By the end of the first episode of WAGs, you may want to lap up more bitching, shopping, and vagina refreshening—or you may want to howl into the void.
For me, it was the latter—just eight minutes into E!’s depressing, brain-dead new reality show about the tedious rivalries and tawdry exploits of the wives and girlfriends of sports stars. Come join me. I may be there a while.
There is something so brutally cheap about how these women are selling themselves: like feminism never happened, like self-respect regardless of gender never happened.
And E!, obsessed by its usual mental diarrhea-producing diet of bling, hair, nails, mansions, and celebrity, goes right along with it, selling this image of self-elected, money-obsessed female subjugation as desirable and fun. This cheery, willing whoring of self and sexuality is supposed to count for aspiration.
The opening panoply of shots gives fair warning: bikinis, boats, websites explaining what WAGs are, and a picture of Victoria Beckham, the queen of WAGs. (Let’s not forget this was a British phrase first, for wives and girlfriends of professional footballers.) I remember those WAGs of the ’90s. They were accessories, but Beckham was never acquiescent with her own accessory status, despite the insistence of the media to the contrary in the early days. First she was a Spice Girl, then a fashion designer. In Britain, the independent-minded WAG—decorative as she remained—blossomed.
Not so on E! A dizzying display of red carpets and flashbulbs, private planes and boats, and vacations and Champagne glasses flash past in E!’s opening sequence. “Black cards”—posh credit cards—are mentioned over and over again as a target.
As ever, Jane Austen is storyliner-in-chief, because in this ecosystem there is a rigid social hierarchy: Wives are at the top, as they already have the ring on their finger; then fiancées, who almost have the ring, but not quite; then girlfriends, who are in the precarious business of having a sportsman-boyfriend but in the dangerous position of losing him; and then there are “hosts,” which is said with such disdain on WAGs, as if they come with their own street corner to stand on—and flickering streetlamp to stand beneath.
But it turns out all the positions are precarious: None of the women trust any woman at any level. The women, whatever their status, are in constant competition and fear that their positions might be dissolved.
“You want that ring,” one of the women says, her very own determined Frodo.
Only one woman in this show is shown having her own job (other jobs are mentioned but not shown actually being done) or says she prizes her own independence, and she is being driven mad by concerns about her partner’s fidelity and other women launching themselves at him.
The world of E!’s WAGs is one of utter despair at how humans treat each other and what indignities they are prepared to put themselves through—to what end isn’t entirely clear. To live well and ostentatiously, and within or adjacent to fame and a definition of power, I guess.
The price to self-esteem and sanity seems so high—even on a reality show with fun music and silly confrontations—that the reality looks like a lot of grown women crying, fretting, and losing their minds in their own black orbs of despair.
“Why would I date Joe Schmo when I can date an athlete?” one says.
“If you want to be a good wife, you have to play by certain rules,” another says.
“You have to be his No. 1 fan and never let yourself go,” we are told—sternly.
So these women’s orbs of despair come with their own nail salons and gyms. But still, Stepford robots have more self-determination.
The women live to support their husbands or boyfriends at their weekly games, where they dress up and other girls come to prey on their menfolk.
It sounds hideous and absurd, especially as the men in the first two episodes of this rank and awful show offer their partners little in the way of respect or care. Grunting at them, ordering them around, these men—perhaps realizing what a debasing shit-show they have gotten into—act like they want to be anywhere but on camera.
There is a “hefty price to pay,” one of the women says.
“All men cheat,” another notes. “Men live in a tempting world. Women will do anything. They are driven by money, power, fame—they want a taste of it. Millions of people want your man. It’s like a war zone.”
First into the fray comes stylist Ashley North, fiancée of Dashon Goldson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team.
Her father was an athlete, who—wisely, it seems to this viewer—told her not to date athletes. Her storyline is to do anything to get a wedding date from Dashon: In this first episode he barely looks at her, or her mother, Pam, when they bring it up.
The message from him is clearly, painfully clearly: I. Do. Not. Want. To. Set. A. Date.
Ashley and Pam do not hear this. The couple has been engaged for 11 years. They have a 3-year-old daughter.
Barbie Blank is also a fiancée, to the incredibly moody-seeming Sheldon Souray, a player with the Anaheim Ducks ice hockey team.
Barbie wants to make clear she is a star in her own right: She was a character called Kelly Kelly on the WWE and has 700,000 Twitter followers.
“Kelly Kelly is still a big name,” she says. “We are a power couple for sure. Me being a star in my own world means we complement each other really well.”
The viewer may be heartened, momentarily, by Barbie's insistence on financial independence and career ambition.
Another glimmer of light at this early stage is offered by Sasha Gates, married to Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers football team. They have a 1-year-old daughter and a second child on the way. Sasha talks about both she and Antonio growing up poor and feeling very blessed to give their children a different kind of upbringing.
But then Sasha also emphasizes the wives being “up here” and the non-wives being “down there.” She seems as infected with the crazy snobbery and panic as everyone else.
Autumn Pierce Ajirotutu, wife of fellow San Diego Chargers player Seyi Ajirotutu, complains their sex life has dwindled to “every other day” since she had their twins—which, as the other women laugh out loud, still seems pretty good. The couple has a good foundation, she says: Both their sets of parents remain married.
“Men need sex,” she adds. “If you don’t want to give it, he’ll go off and find it somewhere else.”
This is a recurring theme of WAGs: The real and imaginary female interlopers are the calculating bitches (“rats to the table,” says Autumn), and the erring menfolk just cannot help themselves.
