What Is Going on With the Housewives?

05/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dear Stef-

Last Tuesday was particularly busy week with the Housewives of New York, both on and off screen. One of them has even become one of us. And the on-stage fireworks have never exploded higher, as virtually every scene last week was an altercation of some sort. What gives?
I think to answer that, we should go back even further to a question we've been pondering since we started watching: why did these women join the show, and why are we watching?

I think everyone can accept the thesis that everyone, somewhere in their body, has a Fame Gland -- something that allows people to imagine themselves the target of paparazzi, elegant and glamorous, recognized on the street and admired. I think for most, it's small enough for people to ignore it on a daily basis. Others have a larger one; we call them "divas". Everyone knows someone like that. They'll call you up during dinner, sobbing about how their cat won't smile at them. And while it's clear that the H-Wives have enlarged Fame Glands, they are, by and large, successful and accomplished women. They just play Divas on TV.

Given some of this season's histrionics, it's easy to forget that the show itself isn't a smear job against these women. The producers are merely trying to milk all the entertainment value. Still, it's hard to imagine being among their so-called Elite at a Fashion Week event, running into them, and not thinking 'that's one of those crazy bitches on Bravo'. Can we really say that they're proud of the show? That they brag about it at parties when they're not filming? They have more money than most of us -- yes, even the Brooklynites, Alex and Simon -- they have whatever modicum of status, children they pay attention to when it's convenient -- what is this show doing for them? Can it really just be that any publicity is good publicity?

But then, there's bad publicity -- looking like an ass on basic cable -- and Bad publicity. Kelly's situation with these domestic battery allegations are permanently harmful, whether they're true or not. Forever now, the first two things that people will say when meeting her (hopefully, not aloud) are "you're one of the Real Housewives!" and then "Didn't you beat up your boyfriend?" And while she obviously agreed to be on the show to garner the first, it's only because of that recognition that the second registers at all. Sadly, any news on domestic violence is glossed over unless it concerns a celebrity or is somehow sensational. Which is a long way of saying, if she wasn't a HW, no one would've noticed these charges. And while no one can predict that a 'jilted moron' might trump up some charges, everyone is familiar with the D-Listeds and Perez Hiltons of the worlds. How do these women get so blinded by their Fame Gland?


I always knew why these women joined the show. They joined to make more money (Bethenny promoting Bethenny Bakes and Skinny Girls Cocktails and Alex and Simon trying to network through the TV screen) and/or for the audience to watch and say how great they look for their age (even though they tell us anyway). Money and vanity -- nothing new just never quite as contrived.

At first I thought I watched to see what everyone wears (the more overpriced and age-inappropriate, the better) and which restaurants they go to (I'm an aspiring food snob). After starting the live blog, I realized I watch because I want to understand why these people feel they deserve to be exposed on a network with some of the highest ratings throughout the country. I think it's a privilege for your ideas to be heard and to have people pay attention to what you are saying. At the very least, I thought maybe the show would be used as a platform for foundation and charity work and would perhaps even have an unfair advantage over other charities with less exposure. After watching a few seasons however, it's even clearer why these women subject themselves and their families to national ridicule:

These women feel that if they put everything out there, it frees them from thinking about their behavior and consequences.

There is the notion that if you are honest, you can do whatever you want. It's the secrets that are bad, not what we actually do. It's not good to keep feelings inside anymore. Empowered women speak their mind and don't apologize for it. This idea has gone to the extreme and now, privacy is unnecessary and personal beliefs need to be everyone's business. These women are sharing their lives with the world in the ultimate tell-all and do not seem to be thinking about what the rest of us are actually seeing. What we see is not the same as what they project with their taglines and mantras. I'm sure the Countess did not want the world to know that she is insecure about being married to an older man but all of a sudden, she's relentlessly yelling at Ramona in the middle of a community kitchen with a camera in her face. I'm sure Alex did not want everyone talking about the creaky bunk beds and dingy towels hanging around her dilapidated house they are raising two toddlers in, but now thanks to the constant filming, we are. They are giving away intimate details of their lives not to friends or even friends of friends, but to the world- to their neighbors, other parents at school, charity patrons, everyone.

Is it worth it? Even if you are 50 and you look like you're 35, who cares? I've met people who I feel look better and only spend a small fraction of what these women pump into their appearances. What's crazy is that we aren't being nosy; they admit it on the show! I've heard several women admit they've been trimmed and tweaked and then brag about how good they look for their age. We know their secrets; we know why they look how they look.

