CALM DOWN: In Praise of the Real Housewives of New York City
In a very short 2012 Vanity Fair article, former President Obama commented on how Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise (which includes nine current or former city-based reality TV shows) is an example of how America is lagging behind other countries. Even though several of the women the the franchise are successful in their own right, he suggested that in order to achieve success, you have to earn it. Obviously Obama doesn’t know much about Bethenny Frankel, Lisa Vanderpump, or Carole Radziwill, Real Housewives’ cast members and millionaires, all with long-running, successful careers, but we won’t hold that against him. Loads of smart people have chosen TV shows about the lives of women as easy targets.
But some of the smartest, most engaged women I know possess an unrivaled depth of knowledge about at least one Real Housewives show. There’s no reason founding an organization, earning multiple degrees, or raising children while working should limit your dimensions as a person, but it seems that sometimes a woman’s choice in pop culture consumption is a reflection of her intellect, and that TV shows featuring women, arguments, and shopping are worthless to consume. I, for one, chat regularly with both close friends and internet acquaintances about The Real Housewives of New York City, which must be one of the greatest reality TV submissions of our time. The show, which goes by the moniker RHONY, premiered its tenth season last month, and my master’s degree and I have watched all ten seasons. Twice.
We live in a world in which things seen as even close to feminine aren’t valuable. So, of course it's seen as an obstacle to success to invest emotionally in a show that uninformed critics assume is only about infighting and the privileged lives of women.
It's not just me, either. Thea Johnson, J.D., an Associate Professor at University of Maine School of Law, uses reality TV as a way to connect to students in her law classroom. “Before my first year Criminal Law class—when students are brand new to law school and they’re just getting to know each other— I ask them ‘[about their] favorite TV show, favorite band, [et cetera], and then I use that to make jokes in class or to connect something to the students… On my exams, the characters in the hypotheticals are named after Housewives. My mid-term this year was [based on] Real Housewives of Orange County.”
I don’t need to ask questions about why professional and accomplished women love Real Housewives because:
- There’s already a Psychology Today article (that I don’t necessarily agree with) dedicated to that question, and
- To those of us that love the show, it’s obvious why: RHONY is reliable, relatable, and hilarious. Some of it’s real, some of it is scripted or planned, of course, but everyone one the show is in on the game.
“One of the reasons I like the Real Housewives… [is because] I really feel everyone on the show is a consenting adult,” argues Johnson. “They know what they’re doing. They’ve gone through lots of stuff in their lives. They’ve gone through death and divorces, and difficult times, and now they’re making this decision as a fully formed adult to go on this show and share their life, whereas sometimes I’ll be watching The Bachelor and I’ll think ‘Oh gosh. This 21-year-old woman… Has she fully thought through what it means to create this record at 21? I don’t feel any of that worry about [RHONY cast members] Ramona or Bethenny or Carole.”
I'm not saying the show is perfect, or that all women agree on its status, of course. In a Watch What Happens Live interview, activist and icon Gloria Steinem called Real Housewives a “minstrel show for women” and defended her distaste for the franchise to executive producer Andy Cohen’s face. I don’t 100-percent disagree with Steinem, because there is plenty to critique about what some of the franchise’s cast members have said about race, sexuality, and gender. I would definitely call RHONY a problematic favorite. However, Cohen—a Peabody and Emmy award-winner (ahem)—argued back that women who participate in the franchise are “not defined by their men, [but] by themselves, who they are, and what they have to say.” In that same short interview, Steinem says, “I wish I lived in a world in which women didn’t have to display themselves that way, and make fun of themselves and be hostile to each other in order to have a brand.” And she also admits she’s only watched a few episodes from the entire Housewives collection.
After dedicating a lot of time to RHONY, I realized I’m actually not interested in why the show might poorly portray women, and I don't understand why people comment on a show they’ve barely watched. I’m more interested in how the franchise—like a lot of reality TV, really—can be a connecting or grounding force for people. What I really love about Real Housewives is how, over all ten seasons, it has highlighted comedy and grief together in a way that is so true to adulthood.
You didn’t get what you wanted from your marriage or close friendship? Well guess what, neither did Ramona Singer and she has the blackout rants and dramatic bed-crying ON FILM to prove it. Not your style? Then we have Carole Radziwill and Dorinda Medley who have both suggested they maybe dealt with their respective husband’s deaths by choosing relationships that aren’t going anywhere…. And on that note, it’s difficult out here, so why not let women choose for themselves how they want to deal with shitty choices in men and intimate female relationships and let Bravo pay them for it?
Just like I know how my close friends will probably react in situations or on vacation, I know how every character on RHONY will react and some of their antics hit close to home. Avid Real Housewives fan, Naila Thibault, who regularly writes about feminism, sexuality, gender, race and pop culture remembers one of RHONY’s canonic episodes. “[A favorite episode] of mine is [season 7, episode 15, where] while on vacation in Turks and Caicos, Heather and Carole find a naked man in their room and they are both— rightfully— seeing red. Luann [de Lesseps], who looks fabulous despite having spent all night drinking, tells them ‘Be cool… Don't be all like... uncool,’ which is a situation that anyone who has ever had a friendship with someone who is selfish and completely disregarding of the needs and comforts of others [can relate to].”
