Big D & the Women

Our latest reality shows are nothing but sorry stereotypes.

January 2010By Comments

Desperate Dallasites: A diva (Pamela Martin-Duarte) and her daughter (Hannah Gelbart-Martin) at home in Plano.

A couple things I’ve learned about Dallas women from watching reality television: They are really, really dumb. Use the word “aloof” in their presence and you will be greeted with stunned confusion. These women aren’t up on their current events either. Ask them to name three present-day Dallas Cowboys, and the best answer you’ll get is “Um, Jessica’s Simpson’s boyfriend?” Dallas women care only about shopping at Gucci, getting their hair and makeup done at Salon Pompeo, dining at Abacus, and partying at Hotel ZaZa. They are also savagely cruel, yet somehow they never stop smiling. They deliver insults—“If you’re not careful, you’re going to look chunky”; “Do you see that belly? Does that not bother you?”—with the sort of chirpy enthusiasm that the rest of us reserve for cooing over a newborn.

I know what you’re thinking. When did reality TV become so profound and insightful? But seriously, to judge from Dallas Divas & Daughters, which completed its first season on the Style Network in November, and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, which finished its fourth season on CMT the same month, Hollywood producers seem to have declared war on the female population of the eighth-largest city in the country. Three decades after the television series Dallas first promulgated the image of the high-maintenance, high-heeled ballbuster and ten years after Robert Altman even more cynically portrayed Dallas women as a gaggle of shrill, boozy nitwits horny for their handsome gynecologist in Dr. T & the Women (2000), the ladies of Big D still can’t catch a break. What makes these latest attacks so dispiriting is that they epitomize the ugliest aspects of reality television, a category of programming that rewards participants who play up to their worst stereotypes with prizes and tabloid celebrity (see Queer Eye, The Biggest Loser, and John & Kate Plus 8). Watching Dallas Divas & Daughters and Making the Team, it’s impossible to distinguish the hatred the producers feel for their subjects and the hatred the subjects feel for themselves.

Dallas Divas & Daughters premiered in early October, and even the most casual observer of TV trends could tell that the Style Network was trying to cash in on Bravo’s popular Real Housewives franchise. Easier said than done. At its best (particularly the Atlanta and New Jersey seasons), the Real Housewives achieves the daffy, soap-operatic grandeur of a Pedro Almodóvar movie from the eighties; the personalities on these shows are so big that they could never possibly fit into the box of a mere stereotype. But Dallas Divas & Daughters, which focuses on five sets of mothers and daughters who are self-proclaimed members of “Dallas society,” seems uncommonly puny. The first episode centers on one mother who feels slighted that another turned up nearly two hours late for a polo match. The sadism of the show’s producers is astounding (the on-camera “confessional” interviews take place in light so garish it would render Halle Berry a troll), but the participants are even more sadistic. Just take a look at the episode in which two of the daughters interview potential suitors for one of the divorced moms by asking the men arbitrary trivia questions and then snickering at their wrong answers. Perhaps Dallas Divas & Daughters is trying to make some powerful sociological statement about how even in the middle of a recession, a large portion of the moneyed public is grossly out of touch and still exulting in the mean-girls trend of the mid-nineties. But there’s nothing at stake here, emotionally or dramatically. You don’t love to hate these women. You’re so bored you just go reaching for the remote control. (There’s no word yet on whether the series will be renewed for a second season; reruns are expected to continue through January.)

In which case it should probably be emphasized that Making the Team, which first premiered in September 2006 and has returned each fall for eight-episode runs, isn’t nearly that toxic. The show follows dozens of young women from tryouts to training camp as they aim to secure a spot on the famed squad. At the center are cheerleading director Kelli Finglass and choreographer Judy Trammell, who mercilessly criticize the hopefuls’ physical appearance and periodically bark bizarre-sounding orders (“Sexy walking! Walk sexy! Don’t march!”). Newcomers to the show will quickly see why it keeps getting renewed. The editing is brisk, and the who-will-be-cut-from-the-squad-next drama is appealingly familiar. Even the product placements are charming (when a would-be cheerleader is told she needs to lose weight, she’s handed a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders fitness DVD). Yet how many more reality shows must we endure, following America’s Next Top Model and The Bachelor, that pay such cynical and obsessive attention to women’s bodies? And it’s plainly depressing that one of the few Texas-centered reality shows currently airing is also one that unapologetically regards the height of female achievement as being able to kick your legs over your head and sublimate your entire personality to an iconic costume. When one competitor says that she “makes” the costume—as opposed to the costume making her—Finglass and Trammell react as if she’s just told them she worships the devil and sacrifices goats nightly.

As someone who thinks A&E’s Parking Wars (a series in which hapless Philadelphians try to talk their way out of parking tickets) is grand, Buster Keaton—worthy comedy, I realize I’m being both a hypocrite and a spoilsport here: Trashy cable reality shows shouldn’t have to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. But is it really too much to ask the women of Dallas to demand a measure of respect for themselves on these shows? Or to ask producers to conjure up episodes that don’t feel as if they are taking place in universes hermetically sealed off with Prada shoe straps and L’Oréal foundation? Perhaps the folks involved with Dallas Divas & Daughters and Making the Team could start by checking out the locally produced documentary Boyfriends, which aired on Dallas’s PBS affiliate last fall (see “Real Women Have Verve”) and which took viewers to corners of the city that are rarely encountered on broadcast television. Or perhaps they could take a closer look at a fictional program like Gossip Girl, another portrait of urban strivers obsessed with youth, beauty, and money, albeit one that explodes and pokes fun at stereotypes instead of just calcifying them. Without some kind of course change, though, the trash is going to rot and the rot is going to spread, and before long, any hopes of seeing Dallas women’s lives explored with intelligence and humanity will dwindle to nothing.

Real Women Have Verve: A Dallas TV show based on actual reality.

Directed by Sujata Dand, the 58-minute documentary Boyfriends follows five teenage girls in Dallas as they struggle with depression, pregnancy, poverty, and boy troubles. The film, which premiered in October on Dallas’s KERA and can currently be seen online at boyfriendsweb.com, occasionally lapses into its own set of familiar stereotypes (it comes as little surprise when the goth girl, Bambi, announces that she has a history of cutting herself). But the interview subjects come off as refreshingly genuine and complex, especially Kelly, a teenager in a seemingly ideal relationship who nonetheless resolves to break up with her boyfriend before heading off to college. And whereas Dallas Divas & Daughters and Making the Team portray the city as a slick wonderland of high-end restaurants and fitness centers, this documentary takes us to ordinary-looking suburban high schools, crappy one-bedroom apartments, and shabbily decorated bedrooms—a city that, in other words, actually feels lived-in.

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