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?

What a Straight Man Can't Get Away With...

In her Master’s thesis from Georgetown, Lilan Hughes wrote that The Real Housewives “portrays and promotes a discourse in which women have become their own oppressors.” This discourse is largely reflected in the women’s obsessions with youth and beauty. Maintaining an attractive and youthful appearance, primarily to attract men, is a major theme throughout the franchise. In Taylor Armstrong’s introduction on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, for example, the cast member expresses fears that her husband will leave her for someone younger and prettier; the 38-year-old admits to surgically manipulating her body to maintain a competitive appearance. Likewise, on the Season 8 premier of The Real Housewives of Orange County, Vicki Gunvalson arrives at a dinner party just two weeks after getting major plastic surgery on her face, which appears on camera as red and swollen. Orange County housewife Tamra Judge has gotten breast implants a number of times on camera, and Real Housewives Jacqueline Laurita, NeNe Leakes, Cynthia Bailey, and Kathy Walkie have all admitted to having work done on Watch What Happens Live.

Likewise, Danielle Staub’s introduction on The Real Housewives of New Jersey is dedicated to showcasing her body and her alleged ability to defy the effects of aging. As 46-year-old Danielle lifts weights in a skimpy outfit, she watches herself in the mirror. In doing so, Hughes writes, Danielle “embodies the narcissism of narrative cinema in which the viewer must always adopt a (sexist) male gaze” -- “[o]bjectification has become a self-practice.” Egan’s Look at Me depicts this same phenomenon with an urgent, haunting tone -- at one point, a character warns against internalizing the male gaze, pleading: “Don’t look at yourself through their eyes -- don’t. Or they will have won.”

Like Hughes, many theorists view The Real Housewives (and similar programs) as unequivocally detrimental to women. For example, scholar Penny Griffin wrote that the franchise belongs to the many shows that teach women: "[T]hey can only be fulfilled through finding a husband, that they should aspire solely to a life of leisure, that they are valuable as decorative props for advertisers, [and] that they are bad wives and mothers if they pursue professional or political interests outside the home."

Griffin continued that the franchise depicts middle-aged women as “shallow, catty, greedy, and idle”, with their identities “entirely dependent on the men they marry.” Accordingly, nearly every episode shows the women “ripping each other to shreds over some frivolous transgression,” which has the impact of encouraging pettiness and teaching young girls that women cannot be friends. Accordingly, former Real Housewives of OC cast member Alexis Bellino recently expressed extreme distaste for her own gender:

"Girls are harder," she explained. "I have two twin daughters -- and they're Scorpios!" The years Alexis has spent combating Real Housewives seem to have gotten to her; she went on to tell me she has banned all other women from her house, including female pets that her kids wanted to get. When I asked Alexis what's to blame for what she seems to believe is women's essential malice, she laughed and shouted, "Estrogen!"

At the end of 14 months of traveling America to interview former Real Housewives, Vice reporter Mitchell Sutherland concluded that the women are “petty, vindictive strivers, and spending time in their world can be exhausting.”

In addition to fostering an environment in which women are encouraged to see each other as enemies, Cohen perpetuates a cheapening of female sexuality. In an article on lesbian women and mental health, Talkspace listed the assumption that lesbians are romantically with women “as some sort of trendy experiment rather than a legitimate sexual preference” as a particularly harmful stereotype. On Watch What Happens Live, Cohen asks essentially every female guest whether they’ve ever “taken a dip in the lady pond”. He doesn't ask the same of men on his show. In interrogating women about their sexual histories as a gameshow joke, Cohen perpetuates the aforementioned harmful stereotype. Demonstrating Cohen’s influence, when rumors surfaced on Season 9 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta that certain cast members had engaged in lesbian behavior, the housewives assumed Cohen’s idiolect, speculating about whether certain women had “dipped in the lady pond”. This occurrence provides a clear example of how Cohen turns these women into their own oppressors.

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One critic wrote in 2005 that the then popular Desperate Housewives depicted women “hemmed in by the expectations society puts on them, all desperately trying to break free from prescribed mundaneness, and failing.” While many Real Housewives contestants have achieved major professional and personal successes since being on air, the women have also endured a great deal of trauma -- from rampant divorce, addiction, and financial collapse, to issues as extreme as federal prison sentences and suicide. The overwhelming darkness lurking beneath the show’s shiny veneer begs the question: is being on air detrimental to the women?

A whopping 23 participants have gotten divorced since appearing on television. (Last year, E! News reported the divorce rate for every Real Housewives franchise: New York: 44.4 percent, Beverly Hills: 33.3 percent, Atlanta: 60 percent, New Jersey: 12.5 percent.) Financial issues are also common. In an early episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, Teresa says while pulling out a chunk of cash to pay for a hefty furniture bill: “I hear the economy’s crashing. That’s why I pay cash.” A year later, Teresa and her husband filed for bankruptcy. In November 2010, Sonja Morgan of The Real Housewives of New York, too, filed a Chapter 11. On a Season 1 episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Taylor brags that her husband is “richer than Texas”. In reality, he was struggling through bankruptcy proceedings at the time. In 2017, Vice reported that former Atlanta housewife Shereé Whitfield “currently owes over $300,000 to the IRS”. Shereé explained away her financial issues with “it happens!” then asked the reporter to pay for her valet parking.

Addiction issues also appear on the franchise. On the 2011 finalé of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Kyle Richards outs her sister Kim’s alcoholism in a limo after a party. Prior to this moment, Kim was depicted as eccentric, but viewers were unaware of any addiction issues. A banner at the bottom of the screen announces that Kim checked into rehab shortly thereafter. The sisters have since had a tumultuous on-screen relationship surrounding Kim’s struggles to stay sober -- dark television that Housewives recapper (yes, that’s a job) JJulie Klausner compared in tone to Intervention, Requiem for a Dream, and Dancer in the Dark.

