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Desperately seeking solidarity

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05/06/2010

A few weeks ago, my friend invited me to a costume party. There were no witches or vampires. Instead, our task was to dress as a stereotype.

Ironically, while many of us seek slutty versions of everyday professionals for our Halloween costumes in October, my friends and I all went maternal in April.

When planning the intricacies of these costumes, however, professions were absent from our conversation.

After a shotgun trip to Target, in which we debated props in the baby and houseware aisles a mere two hours before the party, here’s what resulted:

One of my friends dressed as a suburban mom—a cross between the movie “Mean Girls” and the northern suburbs—in a one-tone velour jumpsuit with big sunglasses and carried around a paper Caribou coffee cup in one hand, and wine and a Sunset Foods shopping bag in another.

Another of my friends dressed as a Roscoe Village mom with a pregnant belly stuffed with scarves, and made her boyfriend wear a Cubs T-shirt and a baby harness, in which he placed a fake dog—after which, I reminded him he would be the proud owner of his own baby harness.

I dressed as a “desperate housewife” from the 1950s with a shirtdress, an apron, a rolling pin in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

One could say we were all a bit desperate.

In a conversation with my friend weeks later, we were puzzled why we all went there. Are most images of women in current day pop culture a bit desperate?

The TV show “Mad Men” glorifies the 1950s secretary. “Desperate Housewives” glamorizes loveless marriages in the context of white-picket fences. “Girls Next Door” makes it cool to sleep with Hef again. The proliferation of vampire shows and movies are making the victim/rescue fantasy all too present.

The images from these shows are somewhat antiquated. But then, there are “The Real Housewives,” which bring us right into 2010—or do they?

I am addicted to Bravo’s “The Real Housewives” series. The show, no matter what city we’re talking about—New York, New Jersey, Atlanta and Orange County—I watch them all. These women fascinate me.

In New Jersey and Orange County, for instance, many of the women scarcely appear to work and rely on their men for their bling and nanny tuition.

In New York, some of the women work, but I also get the sense that others are living happily off of their divorce settlements. When they’re not busy planning charities for bragging rights, off shopping or getting liposuction, they say hello to their children.

Alex McCord, married to the very metro-sexual and foreign Simon van Kempen, gets heat from the other housewives for how close she and her husband are; they go shopping together, and namely, raise their children together.

In this season, McCord took particular issue with Jill Zarin for poking fun at her young boys, and essentially her parenting skills.

Meanwhile, Zarin has been promoting her new book on the show that she co-wrote with her sister Lisa Wexler and mom Gloria, called “Secrets of a Jewish Mother.”

In a “Watch What Happens Live” post-episode recap, host Andy Cohen interviewed Zarin and Gloria in a light-hearted segment called “Good for the Jews,” where he asked them questions like whether Jon Stewart was good for the Jews.

I would argue that Zarin, the only visibly Jewish housewife on the show, is bad for the Jews.

Repeatedly, viewers are reminded of the wisdom Zarin supposedly received from her mother growing up, yet she appears to have taken nothing from it.

She is unforgiving, a yachna in the worst sense, petty and bossy. Like a suffocating Jewish mother stereotype, she smothers her friend Bethenny Frankel and outcasts her when she feels rejected. Granted, Frankel is often no prize.

Zarin is somehow missing that playground etiquette. The others are guilty of this behavior as well, but the level to which she cannot forgive and forget is actually disturbing.

When I first started watching the New York series, Zarin, the only self-proclaimed Jew on the show, stood out to me. It was like I watching a compilation of so many Jewish women I’ve known in my life.  There are times when I feel bad for her, commiserate with her and laugh with her; at other times, I am angry with her.

That anger is complex and perhaps, interests me most.

Generally, I am angry that this show is shining a spotlight on and glamorizing women who have all the resources in the world and choose to turn against each other out of frivolity and pettiness.

Specifically, I am frustrated that some members of the Jewish community, who also have all the resources in the world, are doing the same thing.

I think that Jewish women can sometimes be each other’s harshest critics.

I’m concerned too that America will be Zarin’s harshest critic. She is the star of many of the verbal boxing matches on the New York show. Being Jewish, I can have compassion for Zarin; there is something about her personality that I understand. But I worry that viewers living in areas with few or no Jews are receiving her differently.

I also have trouble with the fact that America is celebrating these women who are hungry and desperate and clawing each other’s eyes out, despite the fact that we are living in a world where white-picket fences no longer bind us and marriages do not have to define us.

In the words of Wendy Wasserstein at the end of her play “The Heidi Chronicles,” Heidi said, "I don't blame any of us. We're all concerned, intelligent, good women…It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought that the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together."

What about this fascinates America? Does it bring us back to our grade school and middle school days with fights on the playground and in the hallways? Is it somehow validating to watch grown women pick at each other?

It begs the question whether we ever truly “grown up?”

My friend, who is Jewish, said to me about Zarin, “[I] might hate the stereotype, but I’m more comfortable around Jills.”

Do we have to be “comfortable around Jills” or can we defy the stereotype altogether?

I would argue we have a choice: We can live the stereotype or we can break it and be better for it.

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