THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Tuning Out Reality

A Farewell to The Real Housewives

by Cecelia Barron

Illustration by Leslie Benavides

published March 3, 2020


I was 10 when I witnessed a physical fight for the first time. It occurred at a country club. Upset by rumors disputing her wealth, one woman, Teresa, chased her ex-friend Danielle around the grounds of the estate, screaming expletives as she cut around banquet rooms. Danielle hid in the bushes while crowds swarmed the screaming women. As Danielle was being led away from the chaos, a friend of Teresa’s yanked Danielle’s hair, leaving a pile of brown extensions on the floor. I still remember this moment, my pounding heart, my anxiety about these perils of adulthood. It all occurred on The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

After a decade under its influence, I’m quitting The Real Housewives and its brethren. Housewives—​and, more broadly, reality TV—has been as central to my coming of age as Harry Potter or Hannah Montana. I can’t remember the first time I watched an episode of Housewives not because the moment was insignificant, but simply because I was too young to recollect the exact timing of my fall into Bravo’s vortex. It has existed as a throughline, connecting the years of my life and dictating the seasons, without ever really starting. However, the anxiety I felt about the world I could be entering as I watched the New Jersey “Country Clubbed” episode in 2010 was justified: the depraved universe of the Housewives wasn’t just contained to the TV. But as I am now actually an adult, I can no longer bemoan the effects of Housewives without action. My participation in the dastardly franchise ends here.

 

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Let us start at the beginning. Inspired by the success of ABC series Desperate Housewives—a drama which followed the surprisingly thrilling lives of four otherwise average suburban women—Andy Cohen, the CEO of the Housewives franchise, wanted to capitalize on the public’s curiosity about what happens behind the white picket fence. While Desperate Housewives was scripted—complete with murder and more murder—the Real Housewives began as a documentary-style inquiry into the same American fascination: what do these housewives do all day? While ABC positioned its characters from the show’s title as hopelessly flawed, Bravo offered a more honest lens through which to view modern women. Perhaps these housewives would turn out to be as devious and corrupt as the Desperate Housewives were written to be, but these real women were (at least, in theory) as perceptible to these lapses in morality as any viewer.

Real Housewives ​first aired in 2006 with ​the premiere of The Real Housewives of Orange County. Noticeable in its grainy footage and mundanity, the show’s first season contained few of the brawls and blowouts so closely tied to the franchise today. Most of the first season’s issues were inconsequential. In one episode, a Housewife hires another Housewife’s son to shoot the rabbits invading her yard. Any moments of tension were entirely personal, like the ongoing plot line dealing with the troubled engagement of Housewife Jo De La Rosa and her husband Slade Smiley (they would break up during the second season). Though monotonous, the realistic element of the new show, the seemingly absolute intrusion into these women's lives, was not only intriguing but cathartic for watchers. The women—rich women—were mired in the same petty problems we all were: rabbit invasions, a floundering relationship. All these women claimed to want was what all American women were assumed to desire from life: the perfect husband, the perfect kids, and a multi-million dollar home. Naturally, many American women had dismissed these lofty, patriarchal ideals long ago. And yet these shows thrived, for while we could sympathize with these women chasing some unrealistic model of womanhood, we could also judge them for it.

The pilot episode of RHOC debuted on the same day when the first tweet ever was sent: March 21st, 2006. The show now had a medium for which all opinions about the Wives could be shared. Intriguing and cathartic, Housewives were now also uniting. The distribution of viewers breaking up approximately evenly between California and New York, Florida and Nevada, viewers states apart could now both ridicule a Housewife’s new breast implants (“Fake boobs. Fake tan. No hips. No booty,” @bougieknitter tweeted, “I don’t wanna look like none of them! #RHOC”). Friends separated by oceans could unite over their hatred for a particular husband (“Slade is back?!?” @DavidAtlanta complains, “*puke*”). Only eight episodes, the first season of RHOC laid out the blueprint for all of Housewives to follow: a complete dismissal of privacy and an invitation for the audience to judge without consequences.

