Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)
— Walt Whitman
I open with this cliche Whitman stanza because, well, sometimes I’m cliche — though I desperately try not to be. And my cliche, or ‘basic,’ interests are frequently at odds with my dedication to feminism. In Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay writes candidly about her contradictory passions for both the absolute equality of the sexes, and the misogynistic, degrading music of the Ying Yang Twins. I feel a similar astonishment that such paradoxical interests could coexist within me, yet here I am: an ardent feminist who has watched almost every episode of The Real Housewives. What can I say? I contain multitudes… of knowledge about wealthy women in various cities who have chosen to lend their lives to Andy Cohen’s reality television franchise.
It all started with cable TV — remember that thing? I began watching The Real Housewives of Orange County when it first appeared in 2006, at the height of reality TVs reign: The Bachelor, Survivor, and American Idol — longstanding staples of competition shows ruled the world. As did the non-competitive shows offering voyeuristic glimpses into lifestyles of the rich and the famous: The Simple Life, The Hills, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (still getting over their relationship’s dissolution), and — the reigning champs, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. All of these shows aired between 2005–2007. So when 2006’s Real Housewives showed up on the scene, its leading ladies fit right into the reality show landscape.
When the show just happened to be on (okay it was always on) and I just happened to be watching TV (okay I was always watching TV), I was able to blame my obsession on serendipity or a divine intervention that guided me to watch five botoxed, spray tanned, bedazzled, cleavage-bearing women pretend they were friends. Having grown up in a small town in Southern Oregon where dreadlocks and armpit hair were the beauty norms, it was a feast for my eyes. In my adulthood, I’ve come to realize how extraordinary my upbringing was, but the grass is always greener on the other side of the screen. (Literally this time because my town was full of environmentally conscious geniuses who were against over-watering.) But here I am, ten years later, brutally exposed to the “real-world’s” (no, not the reality show this time) unrealistic and crushingly tyrannical beauty standards, and I am still watching the ladies — even without cable. So what’s my excuse now?
There’s nothing empowering about women arguing with each other or making snide comments about each other’s appearances, sex lives, or origins of wealth, no. I recently learned the somewhat comical (though terribly offensive) insult made by certain housewives: “you made your money on your back” (you figure it out). However, and shockingly, I have actually felt inspired and entertained by many of the women on The Real Housewives, at least a few times. Maybe there are just guilty pleasures that we indulge in which don’t align with our values, and maybe I don’t need to validate my affinity for a shitty reality TV, but I’m still going to try, because there’s obviously something about this show that keeps me (and millions of others) coming back for more.
First of all, I think it’s important to note that the show’s title and purpose nods to ABC’s Desperate Housewives. In 2005, the year before Bravo aired its first Real Housewives episode, Desperate Housewives won six of its seven total Emmys. The title ‘desperate housewives’ is tongue-in-cheek, but I believe that reclaiming disparaging language is only empowering if it’s done only by those previously denigrated by it. Allowing all viewers and every Tom, Dick, and Leo of Hollywood to call the women of the hit show ‘desperate’ does not offer an emancipation from the stereotype, but rather a maintaining of it. The Real Housewives responds to ABC’s scripted series, as if to say, these ‘housewives’ aren’t desperate (even if they are). Also, a show that features women being themselves, being over 35 — as much as anyone attempts to make their face contradict that fact, and being bold is significant.
Airing a show which features women living their daily lives and proclaiming they deserve to be watched is a pretty significant step from our long history of hiding women in the shadows of their refrigerators on television. And watched they are. The series has lasted 10 years and grown from the one season of The Real Housewives of Orange County to The Real Housewives …of Atlanta …of New York City …of New Jersey …of Beverly Hills …of D.C. …of Potomac …of Dallas and …of Miami. And I’ve witnessed most of the madness. The show’s slogan at this point should be: same shit, different cities.
The Housewives’ shit consists of what most reality TV does: well-lit testimonials mixed with poorly-filmed confrontations. However, in the interstices between the dramatized fights, the malicious testimonials, the passive aggressive comments, the aggressive comments, the table banging, the table flipping, the yelling, the cursing, the bleeping, (enough with the bleeping already, FCC), the biting jokes, the bites (okay there hasn’t been actual flesh-to-teeth action… Yet), the finger wags, the wig pulls, and the storming exits, there are redeeming moments. As staged as the brawls may be, the show’s producers can’t keep the Housewives’ real lives from oozing through the cracks of the show’s facade.
The most compelling scenes on the show occur during those times when the women’s private lives force themselves into the storylines. I don’t enjoy these ladies’ divorces, affairs, bankruptcies, criminal offenses, losses and ailments, but these are the events that have made me a most empathetic viewer while heightening the show’s verisimilitude.
In a reality TV show with recurring characters, you can watch a person go through varied life experiences in an expedited timeline. In one season, viewers will see one of the “housewives” (I put this term in quotation marks because many of the women on the show are unwed entrepreneurs,) go from being happily married to discovering her husband’s infidelity (what is it about ‘house husbands’ and infidelity?) to getting divorced to starting a new business — all within a few weeks of the season’s progression. In the end, it always ends in a business venture, and isn’t that the ultimate ‘happy ending’ in a capitalist country after all? In fact, The Real Housewives has somewhat become an advertisement for the ladies’ personal brands and products. We’ve seen everything from cocktails and shape wear to vagina jewels and life insurance subtly promoted on the show — it’s basically QVC plus loads of alcohol, vulgarity and limos, and isn’t that everyone’s dream of a TV show?
Something about watching women rise then fall and fight then make up and cry then dance has me hooked. I have watched these women get through many petty fights, sure, but also many grave — and real events. The resilience they demonstrate frequently reminds me of two things in life: 1) You never know what will happen, and 2) You will survive.
Just like Sonja Morgan of New York, who files for bankruptcy in one episode then performs a one-woman burlesque show in the next. Or Phaedra Parks of Atlanta, who one season watches her husband go to jail for committing fraud, then in the next is shown attending the Million Man March in D.C. and meeting with politicians. They’re not all model citizens, well, about 70% are former models and 80% are U.S. citizens, but none of them are model citizens. Maybe that’s okay though?
These people are certainly flawed caricatures of themselves. I find that many of the shows that are so lauded for featuring “strong female characters” are about quirky 20-somethings who kind of have it together but are mostly failing at being adults, and that’s where the comedy comes from. I love those shows too (not to mention that I relate to them on a deep level), but it’s also nice to watch Housewives look fly as hell in their testimonials when they express how little they care about what others think of them. If there’s one thing that unites every woman on the show, it’s confidence. Well, that and a new book coming out. But most importantly, confidence. But also buy their books.
Do I need to validate my television viewing choices? No. Is it sad that we only get women’s narratives told through a crappy reality tv show? Yes, but does it also inspire hope for the future of television and female protagonists? Maybe.
Recently, my life became a little bit brighter when two angels named Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider came out with their podcast, Bitch Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown. These are two comedians who I find smart, hilarious, and charming — and they devote hours of their lives to watching The Real Housewives! Nowadays, rather than hide my head in shame of being a bad feminist, these women have inspired me to embrace my affinity for Andy Cohen’s TV baby.
The reality of reality TV is that truth is stranger than fiction, and alcohol makes people say and do ridiculous and entertaining things. Is The Real Housewives feminist? Probably not. But people are complicated — as exemplified by the people on the show and my viewing of them. In the words of Kenya Moore of Atlanta, “People get exhausted trying to figure me out, and I just let them.”