Reality television goes above-and-beyond to convince the viewers that it’s “real” and “authentic”; but it’s kind of weird to me to think that people can actually go about their day-to-day lives with a camera crew following them, constantly having to set up and break down, without that having some sort of impact on their behavior and relationships with each other. In the case of the Real Housewives shows, obviously they aren’t being followed 24/7 the way The Real World always claimed they did with their casts…which was exposed for bullshit to me when MTV was filming The Real World: New Orleans and they lived in the Bellefort mansion on St. Charles Avenue–essentially in my neighborhood. Periodically I would see a group of them–young people I assumed were the cast–walking around in the neighborhood with a camera crew following them on their way to someplace they were going to film…which meant that obviously they weren’t being filmed 24/7 as the camera men were not filming them as they walked. That breaking of the fourth wall for me was kind of a spoiler in some ways (I never really spent a great deal of thought on the show or how it was made; if I had spent a minute or two thinking about it rather than just blindly accepting what I was told I would have realized how ludicrous the 24/7 filming thing they claimed actually was–but I never cared enough to question anything). After that fourth wall was broken for me, I wasn’t as into The Real World as I had been previously; plus, the longer the show went on, the more it became focused on blackout drinking, sex, and violence–none of which I particularly wanted to watch, really.
When Bravo–which used to be a more higher-minded channel showing Inside the Actor’s Studio as well as syndicated repeats of Law and Order and The West Wing–chose to capitalize on the success of their first forays into reality television with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the great reality competition shows Project Runway (we were obsessed with it) and Top Chef by going for something a little more Real World-ish with The Real Housewives of Orange County, I wasn’t particularly interested. As Sonja Morgan was told by Bethenny Frankel in one memorable encounter on the New York franchise, “it’s a cheater brand”–something branded similarly to something vastly more successful as an attempt to piggy-back on that success; in this case, they were copying ABC’s breakout hit Desperate Housewives AND The OC. The ubiquitous previews–run constantly during the syndicated repeats we watched as well as the competition programs–did nothing to inspire me to want to watch even a little bit. The show was successful enough to spawn another franchise in New York, and then another in Atlanta. These shows became part of the public consciousness, really; you couldn’t get away from them, particularly if you watched anything else on Bravo–you began to learn what some of the women’s names were; began to know who was friends with whom and who couldn’t stand who; who was fighting with who and why and so on. Sometimes on weekends while Paul slept on the couch and I sat in my chair reading a book or revising something I was working on, I would just put the channel on Bravo because they always ran marathons on the weekends–whether it was The West Wing, Law and Order, Project Runway or a Housewives franchise–primarily because I always need some sort of noise in the background whenever I do anything. Occasionally Paul would wake up and watch for a few minutes, or I would look up and watch for a while, slowly figuring out what was actually going on with the show, but not interested enough to watch as they aired or become heavily involved. Paul and I actually started watching Atlanta when it started airing–we were drawn in by previews featuring NeNe Leakes, who was hilarious–but I wasn’t very comfortable with it, to be honest; my liberal white guilt made me wonder whether this was a kind of “look at the how funny and weird Black women are!” kind of show. I also didn’t like that the first show to feature Black women had a token white woman on it–none of the other shows with all white casts ever added a minority to the mix; why couldn’t Black women have a show that was all about Black women without needing a white woman to round out the cast? And I was definitely not a fan of Kim Zolciak, so we gradually stopped watching regularly; after all, there was always a marathon going to be aired at some point on a weekend.
I also gave Beverly Hills a whirl when it first aired, primarily because I remembered Kim Richards from her days as a child actress and wanted to see her as an adult. Seeing what she’d become was a bit of a shock, but I watched that entire first season as it aired in amazement, falling in love with Lisa Vanderpump (as so many did) and kind of liking Camille Grammer. She was a bit unfiltered and came across as a very spoiled, privileged white woman…but she was fun to watch and I couldn’t stand Kyle Richards, who was her primary antagonist. But I stopped watching when the show became too dark in the second season, dealing with spousal abuse of one of the cast-members and her husband’s eventual suicide.
A little too real, frankly.
But some friends got me to start watching New York again as it aired in a later season, and this time, I embraced the lunacy and the madness, seeing it for what it was: entertainment. Sure, there was an element of people being rewarded for behaving badly, and whether the madness I was watching was authentic and real, filmed as it occurred, or was “produced” really didn’t matter. I didn’t need to see how the cheese was made, nor did I care; but as I started watching the others so I could talk about them with my friends, dissecting characters and behaviors, I began to realize that these shows were the nighttime soaps of this new age; addictive shows about people with money behaving badly that we talked about (I used to watch Dynasty with a huge group of friends, every Wednesday night: Bong Hits with the Carringtons and the Colbys). Each new edition/franchise of the show was uniquely different from the others; some I never got into (DC, Miami) and others I watched religiously (New York, Atlanta, Beverly Hills), and others I’d keep up with generally (Orange County, Potomac)–my viewing habits for the ones I didn’t watch religiously eventually evolved into simply watching the reunions–which essentially summed up the highs and lows of the season without all the filler.