Following Orange County came New York, Atlanta, and New Jersey, all within three years. Each expansion followed the same structure: several women, some of whom are married, many of whom are divorced, living their wealthy lives and lamenting their wealthy woes. But, as the episodes inched on, the plotlines became remarkably less real and all the more desperate. Though (allegedly) unscripted, the shows began to have the same thrilling edge that the high drama of Desperate Housewives had provided.

The catalyzing moment which defined the franchise as dramatic spectacle rather than an earnest exploration was in the first season finale of RHONJ. Cast member Teresa Giudice flips a table in outrage over her fellow castmate Danielle Staub’s refusal to admit she was a “prostitution whore.” From then on, viewers expected more from Housewives. The show could no longer survive as an inside look into the lives of rich women; it had to be an expositor of the evils that existed between these characters. Desperate Housewives faded into obscurity once the same dramatic effect could be reached by featuring real women rather than actors. There was something enticing about the realness of Housewives fights: these women wouldn’t walk off set and hug each other. The stakes of their fights were higher and the consequences were more permanent.

Two years after the famous table-flipping and seven Real Housewives expansions later, Desperate Housewives announced its end. Cohen had noticed that the unbelievably dramatic lives of real people were more entertaining than the manufactured conflicts spun out in scripted dialogue on Universal backlots, and he capitalized on it. What began as a mini-series about five women living outside of LA became an international franchise with over a dozen cities and spin-offs, a viewership in the millions, and a cultural phenomenon.

 

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A show about wealthy, sheltered, (mostly) white women is destined to produce endless examples of ignorance and unchecked privilege. More surprising, however, is that the audience for Housewives is so quiet about these issues, even while they publicly advocate against them. The creator himself, Andy Cohen, is a self-proclaimed “total liberal” who frequently calls out transphobia and homophobia on his own late-night talk show, Watch What Happens Live. On Twitter, he has expressed his strong opposition to his home-state senator, Josh Hawley, a pro-life Republican who supports President Trump’s policy of child separation at the Mexican border. He’s also voiced support for movements like #BlackLivesMatter. His shows like Housewives, however, propagate the various modes of discrimination that he publicly denounces.

While the franchise is most often criticized for its stereotypical portrayals of women, Housewives is as problematic when it comes to race. When the cast for the upcoming season of Beverly Hills was announced, the Housewives fandom praised Bravo for including the first Black Beverly Hills cast member, Garcelle Beauvais, rather than questioning why the network had segregated these casts for so long: each franchise is almost always entirely white, besides Atlanta and Potomac, which are almost all Black. On the latest season of New York, white cast member Luann de Lesseps dressed up as Diana Ross, lead singer of the Supremes, for Halloween. Complete with a towering, twelve-inch afro and a dark spray tan bordering on blackface, her fellow Housewives whispered about her costume’s racism but did little to stop it. De Lesseps later apologized “if she offended anyone” and remained on the show. In Dallas, Housewife LeAnn Locken made several offensive comments relating to another cast member’s Mexican heritage. Both De Lesseps and Locken were grilled by Cohen in interviews, but these confrontations were heavily teased and sensationally edited. Bravo’s obsessed with the idea of racism—its victims and perpetrators, its relevance in today’s society, its ability to shock witnesses. The network is much less interested in counteracting racism, whether that’s the hate spewed by a Housewife or the discrimination inherent in the show’s structure. With an audience that’s 80 percent white, this sensationalization spins racism into a topic of intrigue, rather than a topic to be addressed.

And while Housewives has a large queer following—Cohen himself is a gay man and vocal about many LGBTQ+ issues—the shows invoke and perpetuate homophobia. On the past season of Potomac, a cast member’s husband, Michael Darby, was alleged to have drunkenly stated that he would fellate a fellow Househusband. The event was not recorded, but the rumor spread like wildfire between the women. Additionally, Darby was sued for allegedly groping a cameraman on set, though the case was later dropped. Ashley Darby, Darby’s wife, was condescendingly pitied by the other Housewives who wanted to make sure she was “ok” while they joked behind her back about her husband’s sexuality. This sort of emasculation via homophobia has been a trend on other shows as well. Bisexuality is also a constant punchline: Housewives will often kiss each other to the shock of the other castmates who either laugh about how drunk they must be or who cast their kiss off as “classlessness.” For shows with such large queer followings, these repeated accounts of homophobia seem counterintuitive. But key to understanding The Real Housewives is understanding its ability to minimize ignorance into a harmless joke or obscure discrimination into an enticing plot line. It then becomes easy to brush off the franchise’s problematicness: it’s all just a part of the show!

