At first I wasn’t too impressed with those Real Housewives shows on Bravo TV. If I want to watch rich women shop, lunch and gossip about each other—well, I live in Sarasota.All I have to do is look out the window. Right?
Not quite. My mistake was in assuming that this is a sort of “reality documentary” about affluent life in America. But after really getting into the shows (there’s an Orange County version, a New York City version, an Atlanta version, and a soon-to-be New Jersey version), I now see them for what they are: a wonderful new opportunity to be judgmental about people.
Other reality shows give you TV friends who entertain you, who instruct you, who compete, who race, who dance for you. The Housewives shows eliminate all these gimmicks and give you the best gimmick of all—pure, unadulterated human nature.
Each show follows the same structure. Six women who form a loose group of friends live their lives before the camera. Though they’re wealthy, sometimes extremely so, their money is new, and the rough edges show. The focus of their daily activity is not their marriages, their jobs (if any) or their children. It is to draw attention to themselves, and to this end, many constantly changing feuds and alliances are born.
What propels the story along are the catty remarks they make to each other. When LuAnn asked Bethenny if her photos would be retouched (Bethenny was being photographed for the cover of a Sarasota-type magazine) well, they’re getting three episodes out of that little dig, and every moment is riveting.
Each show has the same archetypal character types, which leads me to believe that this is the correct mix to make such a show work. Let’s go over the list, partly to see if you agree with me, and partly to speculate who would be good in that part if they ever do a Sarasota version.
First: The wounded loser (Bethenny, Jeana, DeShawn). She is always failing in painful ways, Bethenny with her boyfriend, Jeana with her drinking and that awful son who curses at her, and DeShawn with that cringe-inducing fund raiser that ended up costing her husband $30,000.
Second: The obnoxious know-it-all (Vicki, Ramona). Rigid, vulgar, unable to hold still, she proclaims herself “a strong woman.” But we see her seething with anger. Notice the eyes—accusatory, scolding.
Third: The evil queen (Sheree, LuAnn). Haughty and above it all; we grow to hate her for her pretensions and hypocrisy. True, she is a little richer and more refined than the others, but when she stumbles that just makes it even sweeter. Sheree’s fashion show disaster—yes, she’s the kind of woman who has her own line—made my week.
Fourth: The wacky friend (Jill, NeNe). Loud, over the top, embarrassing in public, but we still like her because we can actually detect some noble impulses in her character. I find Jill’s relationship with her mother rather touching, and NeNe is just plain fun.
Fifth: The psycho tramp (Kim, Gretchen). Devious and unreadable, she is capable of anything. Kim pretends she has cancer, Gretchen two-times her dying boyfriend. They are compulsive but inept golddiggers, fatally distracted by sex and celebrity just before they reach the big score.
The show’s subject matter is the greatest one of all—human nature. This is the way people really act. Self-interest comes first, denial is everywhere, self-delusion is a way of getting through the day (who can forget Kim’s recording session?).Whether or not you’re invited to a party becomes a matter of life or death. These are, of course, the elements of a classic comedy of manners, and one of the Housewives shows’ real accomplishments is that it has figured out to transfer the form so successfully to a television reality show. If Jane Austen were alive today, she’d be the housewives’ biggest fan.
In addition to human nature, the housewives are prime examples of another basic drive: the accumulation of status. Anthropologists tell us that in any society, no matter how primitive or how small, the primary preoccupation of its members is the accumulation of status. Who has the biggest hut, the most wives, the strongest husband, the most cattle? That’s how people spend their lives. The housewives add a twist for our hyper-materialistic age—the status is best when it really draws attention to you. “Look at me!” these women are saying over and over.
But for a show that is wildly comic and entertaining, there’s a great deal of tragedy, too, just under the surface. One can’t help but feel sorry for the children. You can see their lives being ruined right before your eyes. The California kids are disasters—teenage drunks and heroin addicts, fatally spoiled and clueless about how to live a productive life. In Atlanta things are a little better, although come to think of it, we rarely see the children in Atlanta, which could mean a lot of different things. It’s in New York we empathize most with the kids. They seem like an intelligent, sensitive group who are always being embarrassed by their mothers’ behavior. They cringe, and we cringe with them.
The judgmental aspects of the shows go far beyond just sitting there and watching. After all, what’s the fun of being judgmental by yourself? So the producers have thoughtfully provided a Web site where you can go and leave catty remarks. These can get pretty vitriolic, with the words “bitch” and “who does she think she is?” appearing regularly. I was surprised that there does seem to be a consensus of opinion as to who is “good” and who is “bad.” The Housewives format deflates self-delusion, and if you “put on airs”— another frequent viewer comment—it is immediately detected and the mob turns on you.
The current season of the New York version is a ratings smash, and it’s easy to see why. A new housewife is on the scene. At first she seemed too good to be true. She was by far the prettiest, the coolest, the most popular, a former model named Kelly Bensimon. She was a little too “classy” for the show—the key word in the housewife vocabulary—and you wondered what on earth she was doing there.
Then, at a planning meeting for a charity event, Kelly told the other girls that she wouldn’t let her name be used on the invitation. She is, she told them, “a very private person.” You could have heard a pin drop. A very private person on Real Housewives? Who does she think she is? Never had the self-delusion bubble swelled so large, and from the look in Jill and Bethenny’s eyes, Kelly is now a dead woman.
I feel terrible saying terrible things about these poor women I don’t even know, but I force myself to do it, as that is what the show is all about. They say mean things about each other, then we say even meaner things about them. I’m amazed that they keep coming back for more. Only one has ever quit during filming, and that was because her son was sent to prison, which, you have to admit, is sort of a red flag when it comes to parenting skills.
But with the housewives, the need for attention always wins. Their accomplishments must be acknowledged, their opinions must be heard. They must be in the spotlight, even if they’re being maligned. That’s the reason a show like this would never work in Sarasota. I never thought I’d live to say it, but our real housewives are much too classy.