LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Five successful women are living in New York City. They compete on a reality TV show called "Gold Diggers," kind of like a cross between "Shark Tank" and "Real Housewives." There's the usual posturing and backstabbing. And then one of the women, Brett, is murdered. She's the fan favorite. She's kind. She's funny, a little overweight, relatable to the average viewer. So who killed her? Was it Brett's older sister Kelly, the golden child whose life went off the rails in college? Or was it Stephanie, a successful author and Brett's ex-best friend, or Lauren, the founder of a dating website? Or was it Jen, the vegan owner of a line of juiceries? Everyone has a motive, and it's all in Jessica Knoll's latest book, "The Favorite Sister." And she's here to talk about it. Hi.
JESSICA KNOLL: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a book set in the world of reality TV. But the trope is that it's supposed to be about empowering women, right? The show is called "Gold Diggers," and it's about millennial women, entrepreneurs. The show in its first season was a kind of bust - right? - because it was too tame. And then it became a blockbuster once the producers started pitting the women against each other.
KNOLL: Yes. So the concept of the show is that it's about women who live these extraordinary lives and have beautiful apartments and great clothes and travel and do all these exciting things, but their lives are not funded by men. So that's the conceit of the show. And in addition to that, the idea is that these women are going to kind of buck the trend of the traditional reality show where women are catfighting and stabbing each other in the back and that this is going to be a show about friendship, female empowerment, but....
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I must say we do not allow the word catfighting on this show - on my show...
KNOLL: Is that right?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is - I take a strong stand against that word.
KNOLL: It's like an expletive.
KNOLL: You'll have to bleep me out. Yes, I feel very strongly about that word, as well....
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I know you do. Yes.
KNOLL: ....It's steeped in misogyny for sure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But go on, please.
KNOLL: Yes. So these women - the show is presenting them one way. And it is really a commentary on the kind of performance of feminism that I do see going on, especially current day, where, you know, I know some women who are out there supporting the #MeToo movement and really rallying behind all these brave women who have come out with their stories about the ways they've been harassed and assaulted and mistreated. But behind the scenes, I'm like, you don't treat your own very well. So I kind of wanted to work that out in this book.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think women are forced into rivalries? Is that what this book is saying? Or is it saying, we're just like men? We can be competitive and mean, and that's OK. It's socially acceptable.
KNOLL: I think it's a little bit of both. I do - once I started writing this book, I started paying attention more to the ways the media does pit women against each other. And I really started thinking about, years ago in the '40s and '50s and '60s, the only women who had any measure of power or wealth or independence were the women of Hollywood. And if you look at the way the tabloids reacted to that, it was to create these - bleep - catfights...
KNOLL: ...Starting famously with the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford feud. And I do think it's a way to try and control women and distract us. You know, if you keep us fighting, you keep us down. And I think that that's just been an attitude that's been ingrained in women for decades. But I think recognizing it is the way we decide not to participate in it anymore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, there's a lot of really great insights in this book about women and the way that society treats women, and a lot of them do come from Brett. And in the book, you have the section where Brett talks about being interviewed. And the interviewer tells her, you are showing young girls that you don't have to be thin to be beautiful. And then Brett says, I'm showing young girls that you don't have to be beautiful to matter. And that seemed like a pretty profound thing to say, especially in our culture.
KNOLL: Yes. And it's an attitude I am working very hard in my personal life to embrace because men do not have to be beautiful in order to be successful. Men do not have to be attractive in order to matter. And it is still incredibly problematic, this idea of saying, well, you can be beautiful at any size. Well, why do we even have to be beautiful, you know? And so Brett is really the character that represents a new guard of women who wants her legacy to revolve around what she's done in her life, what she says, her actions over how she looks.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you set this in the world of reality TV? Are you a big reality TV watcher?
KNOLL: Oh, I'm a huge reality TV watcher.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah (laughter).
KNOLL: I've watched "Housewives" since the first season of O.C. 10 years ago when I was in college. And I just wanted to write about a world that brought me pleasure, that made me laugh, that intrigued me, that got my blood boiling. So I thought, why not base some of these women - they're all kind of amalgams of various characters on all the franchises. It's an homage to them. I love these women. I really do. For whatever you have to say about them, they are dynamic women. They have strong personalities. They're loud. And we don't get to see women act like that very often in our culture, so I think it's something worth celebrating.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, I guess, why end it with a murder then?
KNOLL: My brain always goes to murder. I mean, I think that - that...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You just revealed way too much about you - I do not want to be on a reality TV show with you.
KNOLL: No, probably not.
KNOLL: I mean, I just think - what I also love about reality TV is I just think that line is so thin. And I just think that there's so much tension there. These women are so angry at each other, and their fights really get so heated. And I sit there, and I just think it feels just moments away from devolving into true homicidal violence because these women are really just gunning for their spots. And they want to stay on this show. And they'll do what it takes - they're survivalists. They'll do what it takes to keep their small sliver of the pie.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jessica Knoll's book is "The Favorite Sister." Thank you so much.
KNOLL: Thank you for having me. And I just quickly want to say Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there and especially to my mom.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAPELIER FOU'S "LES METAMORPHOSES DU VIDE")
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