Vicki Gunvalson is my Oedipus

On The Real Housewives, fairy tales, and the psychological release of dark stories

The Real Housewives offer the poisoned apples that I am all too ready to devour. (Photo: Jasmine Raybon)

As a long-time fan of The Real Housewives, I often marvel at the show’s capacity for tickling my unconscious mind. No matter how predictable, petty, or morally corrupt, a Housewives storyline delivers a delicious narrative arc that compels viewers to watch again and again. The women are introduced, their characters established: here is the Career Gal, the Beatific Mother, the Broken One, the Queen Bee. A beef emerges, who knows from where. Sides are taken and parties thrown. Inevitably, chaos erupts and equanimity seems irretrievable. But with a forced apology over a meal consisting mainly of pinot grigio, the chessboard is reset and order restored.

The psychological satisfaction that extends from this mix of fantasy and familiarity, these dark passages of chaos made palatable by the guarantee of eventual peace, is as compelling to a Housewives viewer as a fairy tale is to a child.

This cadence of drama and resolution is as comforting as a lullaby. The familiar blends with the fantastic to beckon viewers irresistibly: women “just like us” drape themselves in diamonds and couture and welcome us into the foyers of their mansions and the passenger seats of their rose gold Bentleys. These layers of extravagance form a psychological barrier that protects viewers against identifying with any cast member too closely. We can imagine how we might behave at an awkward charity event or a tense dinner party, but we withdraw our sense of recognition whenever the scene turns too disturbing. We understand, after all, that these women live in a rarefied fantasy world with only so much relevance to our own lives. The psychological satisfaction that extends from this mix of fantasy and familiarity, these dark passages of chaos made palatable by the guarantee of eventual peace, is as compelling to a Housewives viewer as a fairy tale is to a child.

Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairy tales give voice to “the deep inner conflicts originating in our primitive drives,” and help children understand that “much of what goes wrong in life is due to our very own nature.” In Bettelheim’s view, the fairy tale provides a safe environment for probing the subconscious anxieties and malevolent impulses that lurk even in the minds of young children. As a result, the darker aspects of fairy tales — the evil queens, wicked stepsisters, and flesh-hungry witches — are not incidental but necessary in order to grant the story psychological truth. Those who prefer to shield children from the dark side of fairy tales deny them the opportunity to recognize and learn to manage the dark side of their own psychology — their fear of parental abandonment, their anxiety about entering the world outside the home, their impulse to hit or to steal a sibling’s toy.

Housewives, like Bettelheim’s fairy tales, gives credence to certain psychological pressures specific to women.

Housewives embraces a twisted version of this principle by populating our screens with the witches alone, and it advances no premise of moral edification. But by zeroing in on the lives of these women and surfacing their nastiest inner demons, Housewives, like Bettelheim’s fairy tales, gives credence to certain psychological pressures specific to women. Our culture has imbued even the most ambitious, independent, and confident among us with deep-seated anxieties about our place in the world. We worry about our safety and our appearance; we negotiate tensions between our career ambitions and our desire for partnership; we carry unspoken emotional burdens for the oblivious men in our lives; we downplay our pain and suppress our desires.

Most cultural outlets prefer to plaster over these concerns. The heroines of romantic comedy may be lonely and unfulfilled in Act I of their tale, but in the end they manage to find a way to resolve all sources of tension and gain everything they want in life. However, this insipid assurance that somehow, it will all work out supplies little comfort to women who are acutely aware that the world is not designed to promote their success and happiness. As Bettelheim notes, a story that presents only pleasant and wish-fulfilling images achieves limited psychological satisfaction, because “such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny.”

So instead of presenting us with the young and virtuous heroine who we cannot bear to see fail, Housewives turns its focus to her wicked stepmother. The viewer won’t mind watching the downfall of a Real Housewife because these women are all, for the most part, rotten to the core. They get drunk and attack each other and fall cackling into the bushes. They sleep with pirate lookalikes and sling accusations of drug use and get so angry they flip tables. They cheat on their husbands and betray their friends and sacrifice their own children at the altar of fame just to get a taste of another fifteen minutes. They cry naked in swimming pools over conflicts nobody remembers. They host game nights so brutal it’s surprising there aren’t casualties.

Though we all harbor our favorites among the casts, we know that no one gets onto this show because they are well-adjusted.

The camera’s probing eye inevitably exposes each woman’s most private interior life, her worst character flaws, and her darkest demons. The resulting falls from grace — the ones that end in the sobbing in the swimming pool, the meltdown in the limo, the cathartic explosion of anger and resentment at a dinner party hosted by the neighborhood psychic — are what every Housewives fan lives for. We accept the harsh reality of the Housewives universe and submit to its cruel moral logic. Though we all harbor our favorites among the casts, we know that no one gets onto this show because they are well-adjusted.

The pleasure we take in watching these women fall is a cruel one, but I think it is more than just schadenfreude. In a culture that limits women’s opportunities while blandly encouraging us with girl-power slogans, that tepidly invites us to “lean in” to solve life’s equations even as their variables multiply and all analytical solutions slide out of reach, the diverse failures of the Housewives deliver a dark satisfaction. On Housewives, the business woman’s success is marred by her crushing loneliness, the married mother’s contentment is threatened by rumors of infidelity, and every queen bee, no matter how popular with the fans or how chummy with the producers, eventually sees her dearest friends betray her.

