation made it even harder to book guests for the remainder of the season.
At this point, Bethenny is reduced to booking an endless parade of bad comedians and “outrageous” types from Bravo reality shows whose entire lives are devoted to debasing themselves on TV. Because none of them is talented, interesting, or accomplished enough to carry a segment themselves, they’re assembled into discussion panels and asked to cover a thousand permutations on the same basic question: what’s the deal with how men and women are different?
Nobody, as a rule, says anything that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before.
Maybe this is naïve, but I doubt most viewers are hoping to glean any insight from one of the stars ofMob Wives w/r/t building a functional human relationship. Maybe I’m too optimistic when I say nobody is sitting in the waiting room at Pep Boys and saying, Yes, Vinny from Jersey Shore makes a great point about compromise. If I’m right, if I’m not giving people too much credit, then I don’t know what function these relationship roundtables serve except to repeat an endless litany of received wisdom about how women are different from men. Men are from Mars. Women are from some other place that’s not Mars but also not Earth. They all revolve around the sun and the sun hates them all.
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An abridged list of relationship advice delivered on Bethenny during the period of 4/30/14-5/13/14, presented without editorial comment:
When a man is on a date with a woman, he needs to believe that she is a virgin. He needs to know he’s “her first”
As a woman, you need to set up your house and take care of it so your man never wants to leave
When a man cheats it’s because his woman isn’t taking care of business at home
A ho is a ho and slut is a slut and you don’t want to be a ho or a slut
Everybody in every relationship cheats, but women are better at lying about it
It’s a modern world. Women earn as much money as men.
Go with your gut
Believe in yourself
It’s exhausting being a good man, so men deserve credit for at least trying. When you don’t praise your man for being good, he doesn’t know to keep doing it
Men should be in charge of some things and women should be in charge of other things and one of those things men should be in charge of is making reservations and another is determining when, where, and how sexual intercourse is going to occur
Snooping is ok if you’re a woman, because women have a biological need to snoop on their partners
You gotta fertilize that flower every day
Some women like bad boys
Not all women like bad boys
Most women like bad boys
If you tell a woman she’s beautiful every morning she’ll never leave you
When a man does things a woman should do, or when a woman does things a man should do, a relationship can’t function.
It is emasculating for a man to work from home
Women always have The Power of The V to help them win arguments
It’s easy for women to say no to men.
It’s about compromise
It’s about balance
It’s about different personality types
It’s about finding that compromise
It’s about finding the person who’s right for you
It’s all about making compromises
You need to think about women in terms of pets. If you don’t feed your animal, someone else will.
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I have two more pages of those.
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To Bethenny’s credit, she actually challenges the most hackneyed comments—why, after all, should women have to acquiesce every time their man wants sex? Why is it so wrong for a woman to ask a man out on a date? Why is it bad for women to earn more money than men? She does a decent job of pointing out that everything they’re saying is an absurd generalization. But her panelists are undeterred in their mission to say infuriatingly stupid things as long as the camera is trained on them.
Still, the cringiest comment of any segment comes from Bethenny herself, who asks Lance Bass how he determines his responsibilities in a homosexual relationship, since it’s a man and a man instead of a man and a woman, so who does the woman’s jobs? From someone who otherwise seems pretty progressive in her social views, this is an ugly misstep, the sort of thing you learn not to ask the first time you ever interact with a gay person. Lance takes it in stride and says something about compromise, and everybody applauds because who doesn’t like compromise?
* * *
You gotta compromise. I’m telling you.
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I don’t think it’s a major insight for me to note that there is a cultural cost to repeating bullshit conventional wisdom about restrictive gender roles, especially since traditional patriarchal gender roles restrict women to positions of weakness and passivity, of reacting, of being portrayed as crazy or unstable when they demand more from their partners.
But I would add that beyond the gender issues, there is a cost to treating banal observations like “you need to compromise” as trenchant insight, because even though, yes, it’s true that compromise is good for relationships, we spend too much time applauding people for saying obvious things. We have developed an entire media industry in which people are revered and handsomely rewarded for saying stuff that everybody in the world already knows and has known for centuries. Which means then the media demands “balance” by providing idiots who are willing to offer counterpoints against obvious concepts. We lower the bar for discourse, because when you can be applauded for saying, during a political campaign, that you love America and also, P.S., you love freedom too, then there is no pressure on you to say something of substance. When we don’t apply some standards—any standards at all!— to the messages we’re delivering and receiving, it becomes easier to gloss over complex issues with vapid talking points. It becomes harder to shift into serious mode when something important happens. It becomes difficult for us to talk to one another like grownups because our sense of being grown up was long ago washed away in a sea of mindless applause.
Check back Tuesday for, I don’t know, discussion of some show that I hope won’t make me sad.
Tom McAllister is the Barrelhouse Non-fiction Editor. His memoir, "Bury Me in My Jersey," was published in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, elimae, and some other places. He has a novel forthcoming from Algonquin in Spring 2016. He co-hosts the Book Fight podcast and you can find him on twitter @t_mcallister.