Comparative Literature R1B: The Real Housewives of Comparative Literature

Instructors: Mary Mussman and Jordan Greenwald

This course takes its name from Bravo TV’s Real Housewives television franchise, which began with The Real Housewives of Orange County in 2006 and has since expanded to cover a number of cities and regions in the U.S. and beyond. The course title is playful, given that we will be reflecting on texts traditionally classed within the “highbrow” category of literature rather than the “lowbrow” category of reality television. We’ll thus be thinking about fictional representations of housewives rather than ostensibly “real” ones. But even the TV series after which the course is named bears a great deal irony in its title: Can we describe the heavily edited and contrived narrative arcs of the show as “reality”? And to what extent are any of the women on the show actually “housewives”? The texts and films we’ll examine in this course, like the TV show, will often teach us much more about the fantasy of the housewife as a cultural touchstone than they will about the reality of feminized domestic work.

Reading a number of texts from different genres, national origins, and literary and filmic traditions, we will examine a long legacy of cultural fascination with domestic space and its iconic caretaker.  As we discuss literary texts and films that feature housewives as protagonists – from Euripides to Virginia Woolf to the present—our task will be twofold. We will work to appreciate, on the one hand, how the texts engage differently with a longstanding (and ongoing) feminist critique of the tethering of women to domestic labor. On the other, we will try to understand why the housewife endures as a key aspect of the fantasy of “the good life.” As the class progresses, we will also think critically about the norm of the housewife as a historical marker of class and racial distinctions. What forms of living does the category of the housewife endorse? Who does it exclude? And what can literary representations of housewives tell us about the aspirations and assumptions surrounding our everyday lives – in the past and in the present?

The primary goal of the course will be to develop skills as writers and thinkers that allow us to answer some of these questions critically. As writers, you will be encouraged and challenged to analyze texts closely and carefully. Both class discussion and writing assignments will thus direct you to consider form in equal measure to content. By learning to identify and evaluate the literary and filmic techniques in each text, you will adopt a mode of aesthetic appreciation. Perhaps more important, you will learn to describe in writing how these texts work: how they construct and deconstruct, reinvent and critique the fantasy of the housewife. Taking on the method of a literary scholar, you will learn to craft persuasive, original, and exacting analytical essays. We will work together in class to share and develop your processes of drafting, revising, and editing literary essays.

In the first part of the class, we will focus on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), a French novel that many critics point to as one of the most classic iterations of “the desperate housewife.” We will spend the first few weeks reading and discussing the novel while also working on drafting and revising your first essay, an assignment aimed at sharpening your appreciation of the aesthetics of the ordinary and banal in the novel. In the second part of the class, we will delve into a couple of shorter novels, a play, and some essays and films that will serve to further elaborate the aesthetics of domesticity, the struggle for recognition of reproductive labor, and the politics surrounding the figure of the housewife in second- and third- wave feminism. Along the way, we will explore what it means to engage with other critical voices in your writing, and we will work on drafting and revising a second essay that analyzes one of these texts while integrating some of your own research. As we encounter and respond to critical writing from both students and professional scholars, you will learn how to participate in a community of scholarly conversation—a skill that you will find vital no matter where your course of studies leads you at Berkeley and beyond.