Even if it is about money, are they getting much as an incentive? Sure, I may be better informed about Jill's Arthritis foundation, but only because I enjoyed watching the tension bubble over between Bethenny and Kelly. Would I go out of my way to donate to the charity? No. Do I want to introduce Simon and Alex to the most influential people I know to improve their status? No. They are sharing their secrets and loves and hates because they want to feel okay about how they behave.

They don't want to evolve or learn from a new point of view, they just don't want people to call them liars. It would be like finding inner peace through silence without ever being quiet. Every season on the reunion show the women say they wouldn't change anything, that they would do the show all over again. Of course they say this because they want everyone to know how fabulous they are and how fabulous they will be forever and ever. No one wants people thinking they walk around with regret and personal demons. These women forget that we've seen them at their worst and even when we see them at their best, there's always a twist to make them look ridiculous. The show is definitely entertaining but it is also a great case study on how people try to project only good, making the bad look even worse.


I'm digging your 'honesty is the most horrendously self-serving policy' thoughts. I'm going to consider lying more often. Kidding aside, I think your futon psychologizing is pretty spot-on; it's like the opposite of baseball and performance-enhancers right now: lying about taking steroids seems to make more people upset than actually taking steroids. You see a lot of what you're talking about in politics as well -- don't even get me started on Bill Clinton.

I think what you're saying is a pretty good insight into our culture at the moment as well. It's another myth being perpetrated, just like "You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up". Honesty is not the best policy if it means shoving it in everyone's face. And you can see everywhere how passé privacy has become, whether it's Facebook, YouTube or the Twitter or even something like the mainstream-ification of Girls Gone Wild. Over-exposure is the new black.

But here's the other part -- this sort of self-exploitation is one thing, but as an entertainment trend, it only lasts if there's an audience. And clearly, there is. Why? It's one thing to fetishize this sort of psuedo-empowerment when you're the one doing it; why do so many people accept it and enjoy it? Is it just the soap-operatic cat-fights? Is it the "real life" part of it? I always assumed that it was about the pleasure of seeing people do stupid things and feel superior as a result. All of the above?

Or perhaps it's a flaw from classical drama: skewed self-perception. Say what you want about the H-Wives; they all seem to think they're a certain way and then act and speak entirely different. When you mentioned this above, I wondered to myself "how much of that do I do myself?" Of course, for me to answer that is technically impossible. But as I learned in some Classical theater studies class: the purpose of theater is to hold up a mirror to the human condition or our specific culture, so that we might better understand ourselves. But that was back when there was a playwright and an audience; an author and a viewer. In this century, the line between the two blurs more and more each day. We're holding the mirror to ourselves and showing everyone else at the same time, like a one-way mirror we're on both sides of. But what are we looking at here? Are we Narcissus? And if so, what flower do you think we'll turn into?


I think there's such a strong audience because there is nothing "real" or relatable about these H-Wives to most of the people watching. The title of the show was the hook.

Firstly, I doubt many people would want to watch real housewives do anything. But Bravo's trailers make the show look exciting because we learn the people are excessive and over the top before we even watch the first episode. When we start watching, we realize these people aren't like anyone we know, "real" or not. I happen to know someone who reminds me of the H-Wives and I tend to not spend very much time with her. As soon as a reality show features someone who says less than intelligent things, people have to tune in just to see how many stupid things that person will say.

This brings me to your point, people often feel superior when they watch or hear someone say or do something stupid. If you've had a long day at work or someone's called you out on something you did, it's easy to watch someone dancing in an ill-fitting dress and yelling at someone with food in their mouth, and feel better. It's unfortunate but true. Most people aren't going to open up something with a National Book Award seal on it or go sketch on the back porch, they're going to watch TV, bad TV.

This whole reality show obsession is nothing new, I think The Real World is going to have a 20 year anniversary coming up soon. Reality shows have just gotten away from using real people. Why? Because the cutting edge development department at Bravo has come up with a way to take the guilty out of guilty pleasures: use rich people. The audience feels better about themselves by watching people with vacation homes and expensive haircuts make mistakes. Watching Bravo is all the culture some people feel they need. The people in R-Housewives are people the general public would think are better than them in ordinary circumstances. But because we are so up in their lives, we see that they are no better than us.

Stef -

I understand the impulse to watch trash. But why this specific trash? I suppose it really is not different than the Real World, which, while we're on the topic, I'm waiting for your book "20 Years of Real World: looking back in continued amusement". So is that it? Real World with a little bit of artificial class war.

But really, what is up with these ladies? Punching guys? Bitching about tennis matches? It's getting so convoluted, it's harder to keep track of who does what. (thankfully our colleague Alex Leo put together a great visual guide) Is it that these ladies were always crazy? Or does reality television do something to people? And if so, do we need to put a warning label on the application forms?