The same technique of minimization is what has allowed the show’s misogyny to quietly prosper. Since the primary casts are entirely female-identifying, the idea that Housewives could be an intentionally sexist show seems hard to grasp. Any men featured—from husbands to fathers to friends—are accessories to the women’s plotlines, and if they make an offensive comment, their wives often call them out on it. And the women themselves, though prone to conflict, are independent and strong-minded. Some are entrepreneurs and lawyers, retired actresses or fashion designers, and many have managed to spin their Housewives fame into their own personal money-making entity. But though the show’s model relies on the outdated idea of the American wife, its portrayal of women shouldn’t be judged by those old-fashioned, highly economic terms. To still view sexism through that dated lens—the providing husband, the submissive wife—ignores the changing nature of this prejudice.

Erika Jayne, a cast member on Beverly Hills, is the archetype of the modern woman. 48 years old with a second identity as a catsuit-wearing popstar, she’s far from the typical American wife. Known to reappropriate misogynistic slurs, she’s loved for her quotable phrases like “Being poor sucks. And being rich is a lot better.” It’s easy to see Jayne and think the show is embarking upon a new frontier of feminism, away from the tropes which inspired its conception. But, in a matter of episodes, Jayne, too, falls victim to the conflict necessitated by the show’s form: “I’m tired of being nice to you,” she says to a fellow wife.

Despite all of this, I still continued to watch The Real Housewives. What started as a one episode curiosity became a weekly obsession. I couldn’t get enough. I added city after city, spin-off after spin-off, until all of my weeknights were consumed between 8 and 10 pm. I knew, however, that all of this—the racism, the homophobia, the sexism—was ingrained within these shows. And I still watched.

 

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Essential to my excusing of Housewives was the notion of choice. I was choosing to subject myself to such stereotypes; society wasn’t forcing my hand. Choice today is everything. We choose what to post, what to comment, who to swipe right on, and who to leave on read. We have so much control, it’s impossible to imagine that someone else is holding the ropes, telling us what to do or swipe or watch. But that’s exactly what Bravo and large corporations are counting on. Choice requires agency, and agency is freedom. But our choices being made “freely” doesn’t free them from their ties to oppressive structures. Modern society’s fetishization with choice cannot cloud the unjust systems our agency endorses.

I chose to watch these shows as a form of escapism. Like The Bachelor or Jersey Shore and just about every other reality TV show, they provide an alternate reality: one we can mock and laugh about, one we can be grateful we’re not in, one we might even secretly envy. That’s what I loved about reality TV, and that’s why, for so long, I ignored how terrible these shows and their effects were. Since I was choosing to watch them, I thought I could also choose to ignore their nefarity. I could overlook their implications and enter their reality, however harmful it may have been. But this is the false choice Housewives presents us with. We may choose to enter, but we can’t choose to remain unaffected.

    These shows are harmful past their hour-long slots. The constant excusals of racism send a comforting message to an audience that is predominantly white. The portrayals of bisexuality—as either a drunken female escapade or an example of a man’s reduced masculinity—only reaffirm existing, internalized prejudices towards queer people. And though the shows may feature women and are largely supported by a female fan base, ​Housewives has commodified and sensationalized internalized misogyny.

If our form of relaxation and escape has become watching women compete for a rose from a man, watching women brawl at a christening, and watching women mock each other’s weights, then we must be returning to our own realities with the notion that sexism might be bad in the real world but it’s certainly fun to watch on TV. Yet if we’ve stopped excusing the stereotypes about catty female friendships, the emotionality of women being an example for their inability to lead, and men talking about sex in terms of conquest and numbers in our lives, why should we excuse it on TV? And by choosing to popularize it in the media, aren’t we increasing its possible vitality in real life?

