Our Public Engagement Intern Graihagh Goode got the chance to speak to Diane Negra, a Professor and Head of Film Studies at University College Dublin, at the Women, Work and Value Conference in Florence and was keen to find out more about her fascination with Bethenny Frankel.
1) Who is Bethenny Frankel?
Frankel is a multi-platformed mega-brand – she began her career as a natural foods chef promoting a Bethenny Bakes line which morphed into Skinnygirl, a dietary cocktail brand she sold to Jim Beam for $100 million in 2011. Frankel has cycled through a range of reality series: as a contestant on Martha Stewart’s The Apprentice, an ensemble member on The Real Housewives of New York, as the star of Bethenny Getting Married? and Bethenny Ever After and most recently of a talk show called Bethenny. With a persona organized to articulate the endurance of emotional turmoil, the travails of seeking to “have it all,” and the need for careful and constant affective and physical self-governance, Frankel may be seen as one of the most consummate examples of contemporary post-feminist celebrity.
2) Why does Bethenny Frankel interest you?
I’ve long been interested in the ability of female celebrities to articulate and sometimes challenge gendered cultural norms. For instance Su Holmes and I have written particularly about the media appetite for “trainwreck” female celebrities like Linday Lohan, Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse noting the “intensifying double standard underlying a post-feminist cover story about gender egalitarianism.” We wrote “about the extent to which dignity and privacy are increasingly gendered in the context of celebrity representation. In a post-feminist representational environment, femininity is routinely conceptualized as torn between chaos and (over)control, serenity and agitation. Female celebrity models for creditably managing the (feminine) “work/life balance” are often positioned as only precariously and temporarily stabilized; we are invited to play a “waiting game” to see when their hard-won achievements will collapse under the simultaneous weight of relationship, family and career. One reason why stories of professionally accomplished/personally troubled female celebrities circulate so actively is that when women struggle or fail, their actions are seen to constitute “proof” that for women the “work/life balance” is really an impossible one.
3)What separates Bethenny Frankel from characters such as Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City?
Well, although Frankel isn’t exactly a fictional character like Bradshaw her constructed life on her reality tv series runs along some similar lines. However, I think “Sex and the City” is a little more confident about consumption as a reward for women (arguably it loses some of this confidence in the second sequel film). I think both also participate in a well-established narrative pattern in which New York serves as a proving ground/playground for aspirational women. We discussed at the conference that while “Sex and the City” is committed to celebrating female friendship, Frankel is positioned by and large without that kind of support. And Bradshaw is emphatically associated with an earlier economic era, whereas Frankel has seen her greatest success in the period during and after the global financial crisis.
4)What does Bethenny Frankel tell us about post-feminism and the issues concerning it?
I’m afraid this question is far too large for me to answer effectively in a short space. But I argued that one way to explain Frankel’s success is that her celebrity persona hits the affective keynotes of post-feminist womanhood—namely girlishness, consumption, and aspirationalism in relation to love and career. I think this helped to establish the legitimacy of Frankel herself, and the legitimacy of her Skinngirl brand. Frankel consistently models the “entrepreneurial self” so valued in neoliberalism but at the same time because so much of her reality tv series content emphasises exhaustion, frustration and emotional duress she also functions as a critique of that mode of selfhood.