When my friends and I get together to watch various installments of the Real Housewives franchises on Bravo, we analyze the women with a level of scrutiny and close reading that I most associate with a college English class.
There’s so much to unpack, and so many layers to work with. Take the currently airing season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, for example, where the drama has mainly focused around the ongoing legal woes of Erika Girardi, a sixth-season Housewife who, up to this point, was mostly known as an astute glam-barbie with a passion for spending and a scary temper.
This season, over the course of about a dozen episodes, Erika divorces her husband seemingly out of nowhere, and paints a picture of their marriage that is far different from rosy past descriptions. She contends with questions from the other Housewives as information comes out that her husband has allegedly stolen millions of dollars from the widows and orphans he represented as a lawyer. Her conspicuously glamorous lifestyle is potentially funded with said money, creating a meta tension between how much she knew and how she comes off. As such, Erika has given varyingly successful “performances” as the out-of-the-know wife, aggrieved party, and woman under investigation.
My friends and I discuss and dissect it all. Erika’s behavior can be analyzed to try to glean her interior feelings, legal advice, and need to remain under contract and earn a paycheck. The other Housewives’ belief in Erika, concerns over their own reputations, and subtle attempts to predict which way the fans will go can be similarly scrutinized.
I don’t think I could truly articulate the profundity and joy of the exercise of watching the Real Housewives until I read Brian Moylan’s The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives, a comprehensive volume that gives Bravo fans and the Bravo-curious juicy behind-the-scenes insight into some of the most explosive moments in the franchise’s history, an inside look at how these TV shows get made, and an impassioned defense of why we watch reality television.
Moylan, a longtime Vulture recapper, released the book earlier this year. Throughout its chapters, he uses interviews from producers, publicists, and academics to delve into what makes the Housewives so inherently watchable, and to explain why being a fan should no longer be treated as a guilty pleasure. He poses a well-researched sociological defense of the Real Housewives franchise as an academic text that invites even reality TV skeptics to take an interest — and the book is full of recommendations for those who have never seen the shows.
“You want to talk Method acting?” Moylan writes. “How about living your actual life on-screen, walking the tightrope between high drama and real emotional stakes, knowing that if you don’t do it right your days on camera are numbered?”
Moylan approaches the franchise from every angle. If you’re a longtime Bravo fan, you’ll find fascinating bits of gossip, from the casting of the shows to which Housewives are pleasurable or difficult to work with.
But even for non-fans, there’s plenty in the book to elucidate the psychology and mechanics of creating these shows. Moylan dives into the history of soap opera and reality television — the mother and father of the Housewives franchises, respectively — to explain how Bravo borrows from and expands their traditions. He traces an interesting path of the depiction of lowercase-h housewives on television, where the dissatisfaction of 1950s-era domesticity has been replaced by the hallmark hollowness that often chases these women through bad marriages, girlboss feminism, and conspicuous consumption.
The book is strongest when it takes on the mantle of defending reality television as an enterprise, and for that reason, I’m recommending it to anyone interested not just in the genre but in so many of the themes that pop up in these shows: late-stage capitalism, class, and the nature of reality among them.
Watching the Housewives involves judging the women for how well they are bridging the gap between how they would like to be perceived and how they actually come across, appraising their performances of likability, relatability, and comedy. The delusion is part of the appeal — New York’s Sonja Morgan, who still discusses her long-dead marriage to a banking tycoon as present and pretext, is, to me, a classic Edith Wharton character. The show chronicles Sonja’s fall from social grace over many bankruptcies and failed businesses, her long dating history on the Upper East Side, and her increasingly futile attachment to the symbols that once defined her life as a member of the Morgan family.
It makes her a fascinating sociological study, but more than that — and Moylan never lets this point get too far away — it makes watching her antics, from her drunken lows to her fleeting moments of growth, much more fun than reading The House of Mirth.
There’s so much that the Real Housewives franchise has in common with acclaimed prestige television shows. The women who populate its shows are never purely good or purely bad, and it’s the shades of gray that make them captivating. I can empathize with Atlanta’s Kenya Moore when she was unfairly blamed for instigating a physical fight between badly behaved Househusbands who skirted accountability, while still believing she intentionally provokes many of her cast mates.
The ways the Housewives navigate class are reminiscent of any HBO drama about billionaires. The ones who live above their means, like Beverly Hills’ Dorit Kemsley, are so obviously and fascinatingly grifting their way into some form of societal recognition. Those who do have money, like Dorit’s cast mate Kyle Richards, cannot use it to escape the fundamental darkness of her family, which, despite desperate attempts to appear functional, seeps out in iconic moments like the season one fight in which Kyle outed her sister, fellow cast mate Kim, as dealing with alcoholism. Moylan suggests that these illusions populating Housewives’ ideas about money show viewers that class can be a fallacy, too.
For me, the book crystallized all of its ideas at the end, where, in back-to-back chapters, Moylan presents an academic defense of the Housewives and offers up theories for why we watch.
From a feminist perspective, the Housewives offer a depiction of middle-aged female friendship and relationships that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. There are fascinating readings of the racial implications of Housewives, which Moylan gets into, such as adjudicating whether the franchise’s representation of Black women is positive or negative, whether that matters, and how Bravo polices violence on shows with Black casts versus white casts.
“Instead of asking whether one scene or character is good or bad representation, viewers should be asking why these shows delight or disgust us,” he writes.
Finally, Moylan interviews academics who place Housewives at the forefront of a new economic order, in which these women sell themselves — their relevance, their visibility, and their ability to be entertaining — as part of a broader creator and gig economy, in which their ability to get their contracts renewed hinges on how fresh their self-performance is. That very dichotomy creates the level of self-production that makes the shows so captivating and often feeds the drama, as was the case with Beverly Hills alum Lisa Vanderpump, who manipulated cast members and storylines to the point that her behind-the-scenes maneuvering became season nine’s central plot.
The whole enterprise raises fascinating questions that Moylan can’t quite answer: Who owns the myriad of catchphrases, GIFs, and even the likenesses that make the shows so ubiquitous? The women who said or did them? The audience, who run meme accounts and Etsy shops promoting them? Or Bravo itself, which he points out keeps a tight grip on what aspects of their fame the Housewives are allowed to monetize.
None of these questions, as central as they are to probing late-stage capitalism, are given the weight in society that Moylan allows in this book. Housewives are often watched and discussed with the same fervor as sports, but are looked down upon because they are primarily the purview of women and gay men. Moylan suggests that by considering viewership a guilty pleasure, we’re upholding the patriarchy that devalues women’s interests in the first place.
I found that attitude empowering. These women are neither girlbosses nor villains. They are Real Housewives. It’s no less real to sell a performance of yourself than stocks or consulting or whatever it is that important men do, and it’s no less degrading to care.
I know I’ll never find myself in the kinds of debates the Housewives have, from competing with my frenemy to produce a better booty workout video (Atlanta, season five) to arguing over how big of a slight it is to say your friend smells like a hospital (Salt Lake City, season one). But the Housewives provide a sociological and feminist lens through which to view the various insensitivities and dynamics that inevitably crop up in friend groups, the economy in which I work, and the various ways we perform our personalities for a chance at success — and they’re just really fun.
So next time someone criticizes me for my fandom, Moylan taught me to use the most Housewife defense of all: You’re wrong, and actually, I’m better than you.
The Housewives is available everywhere books are sold. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.