Many reality TV shows reflect real life and what fantasies people have about life.
In particular, these shows often mirror the struggles of real people in American culture and reflect their various fantasies about wealth and privilege.
This reflection is nowhere truer than how infertility is portrayed in the “Real Housewives” franchise on Bravo.
People see themselves in the attitudes on the various Real Housewives TV series about infertility.
The “Real Housewives” television show franchise shows specific story lines that convey complicated messages about motherhood. In fact, one could argue that on these shows a “housewife” is more likely to be a mother than actually be married.
Some of the story lines of various Housewives of New York, Atlanta, Beverly Hills, Miami, and Orange County touch on infertility as an increasingly common barrier to motherhood.
We see the women on these shows use assisted reproductive technology, struggle with multiple miscarriages, and resort to surrogates.
Interwoven with their efforts to have children are specific messages about how to overcome those barriers through wealth and power.
These women have economic resources that many of the viewers of these shows do not have, providing these housewives a wider range of choices that are not easily available to others who are less privileged.
I call this portrayal of options “the rhetoric of choice.” The rhetoric of choice within this franchise shows some of the ways in which fertility is both a commodity and a source of identity for some women.
“The Real Housewives” television shows reflect the rhetoric of choice surrounding mothering in their promotion of postfeminist values.
What do I mean by postfeminism?
The postfeminist shift differs from the second wave feminist emphasis on the political dimension of reproductive rights. Second wave feminism focused on the choice not to have a child. Thus, abortion rights are a mainstay of feminist activism.
Instead, postfeminism promotes consumer choice as the primary force of liberation. Economic power is what allows women to have freedom of choice.
“The Real Housewives” are presented as having choices about motherhood because of their economic resources, rather than the result of feminist activism.
These types of reality shows reveal how reproductive choice, a mainstay of feminism, is now a purview of economic privilege, rather than politics.
Television shows such as “The Real Housewives” can help explain the continued complicated relationship women have with feminism in terms of reproductive choices in a postfeminist landscape.
With more and more women waiting to have children later in life (often for economic reasons), the choice to have a child is even more pressing.
Artificial reproduction and infertility treatments allow women to delay having a child until they are ready.
As seen with the various “housewives,” many of these choices are only made possible by technological advances that are accessible only through economic power.
However, there are important ethical and practical challenges that economic privilege cannot avoid, as seen in some of the story arcs on these types of shows.
Economic power doesn’t guarantee a child. When challenges happen, these reality shows often reveal the limits of the rhetoric of choice.
Sometimes technologies fail to eliminate barriers to biological motherhood.
More and more women are struggling with infertility. The fact that women have these barriers in terms of infertility is one of the reasons the “housewives” are identifiable to viewers, even with women who don’t have the same economic privilege.
In understanding the limits and constraints of the rhetoric of choice, we can see that economic privilege does not prevent the anxieties and struggles that many women have in the face of infertility.
Economic power doesn’t erase the culturally prescribed and biologically constrained dimensions of our bodies. It simply affords a different rhetoric of choice.
Biological motherhood is an ideal for many women. But the reality is, no matter how much money you spend on trying to have a baby, it isn’t always a possibility.
However, people with economic privilege have access to expensive options, such as surrogacy, that the average infertile woman doesn’t have.
This rhetoric of choice might actually be a hindrance to making artificial reproduction and fertility treatments accessible to everyone. Rather than normalizing infertility as a medical condition that should be covered by all insurance, depictions of these treatments are portrayed as elective.
The right to have a child then is akin to Botox or buying an expensive bag.
As long as reproductive choices are considered the purview of the privileged few, there can be no real choice, no matter the rhetoric.
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