The Real Housewives of Impending Matriarchy: Reality TV from a Feminist Perspective

Ana Dorn
Gretchen Rossi, The Real Housewives of Orange County (2006) (IMDB)

Crazy. Slutty. Bitchy. The overwhelming darkness lurking beneath The Real Housewives series' shiny veneer begs the question: is being on air detrimental to women?

The ongoing act of self-documentation in a world that punishes female experience (that doesn’t aspire to maleness) is a radical declaration that women are within our rights to contribute to the story of what it means to be human.

-- Alana Massey

Outside of certain enlightened groups, when I confess my deep love of The Real Housewives franchise, the reactions range from disgust to rage. The occasional few admit that they appreciate these types of shows as a “guilty pleasure”. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the novel was considered a cheap and feminine form of entertainment because it caused readers to form emotional attachments to fictional characters. Today, reality TV is undervalued for the same reason. Writer and scholar Anne Helen Petersen wrote in regard to celebrity gossip, an umbrella under which today’s reality stars fall: “like so many other gendered media texts, it causes anxiety […] because it has been labeled, mostly by men, as feminine and frivolous.”

Admittedly The Real Housewives doesn’t have the intellectual heft of, say, a documentary feature on particle science or the ills of the criminal justice system, but it’s no less intelligent than shows viewers readily admit to loving without guilt, such as Westworld or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Writing for the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum declared that while reality TV is an “easily mocked mass artistic medium”, it also provides a “magnetizing mirror for culture”. The mirror shows women “who have succeeded all too well at becoming visible” being “penalized vigilantly and forcefully, and turned into spectacles” (Doyle 2016a). Likewise, fans are mocked at best, scorned at worst for allowing these spectacles to flourish. According to Peterson, however, “the more you talk about gossip in a critical, feminist way, the more the seams of its construction become more visible.”

I will not suggest that The Real Housewives franchise is not problematic or that it doesn’t in many ways promulgate patriarchal structures (that its “leader” Andy Cohen is a powerful man famous for exploiting and ridiculing women for entertainment value would render such arguments difficult). I instead propose that in writing about, viewing, and consuming the Real Housewives franchise (and reality TV more generally) with a critical eye, we can disentangle the patriarchal forces at play and move towards a culture in which women are not punished for putting their lives in the public sphere on their own terms.

* * *

Upon Trump’s election, we were plucked from an era of deep political apathy and into a reinvigoration of liberal activism, spurred by fears of impending fascism and a complete eradication of civil rights. In the months following, I was overcome by a feeling that my writing (which focuses heavily on celebrity and, well, white women) does not matter. In this alarming political climate, why would anyone care about something so trivial? Then a realization hit: our current president is a former reality TV star. (Somewhat relatedly, I also realized that my tendency to turn my fears inward was a product of a patriarchal culture in which women’s instinctual reaction to negative external events is to blame ourselves.)

The month of Trump’s inauguration, Vulture declared that “reality-TV conventions and reality-TV storytelling are fundamental to what’s happening in our national politics.” Trump puts his personal brand above all else, he has assembled a cabinet of inexperienced ideologues, is completely disconnected from the realities of American life, and is “defined largely in opposition to others”, our president is “still living in his own reality TV show.” In fact, Trump’s aggressive hawking of his “Make America Great Again” merchandise is reminiscent of how Bethenney Frankel’s emblazons her “Skinny Girl” brand all over Bravo programming. New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum recently said: “[Trump] is reality TV embodied, which has to do with an audience knowing, simultaneously, that something is fake and real, and their cynicism enabling them to enjoy the parts of it that are revolting because they feel like they're sort of in on it.” Through the lens of reality TV, Trump’s behavior does not seem the least bit shocking, nor does the fact that he was elected as America's leader.

That Trump’s leadership style aligns with how reality TV tells story exemplifies how the medium can act as a cultural mirror. In its recent profile of Bravo’s senior vice-president of programming and production and the man to whom the Real Housewives franchise is credited, New York Times Magazine wrote: “Andy Cohen isn’t how our culture got this way. He is simply a walking seismograph of it.” Likewise, Vice recently declared: “Critics have dissected the Housewives in every publication from n + 1 to New York Times Magazine [….] With Donald Trump as president, few can deny that reality television has moved to the center of American culture.” It is therefore of crucial importance -- particularly now -- to examine the oft-discarded cultural phenomenon of reality TV with a critical eye.