One wonders what these women would forgive to stay married to the money, and why they infantilize the men they are with, excusing all their behavior and besmirching any woman within a 10-foot radius. Blank says her attitude is “Touch my man and I’ll slit your wrists, bitch.”
Into this menacingly bubbling cauldron come cousins Natalie Halcro and Olivia Pearson.
Natalie, a makeup artist, is dating NFL player Shaun Phillips. Olivia hasn’t had sex for 13 months, but she has dated “a Bronco, Charger, and a Clipper.” There is nothing wrong with getting a “black card” in your wallet, she informs us.
“Earn your own money, get some self-respect,” this viewer shouted at the TV for the 10th time in as many minutes.
Natalie and Olivia’s destiny, should they so desire it, is there in their friend, the model Nicole Williams, who’s dating Larry English of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All her pride in her career is blown to smithereens by her paranoia over him. She wants him to get her name tattooed on her arm because people say it’s a jinx on their relationship until he does.
She worries what happens when she’s not in town, and so she has set cameras up around their home to watch him.
Naturally, the producers bring these women together to fight with each other over drinks, with Natalie and Olivia immediately cast as the evil siren interlopers. First they snidely imply that hockey players like Sheldon are cheaters. Barbie is sufficiently riled for the duo to note later that they don’t get why she’s being so sensitive, that they’re “nice girls” but frequently misunderstood.
Off they go to Dr. Matlock, a vagina refreshment specialist, it seems, or a man who does things to vaginas for vain women worried about their vaginas aging.
Dr. M. shows them various pictures of “down there” that have the duo bemoaning “dangly beef curtains,” “strips of bacon,” and vaginas that look like “they have been shot or chopped up.” Not for these two women. “Keep it right, keep it tight,” one of them says.
There’s a mantra to proudly pass on to our daughters.
We don’t see what Dr. Matlock actually does. But as one of his answers—to how tightly sculpted a vagina should be—is to joke about women wanting look 18, 16, and even 14 again (“you bad girl”), one doesn't really want to see that much of Dr. Matlock again. He starts talking about giving vaginal fillers, too, just to ensure you are still at home, howling into the void.
Meanwhile, Pam is urging daughter Ashley not to push Dashon too hard about wedding dates. This modern-day Mrs. Bennet recalls that when her husband played for the Dodgers, she couldn’t trust anyone—“there were so many hookers.” The women were “nasty.” Then as now, the men were obviously blamelessly getting hustled into bed.
Then we are back with Nicole, being gently teased by Larry that he may find something “better” while she goes off to a modeling job in New York. Trust, she says, is the foundation of a good relationship—and it is singularly lacking here.
And then, with all the free advertising the Palms Hotel could desire, the women—minus Sasha—head to Vegas for that reality show staple involving a cast of women being pumped full of booze by jaded network executives: inevitable disaster.
They are first shown to a huge suite of rooms, with a horrible indoor pool, overlooking the twinkling Vegas Strip. Barbie says she wants to let loose and party; Nicole, Natalie, and Olivia start discussing the mystery of hard, swollen nipples. Sheldon growls at Barbie that he doesn’t know why she got stressed about Natalie and Olivia trash-talking hockey players.
“You know what you have,” he mutters. He means him. Gee, lucky Barbie.
Barbie struggles to say anything, even the obvious, which surely is “I was defending you because I love you.” Maybe she is as taken aback by his harsh dismissal of her—instead of thanking her as he should have done—as this viewer.
A typically uncomfortable reality show dinner unfolds. Larry doesn’t want to be there, Nicole is suspicious about the texts he is getting. Olivia and Natalie say women are always crawling all over these men, and because Nicole herself is so hot, it makes Larry an even more desirable prize.
Larry wants to go and says he is a grown man who can handle himself.
“I know what those bitches are like, and no you don’t,” says Nicole.
Larry begs to go to sleep. Nicole goes to a nightclub, gives Ashley a grandly sexual lap dance, then resolves to find Larry, who is indeed sleeping, which makes her so happy she ends up in the suite’s vile little pool, her dress see-through soaked-through.
We last see her play-fighting with Natalie and Olivia. Most of her sexual energy seems reserved for the women in the group at this point.
At the end of the first episode we are promised more of this utterly insane one-upmanship and sexual panic. There are beaches, photoshoots, yachts, Champagne, a pregnancy scare, more fighting, more drinking, more posing in bikinis, more red carpets. “It’s like a dreamworld,” we are told.
But of course it’s also a nightmare, or a stylized nightmare that TV likes to sell us—of the rich and beautiful suffering expensively. This sates our desires on all levels—both to gawk at their lifestyle enviously but also to have that envy cut through with disapproval of their money-mad, vacuous, petty ways. Everyone is a Real Housewife now, which is to say not very real at all.
We are told finally that a good WAG represents her man, that one must know one’s place in the hierarchy. You must also know, a final voice intones, that you are not your man’s No. 1 priority—the implication is his sport is—“and you have to be comfortable with that.”
And so, if you can bear it, enjoy the next eight weeks of these women giving everything of themselves, and giving up everything of themselves. Watch them denigrate other women to keep their place in their dumbly calibrated social order.
Watch them claw and peck, and then reapply nail polish and lipstick for their drinks parties. Watch it all, if you can bear the all-too-obvious ugliness underneath the plinky-plunky music and lushly color-corrected images of wealth and excess.
As for the women themselves, or what is left of them after they have flayed themselves and each other for their precarious places in this social hell—what can one say but “Hope it’s all worth it.”