While it may be easy to dismiss reality TV as a ridiculous but insignificant problem, Bravo is the top cable network for female viewers. One episode of Atlanta pulled in nearly four million viewers three years ago. Other franchises average well over a million watchers per episode. To contextualize this, Anderson Cooper’s 8pm show on CNN broke records by hitting one million viewers—per month. The narrative that these shows are occasional indulgences protects the franchise from the proper criticism it deserves. These shows are remarkably popular. These shows have influence.

One very real impact of The Real Housewives is its control over the narrative of female friendship. The “guy’s girl” trope—the notion that some women believe that they’re better suited to the friendship of men who don’t engage in the now-gendered terms “drama” and “gossip”—has existed for decades, perhaps centuries. Shows like Housewives, though, have certainly strengthened the appeal of this internalized misogyny. On TV, through fights like those of the Wives, female friendships seem to entirely consist of backstabbing and trash-talking. On Orange County, an otherwise average bus ride to the airport ended with castmate Vicki Dodd telling Shannon Beador to “shave her chin off” with all that “freakin’ hair.” On Atlanta, Phaedra Parks spread a rumor that Kandi Burruss wanted to drug and sexually assault a fellow castmate. On New York, a girls' trip to the Berkshires culminated in cast member Bethenny Frankel yelling at De Lesseps that she “f***s everyone.”

This narrative about spiteful female friendships is pervasive in society. Men often joke about how easy male friendship is. Mothers will comfort their daughters with the notion that “girls can just be mean.” Implicit in the emphasis on sisterhood in sororities is an attempt to prove that women can exist in a contained space peacefully. I’ve heard middle school teachers employ this trope in classes about puberty. But most female friendships don’t assume—or at least don’t want to assume—this catty archetype American culture has laid out for them. Yet the narrative persists, and reality TV is largely to blame.

Beyond perpetuating this dangerous stereotype, Real Housewives has also recruited many watchers—of all genders—into their vortex of meaningless drama. The “clap back” culture so pervasive in social media today is full of Housewife lingo and attitudes. “Girl, bye,” “who gon’ check me boo,” and (to a degree) the profuse use of “b*tch” is all attributable to the Bravo empire. (The appropriation of Black vernacular that often comes with these meme-able Housewives quotes can be traced back to Cohen’s empire, too.) “Clapping back” is not always bad: some of it is innocuous and some of it is necessary. But much of it, like most things on social media, is just mean.

 

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Our culture has become an offshoot of The Real Housewives. The stereotypes depicted on Housewives are not only reflections of the worst -isms; they are also powerful influences on our own behavior. Women have to actively counter the narratives the shows present about female interactions. Our interactions with each other online employ the same sensationalist tactics. And I’d be mistaken to think that after a decade of ingesting its content, my own behavior hasn’t been impacted by its evils: I crave the glamour and pointless materialism of the Wives, with their Birkin bags and extravagant parties; I often find myself retweeting spiteful “clap backs” just because they seem funny; I will suspect the worst of my female friends—they’re excluding me, they’re talking trash about me—while I never do the same for my friends of other genders. I externally reject everything that franchise emits, while I internally crave and emulate its most misogynistic aspects.

Every season of Housewives ends with an all-cast reunion where the cast members can confront each other one last time. Andy Cohen sits between two couches of extravagantly-clothed Housewives and brings up drama from the past season in hopes that there will be enough conflict to keep watchers hooked for another two or three episodes. As my decade-long season with the franchise comes to a close, I want to think I’ve had it out with every conflict these shows present, but I’m not naive. Turning off the TV won’t end the harmful narratives Housewives perpetuates; obliterating reality TV entirely wouldn’t do that either. But just as there’s power in our choice to watch, there’s power in our choice to disengage. So I end my run with The Real Housewives here. And I’m taking my choices with me.

 

CECILIA BARRON B’23 is looking for a new, morally acceptable TV show to binge.