But I also became interested in watching from a sociological point of view as well; it wasn’t just entertainment, the shows actually provided all kinds of looks into things like group dynamics, how some minor understanding could become blown completely out of proportion, how betrayals of trust are difficult to come back from with a friend, and watching how these women’s evolution was potentially altered, even contaminated, by exposure on camera to a wide audience. Success on the shows might lead to success away from the cameras, but primarily in business more than anything else; these shows were not a jumping off-point into any kind of scripted acting, other than stunt casting on Broadway in shows very late in their run (see: NeNe Leakes, Cinderella; Erika Jayne, Chicago). Bethenny Frankel, seen as the primary success story to arise from the shows (I’ve never cared for her, to be honest), has never managed to translate her popularity as a Housewife into anything successful that wasn’t linked, in some ways, to her original show (her talk show failed, her ripoff of The Apprentice for HBO also failed); and like Trump, her business is really now just licensing the “Skinnygirl” label to other companies marketing products since she sold the alcohol company for a lot of money to Jim Beam years ago.
This interest eventually, as always, evolved into fiction for me. I had always been interested in writing a Scotty book rooted in a season of a Real World-type show filming here; that gradually evolved into my own version of the Housewives shows, The Grande Dames. That eventually worked its way into Royal Street Reveillon, which might be one of my personal favorite Scotty books. I still do watch New York, although I’ve had to back away from Beverly Hills because I cannot stand to see alleged criminal conspirator and ruthless narcissist Erika Girardi on my television; I feel that giving them that extra streaming view somehow condones the fact they didn’t fire her and continue to give her a platform to spin her lies and evade prosecution and restitution.
So, I was very interested when I saw this book talked about on one of the Facebook fan pages I belong to:
As a reward for the procedure the other day, I decided to download this, and in my exhausted state Thursday evening, I started reading it on my Kindle.
If you’re a fan of the shows, you will definitely enjoy this. Essentially, it’s an oral history, with Quinn interviewing not only actual Housewives but also members of production and people from the network about the casts, things that happened on the show, and the controversies. It’s fascinating; production and the network people are always very quick to justify their own questionable behavior in the actions they did or did not take when something bad was happening in front of the cameras (which was to be expected). What was truly interesting to me was the women themselves, and their commentary on their castmates, and the absolute zero fucks they give about lifting the curtain and letting us all see how the sausage was made. What’s particularly weird, though, is you do find yourself wondering–just as you do when you watch the shows–how much of it is real and how much of it is the women either covering their own asses or staying in “character” from the shows; Sherée Whitfield makes absolutely no bones about how much she loathes NeNe Leakes…and actually, nobody spoken to from the Atlanta cast, past or present, says anything nice about her other than she makes good TV. (Likewise, New Jersey castmates are very quick to point out that cast-mates Teresa and Melissa, sisters-in-law, still very much hate each other despite the “reconciliation” for the cameras.)
But again, are they just playing a part still, or are their answers authentic? It’s hard to say. I do think some of the former cast members who are bitter about their experiences (looking at you, Carole Radziwell and Heather Thomsen) are being honest, since they have nothing to lose; the ones who are still on their shows perhaps not so much. (Props to Teresa Guidice, too; she literally is who she appears to be, both on television and in this book–so either she’s very good at playing “Teresa” to the point of staying in character all the time, or she basically is that person. I’m not sure she’s a good enough actress to pull off a performance, though.)
Reading the book was a lot of fun, though, and I think if you are a fan of these shows, you’ll also enjoy it. I greatly enjoyed reading it, and it also reads, as oral histories tend to do, very quickly. Does it actually give the reader an accurate view behind the scenes, or any insight into who these women really are off-camera and in their own lives? I don’t know, and that, I guess, is part of the fun; it’s a very good extension of the shows for fans.
I have recently begun to wonder about whether I should continue to watch these shows. I go back and forth between embracing the enjoyment I get from watching (there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure; we should never feel guilty about finding joy in anything in life; one of the producers even says towards the beginning, that guilty pleasure thing pisses me off because it’s always directed at things women enjoy–a man can sit in front of the television all day watching football yet no one calls the NFL a “guilty pleasure”–which is a very good fucking point) and wondering if I am part of a system that glorifies and rewards bad behavior. do the shows demean women, make them look bad and infantile and childish?
Reading this book gave me no answers other than I should continue to enjoy what I enjoy without spending a lot of time questioning or over-analyzing both myself and my motivations. I also don’t care if people judge me for anything I get enjoyment from; after all, I get judged by people for my sexuality and I really don’t give two shits about the people who do that, either.
But if you don’t watch the shows, I wouldn’t suggest or recommend you read this book; none of it will make any sense to you once they start talking about what happened during the seasons and the conflicts/relationships between the women.