Every reality TV show has an element of performance, but I always hope for an uncensored slice of life. The less than comfortable moments give the genre credibility and authenticity. We all know that it’s often messy behind the scenes of marriages and friendships. For me, part of the appeal of reality TV is that I get to witness the mess. But what happens when the mess becomes more about holding onto celebrity status than exploring the ups and downs of real life?
The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which recently finished its third season, is one reality series that has mastered the art of revealing how messy life can be behind the scenes. In this case, it’s a look at the lives of privileged women who, despite the smiley picture in the show’s opener, are rarely actual ‘Georgia peaches’. On the series, they attend social events, spend money and sometimes work. They also eat each other up and spit each other out. The women are alternatively best friends and mortal enemies, occasionally in the same episode.
It’s a dismal view of female friendship, but it also realistically taps into the petty jealousies that often drive women’s relationships with one another. This messy slice of female life has turned some of the Atlanta housewives into celebrities. They have written books, created fashion lines and pursued acting and singing careers. They are in the pages of tabloid magazines and they are often the subject of gossip columns; the lines between their off-screen and on-screen realities have become blurred.
Their fame has added a new element to the series for me. Put simply, they believe their own hype. So this season, along with waiting for a display of true emotions, I also had the guilty pleasure of watching them engage in cringe-worthy behavior while they pursued more fame. For housewife Kim this translated into her recording a song (her second single) even though she is basically tone deaf, while fellow housewife Sheree tried to kick-start an acting career, despite having questionable talent, at best. Their efforts at capitalizing on shaky foundations of celebrity were funny because they were so self-delusional.
What’s not funny, however, is when the desire to hold on to fame drives the housewives to become behave shamelessly. This season, housewife NeNe’s marriage fell apart but instead of dealing with it privately, she made it a central part of the show. She brought the cameras along to a meeting with her divorce attorney and allowed filming to take place while she publicly abused her husband during a party. This is not troubling because her reality became too real. Rather, it’s that her divorce became a character in the story of her fame that disturbes me.
NeNe’s choice to share a painful experience with viewers by staging meetings and confrontations crossed the line from documentation to self-promotion. The result was that the drama related to her dissolving marriage became a marketing tool to further cement ‘brand NeNe’. What she failed to realize is that the death of a marriage should not be an exercise in celebrity. When it turns into one, it’s time to get real and keep it off-screen.