Bravo’s hit reality television show The Real Housewives of New York City features seven prominent Manhattan women: Bethenny Frankel, Jill Zarin, LuAnn De Lesseps, Ramona Singer, Alex McCord, Kelly Bensimon, and Sonja Morgan.
This series is only the second installation of Bravo television network’s empire of wealthy kept women, a spin-off, along with an Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and Washington D.C., of the original series The Real Housewives of Orange County that premiered in 2006. The Orange County-based installation ran on Bravo for five season, New York City for three, and New Jersey for two.
These women are not just socialites prancing around Manhattan sipping martinis, ravaging the racks at Bergdorf’s, and taking shots of Patron on yachts in the Hamptons; they are natural food chefs, writers, graphic designers, magazine editors, and businesswomen. These intelligent, well-spoken, ambitious, worldly, and beautiful women theoretically are perfect role models for young girls in the age where a 17-year-old Miley Cyrus shows off her pole dancing skills in hot pants at the Teen Choice Awards.
But of course, reality television needs drama. The women’s constant verbal sparring is so ridiculous and outlandish that when we see Frankel, in a pricey designer dress and perfectly highlighted mane, call De Lesseps a “dumb drag queen” we can’t stop watching. Similar behavior is depicted on all of the Real Housewives installments: youth-obsessed, passive aggressive, backstabbing, and straight up bitchiness. No matter how intelligent, accomplished, and talented these women may be, they still fight like High School mean girls, jabbing insults but always with a smile and that certain you-know-I’m-just-joking chortle.
How can successful, determined women expect to be taken seriously when they constantly tear each other down emotionally? And thus, how can men take middle-aged women seriously when they refer to each other as “girls”? Who cares that you graduated from Columbia University and run your own business when you can abide by the playground rule of if you don’t have anything nice to say keep your gossiping mouth shut? Viewers simply cannot recognize their accomplishments through the haze of these women’s cattiness.
Reality television not only allows viewers to safely voyeur into a distant world of wealth and luxury, but also shows raw human emotions. Maybe you can’t relate to going on a Roberto Cavalli shopping spree in St. Bart’s, but you understand how Frankel could be brought to tears when former BBF Zarin seals the disintegration of their friendship, proclaiming “we’re done.”
Author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shield argues that the success of reality shows “reflects our lust for emotional meaning. We really do want to feel, even if that means indulging in someone else’s joy or woe.” In the 21st century, where we are all plugged into Ipods, laptops, and televisions, our attention span to sit back and really focus and absorb our emotions is virtually diminished. Although viewers argue Real Housewives are just a “guilty pleasure,” they still subconsciously are emotionally invested in the characters.
Reality television is also compelling for women because it forces them to evaluate their own character. New York Times journalist Daphne Merkin admits to asking herself: “Who might one be if one were to be played by a reality-show star? Who might one want to be?” during the program. “One stays tuned, fascinated by the mindless commotion, caught on the hook of the souped-up dramas that barge into every episode, unsure whether one is watching a version of oneself or a counter-version or perhaps an alternate version.” So when women watch the Real Housewives they are ultimately contemplating their own character in life: am I also like Singer? A wannabe MILF in a too-tight, too-short Calvin Klein dress, bumping and grinding on swanky nightclub dance floors, desperately yearning to be a hip twenty-something?
When other women get a peek into this crème de la crème lifestyle, they crave it too, inviting stressed out, maxed-out, middle-class homemakers just looking for a break to live beyond their means with unnecessary Botox injections, spray tans, and ball gowns. Merkin adds: “I submit: If I’ve only one life to live, let me live it as Jill Zarin. I, too, want a passive, overly generous husband; I want lots of designer clothes (one thing all the Housewives are indubitably about is fashion) and lots of oversize accessories and a snappish teacup dog named Ginger; I want a big house in the Hamptons…to wake up in the morning adoring myself and believing in my own capacious, largely untested abilities.” Extravagant personalities like Zarin suggest that women can live a leisurely, unexamined life “without any moral repercussions.”
These unhealthy, dysfunctional representations of modern metropolitan women send out a glaring message to housewives and young women: that it is okay to be frivolous and conniving. Leslie Seppinni of the Mental Health Examiner said the show should really be titled “What a Bitch You Can Become with Too Much Money and Free Time.” And that these women highlight the flaws in today’s value system, placing too much emphasis on financial worth and physical appearance over character development. She argues: “The women in these shows are setting terrible examples for their daughters and the young women of our nation, displaying such behavior as superficiality, materialism, nastiness, diva-like tantrums, disloyalty, untrustworthiness, and severe cases of ‘Keeping up with the Jones’’ syndrome.” By putting these delusional housewives on parade, they invite the men and women of society to not take them seriously by acting like overgrown mean girls, projecting that image on all successful American women.