The show’s trademark wink-and-nod editing show the women being ridiculed in the same way that Cohen mocks the women on his talk show. For example, one episode depicts Kim Richards evidently drunk and/or high and exhibiting bizarre behavior in the back of a car. The producers then chose “to intercept Kim’s action” with a testimonial that, in Klausner's words “reeked of cruelty by contrast. ‘I’m a Virgo,’ poor Kim deadpanned to the camera.” Klausner playfully imagined Andy Cohen turning the scene into a game on Watch What Happens Live: “Every time Kim calls herself a Virgo, then locks herself in a bathroom for 45 minutes so she can, with chemical assistance, stave off the approach of reality, take a sip of your cocktail!”

But things get even darker.

In 2012, Taylor Armstrong’s husband Russell was found dead in a friend’s Los Angeles home; he had hung himself. His suicide occurred a month after Taylor publicly filed for divorce, alleging verbal and physical abuse. While Taylor partially blamed the show for Russell’s suicide, indicating that the couple was “pushed to extremes” during filming, Cohen provided a different explanation: “I think what emerged is the story of a woman trying to extricate herself from a bad, broken marriage, in which she was unhappy and domestic violence played a part.” Both explanations, while different, seem reasonable. The stress of filming a reality show was likely detrimental to Russell’s mental health. (The Daily Beast reported that in the early days of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Russell told friends the exposure of the show would skyrocket his career as an investor). It is also possible, however, that finding an autonomous voice on Bravo gave Taylor the courage to extricate herself from an abusive domestic situation.

Teresa Giudice’s story presents a similar conundrum. In July 2013, Teresa and Joe Giudice were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud, making false statements on loan applications, and bankruptcy fraud in a 39-count federal indictment (Vena). The following spring, Teresa and Joe entered a guilty plea to 41 counts of fraud. In December 2015, Teresa was released from federal prison after serving 11 months of a 15-month sentence for fraud. In February 2016, Teresa’s memoir Turning the Tables: From Housewife to Inmate and Back Again debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. This timeline begs the question: did the pressure of appearing affluent on TV catalyze criminal behavior, or did Teresa’s exposure as a Bravo personality allow her to free herself from relying on her crooked husband and pen a bestseller to make money on her own terms? Or are both of these things true?

Brodesser-Akner asked Cohen if he feels bad for the women. “It annoys him, the implication that what he’s doing is somehow cruel to the women who have signed up for it.” He explained: “I’m in a business relationship with these women[.] They know what they’re doing.” Husband of former OC housewife Gretchen Rossi feels differently: “My opinion is that the network has raped their talent [….] It plays all over the world, and its talent gets nothing.” These interactions capture the complicated dichotomy at play: are these women mentally unstable victims of a manipulating system, or are they businesswomen who know exactly what they’re doing? Or does the reality lie somewhere in between?

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As feminist scholar Laura Mulvey argued in coining the term “male gaze” in the '80s that men are socialized to stare at women as objects in order to control them. While not sexually/ romantically interested in women, gay men are not immune from the corrosive influences of the patriarchy. Yet because misogyny is thought to be intrinsically linked to sexual desire and gay men tend not to present the same threat to women’s bodies (i.e., rape, sexual assault), they are often granted a societal pass. Gay men, however, have the same potential to be misogynistic as their straight counterparts, and Bravo -- which turns women into spectacles to be alternatively praised for their glamorous, doll-like appearances or mocked for their “volatile” antics before a largely gay audience (a 2008 student ranked Bravo as the most recognizable brand among gay consumers (Reuters)) -- is a prime example.

Given his societal pass as a gay man, Cohen is able to get away with asking invasive and explicit questioning, if it came from a straight man, would undoubtedly be viewed as harassment. In January 2015, for example, Cohen asked Nicki Minaj: “Who has the biggest dick in the music industry?” Minaj politely responded that she did not know because she had been in a ten-year relationship. Afterwards, he asked to take a selfie with her butt, which she declined. When Advocate writer Eliel Cruz asked female readers about misogyny they had encountered from gay men, he was flooded with responses detailing gay male fat-shaming, slut-shaming, touching women without their consent, and giving critical and unsolicited beauty advice. These examples, Cruz wrote, provided “a clear example of gay and bi men asserting authority over women by critiquing their appearance.”

On one episode of the cult classic Sex and the City, Samantha says: “Gay men understand what’s important -- clothes, compliments, and cocks.” Like The Real Housewives, Sex and the City depicted stories surrounding powerful career women, but the show was created by a gay man. Creator Darren Star said that although none of his shows were explicitly "gay shows", they were about the gay experience (he knew that if he wrote and casted women as opposed to gay men, his shows would have a wider appeal). Accordingly, the New Republic deemed Sex and the City an “ingenious affirmation of a certain type of gay male sexuality,” a point hammered home on the The Simpsons when Marge calls it “the show about four women acting like gay guys.”

Women’s Studies professor Ailbhe Smyth wrote that media-savvy gay men provide a “very camped-up view of stereotypes of femininity.” Likewise, a critic wrote that Sex and the City equates femininity with “the camp concept of fabulousness”. Smyth expressed concern over these gay male generated female stereotypes because gay men “have all the power in US television”, and “US television is dictating how we all look at the world”. That the women on Sex and the City and The Real Housewives are valued primarily for their “fabulous” wardrobes and “volatile” personalities perpetuates a notion of women as objects to be consumed for entertainment: put simply, it furthers the controlling male gaze.

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