It makes sense why a Real Housewife might inflate—or even flat-out feign—suffering to gain some favor with viewers. Possible discomfort, pain, and death aside, illness is, in theory, one of the best things that can happen to a reality TV star. That's because sympathy is gold to a reality TV career: Long-term success depends on audience identification and attachment. Being a villainess is a good way to keep the paycheck coming, but it's tough to withstand the hate of millions just to stay relevant. Actual sympathy—even compassion: Isn't that a better prospect?An even better prospect—for us—is the kind of riveting entertainment that's come out of these strange, engrossing Munchausen storylines. One Vulture writer argued that these elaborate medical plots show the Housewives' nod and debt to daytime soap operas, suggesting that these tumultuous, is-she-or-isn't-she arcs are a revival of a 1980s melodramatic sensibility. But there's a much wider, weirder context for understanding audiences' fascination with women faking illness: the 19th-century sentimental novel.
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Marie never had possessed much capability of affection, or much sensibility, and the little that she had, had been merged into the most intense and unconscious selfishness… From her infancy, she had been surrounded with servants, who lived only to study her caprices; the idea that they had either feelings or rights had never dawned upon her, even in distant perspective…There was no end of her various complaints; but her principal forte appeared to lie in sick-headache, which sometimes would confine her to her room three days out of six.
Unlike Marie St. Clare, however, Foster isn't harming anyone else. St. Clare wreaks havoc on those who are truly suffering: She's so selfish that she refuses to free her husband's slaves after his death, despite his dying wish that they be liberated. And where St. Clare fails to acknowledge the pain endured by her genuinely sick daughter, Foster is generous with her sympathy: She's recently claimed that two of her three children also suffer from chronic Lyme disease.When what's at a stake is just a great, bizarre, season-long arc of reality TV, in this 21st-century sentimental fiction Foster emerges less as a heartless villainess than a heroine. Regardless of whether she's faking it, she's taking the conventions of sentimentality—womanly tears, heartache, headaches, and vulnerability—which are often used to exploit or portray femininity as a form of victimhood, and putting them to work for herself. It's a bold act for a female reality TV star to try out. Foster is like a benevolent Marie St. Clare, a captivating patient destructive only to herself. Although the Housewives have turned prayer into a form of throwing shade that conveys ironic concern for their enemies, Foster has inspired within me a revival of Protestant sentimental righteousness: I'm praying for her.
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