* * *

Like the best reality stars, Shereé [Whitfield] straddles the line between savvy and messy, self-aware and oblivious. -- Mitchell Sunderland, Vice

In 2005 when The Real Housewives of Orange County aired, there were few television shows featuring all-female casts, telling their stories from their perspective. With Mob Wives, Sister Wives Basketball Wives, Army Wives, and Wife Swap (to name a few), recent decades have seen a pop culture obsession with the housewife. While this obsession could arguably symbolize a backlash to feminism, a subtle push to affirm women’s position in the home, Andy Cohen has said that the term “Housewives” is meant to be tongue-and-cheek. In fact, most of the women featured in the franchise are not housewives. Many are the breadwinners and, as Cohen told New York Times Magazine, most are -- at least after being on the show -- “sophisticated businesswomen”.

Also lurking, however, is the concern that Cohen is exploiting these women. Cohen himself recently told New York Times Magazine of the women on the The Real Housewives: "A lot of them view me as kind of their daddy in some weird, sick way, and their boss, and their friend, and their boyfriend, and their enemy -- and so there’s a lot of different psychological layers happening in a situation like this. Some of them are volatile women. So it’s all real. It’s all real. (Brodesser-Akner)

On a November 2016 episode of his talk show Watch What Happens Live, Cohen played a game with guest Kristen Doute (a star of Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules) entitled “Is! Kristen! Still! Crazy!” Cohen explained the rules to Kristen: “I will ask you some questions about your sanity, and every answer will effect this very scientific meter, so we can finally know for sure.” Cohen proceeded to ask Kristen questions like whether she has ever punched her current boyfriend in the face. A cartoon meter rose when her answer was deemed “crazy”, such as when she admitted to still wearing a fake engagement ring. This interaction captured how Cohen routinely exploits toxic patriarchal constructs for entertainment value. As a Washington Post article put it: “crazy” is a term “typically held in reserve for women’s behavior”, and is one of “five deadly words” (the others: fat, ugly, slutty, bitchy) that “sum up the supposedly worst things a woman can be.” Cohen has arguably made a career out of portraying women as at least three of the five: Crazy, Slutty, Bitchy.

The names “fake” and “wannabe” could be added to this list, and are also traits upon which Bravo capitalizes. In Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel Look at Me -- which eerily foreshadowed the imminent popularity of reality television in that the protagonist agrees to film herself 24/7 for a website called “Ordinary People” (Look at Me was released in 2001; The Real Housewives first aired in 2005) -- a former model named Charlotte is forced to rebuild her identity after becoming disfigured in a car accident. Early in the novel, Charlotte is offered a photo shoot with Italian Vogue by a photographer famous for replicating violence. At the shoot, a make-up artist removes a razor blade to cut the models for “authentic blood”. Charlotte suggests using fake blood instead: “The word ‘fake’ induced a collective flinch, as if I’d used a racial slur.” The photographer replies: “I’m trying to get at some kind of truth, here, in this phony, sick, ludicrous world.” Likewise, the notion that the Real Housewives are parading inauthentic conflict/ bodies/ faces under the guise of “reality” induces a “collective flinch”.

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In their book In the Limelight and Under the Microscope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity, authors Diane Negra and Su Holmes present an empirical study of young women suggesting that “the image of young female ‘wannabe’ has psycho-pathological undertones” -- “girls’ desires to become celebrities are read as deluded fantasies in need of correction.” The Real Housewives are a visual manifestation of this alleged psycho-pathology. They are portrayed as delusional, wannabe celebrities who are unfairly given the spotlight. Over seasons, we watch them lean into the wannabe narrative. We watch their wardrobes become shinier, their bodies slimmer, their faces increasingly plasticized. We watch their personalities become louder, their feuds more dramatic and more public. We watch them inevitably announce that they’ve “always wanted to be a singer”. We watch them pay for expensive producers and release campy singles that gay men love ironically. We watch them get book deals, become national bestsellers, and then watch Cohen test their vocabularies for laughs on his talk show. We watch them cheat on their husbands, get cheated on, get divorced, sleep with men young enough to be their sons. As the executive vice-president and general manager of Bravo Media herself said: “There is a train wreck element to it.”

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