By showcasing the dark inheritance of each cast member’s most treasured source of happiness, Housewives suggests that all women are asked to make deals with the devil.

By showcasing the dark inheritance of each cast member’s most treasured source of happiness, Housewives suggests that all women are asked to make deals with the devil. Like the wicked witches and bottle-bound jinnis of fairy tales, fate asks these women: What will you trade to get what you want? You can’t have it all, but you can have what you choose — for a price. Do you want money or love? Independence or happiness? A ghost-written memoir, your own brand of alcohol, or a store selling caftans? What indignities are you willing to bear for fame, followers, and a sense of purpose? How many apples will you poison in order to hold on to your fading beauty, your crumbling mansion, your sense of self? The game is rigged — one day you will lose. No matter how hard you work or how much you sacrifice, one day, your disgrace will come.

There is no other cultural outlet that so ruthlessly surfaces the worst case scenarios for certain types of women-specific anxieties.

This motif of inevitable failure may not warrant celebration. But cruel as it is, there is a powerful feeling of validation in seeing one’s most suppressed fears realized. There is no other cultural outlet that so ruthlessly surfaces the worst case scenarios for certain types of women-specific anxieties: What if I can’t find a partner by age forty? What if my marriage doesn’t work out? What if my career never really takes off? What if I miss opportunities by having children? What if I can never figure out how to work through my old traumas, my childhood wounds, my loss of hope and my fear of betrayal? Housewives bears witness to these questions without offering the pretty resolutions of romantic comedy, and that, for me, drives its relentless appeal.

I suspect many viewers find a transgressive satisfaction in a series that repeatedly and consistently, literally and figuratively, tells men to sit down and shut up.

It is all the more compelling that the franchise surfaces these questions in an environment exclusively centered around women over forty. No man is coming to rescue these women, and no viewer expects the men of Housewives to deliver much beyond a sideshow to the high drama of the main cast. While some critics have called the show exploitative and anti-feminist, it passes the Bechdel test more consistently than anything on HBO. Men in the Housewives world are accessories. They are emblems of status based on their level of wealth, charm, or physical attractiveness. If they enter into the plot at all, it is only as catalysts for the drama that plays out among the women. Any husband who engages too closely with the drama is derided and dismissed. When Peter Thomas of Atlanta attempts to hijack the conversation in a reunion special, the women shoot him down. “Get him a peach,” Kenya Moore scoffs, referencing the series’ representative token. This space, Kenya suggests, is not for him. Real-life ogre Paul “PK” Kemsley is similarly rebuffed in the Season 7 Reunion of Beverly Hills, when Erika Girardi snarks that Andy Cohen should “get him off the stage” in response to PK’s long-winded defenses of his behavior. I won’t claim that Housewives is progressive. But I suspect many viewers find a transgressive satisfaction in a series that repeatedly and consistently, literally and figuratively, tells men to sit down and shut up.

Vicki Gunvalson screaming about the injustices done to her is my version of Oedipus stabbing himself blind.

Those who ask why Housewives has to be so ugly, its cast members so repulsive, its dramas so petty, have missed the point. The end goal of Housewives is not wish-fulfillment fantasy, but catharsis. As the Greeks watched the great tragedies with an eye towards purging themselves of feelings of pity and fear, so I watch Housewives under the pretence of purging myself of pettiness and envy. Vicki Gunvalson screaming about the injustices done to her is my version of Oedipus stabbing himself blind.

And this is why, for all its other dubious virtues, the key driver of Housewives’ appeal is that it does not flinch away from consequences, grotesquely wrought. Sometimes the worst happens. Your marriage fails. You lose all your money. Your best friend turns on you. Your children come to hate you. Wealth and success don’t deliver on their golden promises. An audience weaned on happy endings and eager for closure may ask: What is the point of these sufferings? What is the lesson? Housewives rebukes them cruelly: There isn’t one. This is just life, sugar.

There is no come-to-Jesus moment, no revelation — there’s just you, the same person you were yesterday, getting up and trying again.

But for those with certain anxieties about making a life that has room for love and career, happiness and purpose, there is a comfort in seeing life simply go on. We watch these women go through season after season, party after party, and yet they themselves never really evolve, for better or for worse. There is no come-to-Jesus moment, no revelation — there’s just you, the same person you were yesterday, getting up and trying again. You cut your hair; you try a new makeup trend. You buy a new pair of shoes; you move to a smaller house. You welcome new women to the cast, whose demons you do not yet know, whose spirits you have not yet seen broken. You persist. You start selling tequila mixers or skin creams or T-shirts branded with your own image. Maybe these ventures succeed, maybe they fail. You wonder, sometimes, what your life would be like if you’d married the other guy, or left him sooner, or finished your degree, or never had children. But you don’t wonder what your life would be like if you’d never gone on television, because that part is destiny. This is who you are now. You accept the conventional wisdom of late-stage Housewives: You own it. And if you have a rough go this season, you know next season is second chance. By the grace of Andy Cohen, you will be redeemed. If Camille Grammer can do it, anybody can.