Let’s all just chill out about Princesses: Long Island

14 Jun

"The Princesses Of Long Island", Caroline Manzo & Teresa Giudice Visit "Extra"(Editor’s Note: Not a post about books.)

If you’re looking for a tirade about the deterioration of culture—particularly television—then you’re definitely in the wrong place. While I do spend most of my days working with high-caliber journalism, and many of my nights reading, I also have a long list of guilty pleasures, including detritus like American Idol, Jersey Shore and nearly every iteration of Real Housewives. In the past, I’ve written impassioned defenses of Honey Boo Boo and stupid authors, and I will espouse the altruism of reality shows to anyone within earshot (“But they helped her get rid of all the dead cats!”)

So obvi I find myself eye-rollingly exhausted by backlash from Bravo’s latest glorifixplotation: Princesses: Long Island. The show, which fits nicely between the leather-skinned ladies of Real Housewives and the petulant adolescents of Teen Mom, centers on a group of Long Island 20-somethings who still live at home with their parents because, as cast member Chanel puts it, that’s “kind of a Jewish thing” and “kind of a Long Island thing.”

Since its premiere, PLI has gotten snipes reminiscent of the initial response to Jersey Shore. Jewcy‘s Stephanie Butnick decries the cast’s treatment of their own Judaism as “less a religious affiliation and more of a personality trait,” and says it’s “revolting” that the women “yell ‘Shalom’ in greeting, repeatedly misuse the word ‘verklempt,’ and play up their Jewishness for the camera.” (Also on Jewcy: “Say Shalom to the Next Justin Bieber.”) Over at HuffPo, Lindsey Orlofsky says PLI is “a disgracefully false representation of Jews, a shameful representation of women, and a humiliating representation of Long Islanders,” and Slate’s Jessica Grose calls the show “a sly cautionary tale about spoiled millennials wrapped up in some of the materialistic trappings of Bravo’s already successful franchises.”

It’s hard to suss out which aggrieved party is the most offended here: Jews, who are understandably resentful of the idea that parental free-loading (until one finds a suitably rich husband) is somehow “Jewish”; Long Islanders, who should probably be used to the mockery by now; or women, who are affronted by these ladies’ disregard for the whole “female independence” thing. Indeed, Rachel Arons at the New Yorker calls “the social pressure that women face to get married” PLI’s predominant theme, Butnick says “the direct transition from dependency on parents to dependency on spouse is one of the most disturbing aspects of the show,” and Slate’s Grose says she’s “never seen a Bravo reality show that puts a woman’s age beneath her name when it identifies her on screen.” (Project Runway.)

Adds Arons:

“The show’s primary agenda is to showcase the whiff of desperation, the audible ticking of the biological clocks of women who are youngish but no longer that young, and who are failing to maintain a socially acceptable progression to their romantic lives.”

Look, I agree that some of the ladies on PLI are absurd caricatures, whether of Judaism, Long Island, or womanhood itself. Cast member Ashlee White—who in the first episode describes generic LI suburb Freeport as “the ghetto”—is almost shockingly sheltered, the kind of impressively tone-deaf human parody that Bravo is so adept at ferreting out of otherwise nominally interesting contingents (housewives, chefs, fashion designers, hair stylists, house-flippers, doctors’ wives, etc.) White was born to be on a reality show—in that she’s a car crash we can’t look away from—and many of her counterparts on PLI are at the very least somewhere on the spectrum between obnoxious and horrifying.

But I have three fundamental issues with all the PLI-bashing going on this week. The first is that we are talking about a show called Princesses: Long Island. People looking to Bravo—or frankly, reality television in general—for nuanced and politically correct representations of ethnicity, religion, age or geography, are woefully misguided about the function of lowbrow entertainment. Yes, in the first few weeks of Jersey Shore, everyone was outraged by the show’s “portrayal of Italians” as drunken fist-pumping idiots. But four years later, I’ve seen limited examples of Jersey Shore lessening our global opinion of Italian culture, nor all that much outrage over JS’s 9,000 spin-offs. No, these shows do nothing to alleviate (generally pre-existing) stereotypes about certain “kinds of people,” but neither do they have the kind of outsized impact implied by critics.

My second objection is to the idea that PLI is somehow exaggerating the pressure that single women feel to find a partner and settle down. It’s true that none of the show’s ladies (or their parents) appear concerned with things like “career goals” or “financial independence,” but it’s also true that IRL, succeeding professionally does little to lessen the stigma of being 27+ and single (see: Sex and the City). Enduring family members’ “so when are you going to meet a nice guy”s would be the plight of “youngish but no longer that young” women regardless of whether or not Bravo schlepped out to LI.

There is, in watching PLI, a very real temptation to jump through the screen and remind these women that pursuing marital bliss doesn’t have to come at the expense of one’s independence (or dignity). And yet: If the idea of feminism is to empower women, should they not also feel empowered to make what might be considered old-fashioned decisions? Shouldn’t a 21st century lady be equally comfortable pursuing a husband or a career? Does she have to want both? Doesn’t spouse-shaming (a cousin of slut-shaming that I just made up) encourage the same “No that’s not the right way to be a woman” attitude that we’re so intent on stamping out?

Of course the Princesses aren’t role models. No one would watch Role Models: Long Island, or Real Role Models of Orange County, or Project Role Model. The PLI are a quintessentially Bravo amalgam of too much personality and not enough shame, plus cameras plus editing. But the show does no more to expose the worst of millennials/women/New Yorkers than a typical night on the LIRR.

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