In her book of essays, Bad Feminist, writer and noted Housewives lover Roxane Gay writes about how “women are sometimes trapped by how they are expected to perform their gender," ending one piece on reality TV claiming, “What may be most terrifying is just how real reality television is, after all. We say we watch these shows to feel better about ourselves, to have that reassurance that we are not that desperate… But perhaps we watch these shows because in the [girls] we see, more than anything, the plainest reflections of ourselves, garishly exposed but unfettered.”
"I think [RHONY is] important and downplayed because of the population of people who enjoy watching it," said Johnson. "One of the things I think is good about the Real Housewives— and people might disagree with me— is that, you know, women above a certain age are not supposed to go out and be wild and crazy and drink too much and have sex with younger men. That’s really looked down on… and I just like that they do it. I just like that these women are a little bit out of control despite societal pressures to not behave that way."
You can contain multitudes and be hilarious, even if someone thinks poorly of you because they’ve only seen three of your episodes.
We live in a world in which things seen as even close to feminine aren’t valuable. So, of course investing emotionally in a show uninformed critiquers assume is only about infighting and the privileged lives of women is easily seen as a blockage to success. “Lots of portrayals of women are problematic and not flattering!” Johnson said, laughing. "In a lot of ways these women are just complicated and they’re angry and they do stupid things. There’s something about it that’s very real and true and probably more true than portrayals of women [written by men]. These women are much more interesting to me than, like, Jenny who enters the scene and doesn’t understand her beauty."
There’s a pretty strong sexist stereotype that women’s lives are mostly about fighting and outfits and boring men, and if you have only ever watched a few episodes of RHONY, you might believe this to be true of the show as well. But—much like any assumptions that one might make about what takes place in the lives of women not on TV—you'd be wrong. In season nine of the show, we essentially visit the grave of Dorinda’s late husband, Richard Medley, with her and her family. It’s incredibly touching and focuses on familial relationships and mourning in a way that’s rare for a TV genre that can easily focus on shock value. At the gravesite, Dorinda’s daughter, Hannah, reads a tribute to her step-father that’s pure poetry. Part of her beautiful letter reads, “I'll always feel like something is missing. Everything good and every success I achieve is colored by his absence. And that sounds very sad and feels very sad to say, but isn't it also kind of beautiful? That you can love someone so much that they change you forever? That I can stand here today and say that I am who I am because of who he was? Death is painful, death is difficult, but death gives boundaries to life.”
I’ve noticed that, like myself, people come to connect with the Housewives during their own difficult times and maybe that’s what makes shows like this oddly important. Yes. Important. For anyone complaining that the show isn’t real, all I have to say is: We know. Also, that’s not entirely true. And, who cares? There’s enough reality to go around. I watch reality TV to both escape actual reality and be able to better engage with it. I rewatched all of RHONY this past fall and winter during an extended bought of depression. Thibault says, “I didn't start watching RHONY until last year when I was recovering from the first (of many) surgeries because I needed something that was just easy to watch. I watched it so much that my boyfriend (who does not watch RHONY) started saying "It's Turtle Time!" when he would buy a bottle of Pinot Grigio [paying homage to Ramona’s favorite catch phrase and beverage]. Now, as I watch the new season, I feel comforted by the cast members, it’s like being hugged by an old friend.”
“I don’t know how important I believe this show is… but I know it has wiggled its way into being important to me,” said Jaime Taylor, director of Urban Mentors Network, based in Oakland, California. “For some reason in the field [where I work,] folks are struggling through poverty and injustice and the Housewives always provide me with a needed break and stress relief. There is also something about the hot messes they can be that allows me to offer myself and others more grace when we are hot messes. [The Housewives] are everything—survivors, insecure, encouragers and haters, chaos on wheels and solid rocks.”
Even if women hit all the marks we’re stereotypically supposed to—you’re successful, partnered, parenting, mature, and independent—we have to perfectly maintain all those facets of life, or keep quiet, or write a brave blog post about how we're not doing great. And we have to be good and strong and body-positive and sex-positive and always on the go and with good shoes or old shoes (whichever is your M.O.) and always answer questions about sexism correctly and let men do things for us but also never let men do things for us and never be wrong but also rarely be taken at your word. And you have to be VERY SMART all the time and take care of everything.
But you know what? Maybe you and me, like Bethenny, just want to drink a little too much with frenemies while dealing with a cheating scandal.Maybe it's okay to not be able to emotionally handle medical issues or a nasty divorce for one second.
Listen. RHONY is just one 10-season long blog post about how some women are not always doing that great and some of us are holding it together and some of us aren’t. Some of our relationships are beyond repair. Some of us need help. Some of us are very smart about pain and also go to brunch a lot. Sometimes you’re Ramona trying to walk a catwalk or LuAnn confronting your fiance about his cheating. And sometimes you’re Carole thinking about your late husband or Bethenny doing relief work in Puerto Rico. You could be all those things during your lifetime. You can contain multitudes and be hilarious, even if someone thinks poorly of you because they’ve only seen three of your episodes.
There’s an infamous scene in (the Emmy-worthy) RHONY season 5 where Ramona screams at the short-term but noteworthy cast member Aviva Drescher to calm down and take a Xanax because, to put it bluntly, she’s always making too much of a situation in which people are trying to have fun. And that’s my recommendation to anyone critiquing a Bravo show they’ve never watched. I’m not prescribing medication but please. Calm down.
To revisit Steinem's argument, I also wish I didn’t live in a world in which women had to display themselves in any one way in order to have a brand. Really, I wish we didn’t have to have any brand at all. So calm down.