The Hills sometimes gets a bad rap for being fake. And it was pretty phony, though I’d argue that early seasons — particularly season one — are less constructed than later ones. But if you crack through that glossy artificiality, The Hills (which valiantly lost today in Vulture’s Reality Rumble to Project Runway) is full of important lessons for young women making their way in the world. Step aside, Lean In: I learned some important career-ambition and sexual-politics lessons from Lauren Conrad, et al. If that means I also learned how to do perfect cat-eye eyeliner along the way, then I consider that a pleasant bonus.
1. Don’t let your awful boyfriend derail your career.
This is excellent advice for people of all ages and genders. Don’t let your partner — who is a douche lord — talk you out of career opportunities. Note that this is a different lesson than don’t date a douche lord, which is a much tougher one to impart. (Let’s not worry about how “staged” the show is; for our purposes, The Hills is a poorly acted soap opera, and any resemblance to actual life is a lucky coincidence.) In season one, our heroine Lauren is dating spikey-haired doofus Jason. The truth is that many 19-year-olds — and sometimes people even older than that! — date unsuitable people. But more galling than Jason’s argumentative behavior and chronic jealousy is how Lauren chooses him over her internship at Teen Vogue. Are you going to come to the beach for the last part of this intense photo shoot you’ve been working on? asks Lauren’s boss. No, it’s my boyfriend’s birthday party, Lauren says, and she rushes out, as her bosses look on in dismay. Lauren feels compelled to lie to Jason about casting models, claiming she only cast female models when in fact she had worked with male models, too — in a completely professional, legitimate context. And then finally, in season one’s big finale, Lauren declines an internship in Paris in favor of staying in California with the volatile Jason. We watch the disappointment wash over her boss’s face, and even as the gleeful Lauren hugs and smooches Jason on their balcony, we see her counterpart Whitney brightly rolling her suitcase through the airport en route to France, and it’s clear who’s about to have a better summer. Passing up a cool job opportunity because you’re genuinely not interested or it doesn’t fit with your life is one thing, but passing it up because you’re afraid your boyfriend will break up with you otherwise is a big sign that he is not a very good boyfriend.
2. The risk of being perceived as not-serious is catastrophic for women in a way it is not for men.
When we return for season two, Lauren’s voice-over tells us that she and Jason broke up almost immediately. How did living with your boyfriend at the beach work out? her boss asks, as Lauren blinks back tears and looks away. “You’ll always be the girl who didn’t go to Paris,” the boss scolds, and while in actual life Conrad has done pretty damn well — books, clothing lines, a “lifestyle brand,” a freakishly sunny reputation — there’s a kernel of truth that is even more haunting: Being seen as someone who would put a relationship ahead of a career is something that costs more for women, yet another example of the ways women are asked to “justify” their work-life balance in ways their male colleagues are not. It’s an area of reputation-preservation that women have to engage in that men do not.
3. The easiest way to cut a woman down is to threaten sexual exploitation.
And we learn in seasons two and three about another burden women carry that men do not: The constant threat of sexual shaming. At some point between seasons two and three, Lauren’s onetime bestie Heidi and Heidi’s troll boyfriend (and present husband) Spencer started circulating a rumor that Lauren and Jason had a sex tape. (At least that’s the conventional wisdom; this happened in 2007, and for many years was the source of constantly rehashed gossip. Remember how famous Heidi and Spencer were for a few years there? They admitted and then denied this a few times over, which helped keep them famous a few minutes longer.) There are plenty of reality stars who have released their own sex tapes, and given how the march of time works, there will be plenty more. But generally women who have publicly available sex tapes don’t get to also have YA books or position themselves as the Martha Stewart of the 20-year-old crowd. Kim Kardashian doesn’t, Paris Hilton doesn’t — there’s no going back, even if that tape is released without both parties’ permission. The fear and humiliation we saw from Lauren was striking, even though there was no tape (if there was, wouldn’t it have emerged by now?). Any threat, even an empty one, to rob you of sexual agency is very scary.
4. Stop taking birthday parties so seriously!
Finally, the most important lesson of The Hills: Chill the hell out about birthdays. This birthday obsession always leads to disaster. No one wants to go to annoying group dinners at sushi restaurants where who sits where is somehow important. Ban birthdays.