Women on Reality Television and Caroll Smith-Rosenberg

I am extremely forthcoming about enjoying the television shows some would deem “guilty pleasures.” I don’t mind that the ridiculous reality television shows I watch are not critically-acclaimed, feature presentations. To me, they provide other forms of entertainment, and I think if you like something, you shouldn’t have to ever feel guilty about it.

Yet I won’t lie, I sometimes feel like the representations of women on reality television are changing how girls treat other girls–and mostly for the worse. There is often hair-pulling, table-flipping, and name-calling between girls on reality television… and I watch it (sometimes). And millions of others watch it, too. It’s become increasingly normal for girls to hate girls. “Cool girls” are those that think they are above the “drama” and “cattiness” they believe only other girls cause. (Some of that good ol’ internalized misogyny many of us suffered in high school, still alive and well in 2014.)


You know what hasn’t existed for always and eternity? Girls hating girls like reality shows would have us believe! In fact, it used to be quite different. Recently in one of my history classes we read a piece by Caroll Smith-Rosenberg, a pioneer of Women’s and Gender Studies. In “Female World of Love and Ritual,” Smith-Rosenberg studied 35 families of varied backgrounds from the 18th and 19th century to show us the much-ignored history of female friendships and relationships. She revealed that these female relationships were intense and life-long, typically beginning in adolescence and continuing well into subsequent marriages to men.

One factor Smith-Rosenberg attributes to the importance placed on female friendship is the ideology of separate spheres, which divided men and women in society. Women, in the private sphere, were dependent on each other because they were “bounded by home, church, and the institution of visiting.” They also relied on each other for information concerning marriage, childbirth, and breastfeeding.


More importantly, these women were allowed to function in homosocial networks where strong, romantic friendships meant they could share their “sorrows, anxieties, and joys, confident that other women had experienced similar emotions.” I think what’s most startling is how ardently this female world discouraged hostility and criticism of other women–fostering other women to “develop a sense of inner security and self-esteem.” Whatever their problems, these women knew other women would offer advice and support without making snide remarks.

Reading about these relationships makes me think about how that 18th and 19th century female world is not the female world we inherited. The Real Housewives is doing incredibly well, with many spin-offs. Bad Girls Club puts a bunch of “bad” women together in anticipation of their fighting potential. Teen Mom producers were right there as one of their stars, Jenelle, beat up her friend over a boy. On The Bachelor, women criticize each other in an attempt to be picked by one man (“I almost wanna rip her head off and verbally assault her!”). It seems like reality television needs a bad girl–and cattiness is expected for drama and ratings. Shock is what sells.

What effects are these kinds of representations having on young girls? And also, why is it so difficult for many people to believe that women can get along with one another?

We constantly say how progressive we are as a society; everything was so anti-woman in Early America. But are we really being progressive when it comes to the way we treat other girls? In 100 years, when someone writes a Smith-Rosenberg-esque piece about women alive in 2014, what will they say about our female friendships and relationships?

As Smith-Rosenberg’s studies show, historically women were able to rely on one another for support. Why is that not the case today?

“We know that we can amuse each other for many idle hours together and now we know that we can also work together. And that means much, don’t you think?”–Molly, 1868.


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