At some point in the march of the women’s movement, the word ‘housewife’ became politically incorrect and was replaced by ‘homemaker’. Women who did not have careers, or rather, paying jobs, did not have an answer to the question, “What do you do?” There would be a moue of regret or embarrassment before answering, “I am just a housewife.” Never mind that most middle and working class women are crushed under endless housework, child and elder care, yet the idea persists that housewives do nothing but spend their husbands’ hard-earned money. Even in upper class homes, or households with career women, in most cases, the duty of looking after the family is left to the wife. Of course, there is the class of kitty party women, whose extravagant lifestyles are envied by women who do not have the luxury of cooks, nannies and cleaners. Which is probably why soap operas and reality shows about housewives became so popular in the West.
When reality TV—the more lowbrow or scandalous the better– became a huge pop culture phenomenon, one of the biggest shows that captured viewers’ eyeballs in the US was The Real Housewives franchise on the Bravo channel. Brian Moylan, a self-confessed devotee of the show, has just come out with a book– The Housewives: The Real Story Behind Real Housewives. Bravo was powerful enough to forbid any of the cast from talking to Moylan, but he did get interviews with many others who were involved with the production, and the result is a delightful, chatty yet fact-filled look at the show considered a guilty pleasure by those who admitted to watching it. It did, however, have fans across the demographic Bravo was aiming at and made stars out of the women who appeared on the show.
By the time the first in the franchise, The Real Housewives of Orange County, was premiered a comedy-drama titled Desperate Housewives had already become a success—the series looked at the turbulent lives of four suburban women. Another show in the same genre, Peyton Place, predated Desperate Housewives by several years. Still, millions of people were glued to their televisions to watch the antics of women in the reality show that came to be called a docusoap, in the sense that the women were not professional actresses, but the dramas that unfolded over the seasons could rival any fictional soap opera.
The Real Housewives of Orange County set the template for others to follow. The women chosen to appear in the show were not the harried stay-at-home moms, cooking meals for husband and kids, doing laundry, vacuuming the house in a crumpled housecoat.They had to be rich and glamorous, living in lavish homes, dressed in designer outfits and accessories, always perfectly made-up, botoxed and coiffed. Most of them were not even, strictly speaking, housewives; they had businesses or careers as models and bit-part actresses, but glamour was the key word. Because the show had to appeal to the ordinary woman, dreaming of rich husbands and an idle life of, shopping expeditions, fancy dinners, resort holidays, spa dates.
As Moylan writes, “These women were like the popular girls in high school that everyone hated and were jealous of at the same time. We all wanted their version of privilege, and we all wanted to grind it under the boots of our Doc Martens.”
The women made decent money, but for the stardom and fan love they received, they had to agree to total invasion of their privacy as camera crews parked in their homes and followed them around. Their marriages, affairs, divorces, heartbreaks, fights, problems with kids and at work were packaged for consumption by television viewers. They got to wallow in luxury, but they also knew that if they did not provide sufficient drama, their place would be taken by another woman, hungry for the short-lived fame that the show offered. So the episodes had tantrums, bickering, physical fights, hair-pulling, table-flipping. A lot of it was performance for the camera and the rest manipulated in post-production. Very rarely did bitter reality intrude, like the time when a cast member had to break down in public when she got news of her mother’s death.
Despite the hassles of letting it all hang out, the smart ones found ways to monetize their temporary popularity by launching businesses. Not just them, even fans made money out of Real Housewives merchandise. Andy Cohen, the executive producer of the series, was a showbiz demigod in his time, and went on to write his memoir titled Most Talkative: Stories From the Frontlines of Pop Culture. He famously said in an interview to New York Times, about the Beverly Hills spin-off, “We wanted the city and the Housewives to be aspirational. We wanted other women to look at them and think, I want that.”
The show was such a huge hit that The Real Housewives franchise went to New York, Atlanta (the first one with a Black cast), New Jersey, Washington, Miami, Beverly Hills, Potomac, Dallas, Salt Lake City. This kind of voyeurism must be an American phenomenon, because the international versions of the show failed. But the US-based shows were avidly watched by audiences worldwide.
Reviews were expectedly brutal, but Moylan quotes Linda Stasi writing in The New York Post, “Whatever it is. Bravo has a genius way of not only finding shallow, desperate-to-be-famous people with inflated egos (and boobs), but getting these people to expose their boring lives to the world. Boring lives, however, can make for fascinating television.”
Charles McGrath wrote in I,” Like so much reality TV, it’s both educational and grimly fascinating, and leaves you feeling better about your own life—for no other reason than that you would never be so stupid as to appear on a show like this.”
However, as the synopsis on a books site states, “Over the years these ladies have done a lot more than lunch, launching thirty-one books, a cocktail line, two jail sentences, a couple supermodel daughters, Andy Cohen’s talk show career, thirty-six divorces, fourteen albums, a White House party crash, and approximately one million memes.”
Feminists are divided over the vicarious thrills that The Real Housewives provides. Gloria Steinem commented (and Roxane Gay disagreed), “It is women, all dressed up and inflated and plastic surgeried and false bosomed and an incredible amount of money spent, not getting along with each other. Fighting with each other. It is a minstrel show for women. I don’t believe it, I have to say. I feel like it’s manufactured, that the fights between them are manufactured and they’re supposed to go after each other in a kind of conflicting way.”
The other POV comes from Brenda R. Weber, a professor of gender studies, quoted in the book, who is of the opinion that the “cultural gender binary tends to confer authority on all things associated with maleness. Things that are associated with women or gendered female are in the weaker position.”
After the deluge of saas-bahu melodramas, the worst excesses of reality TV have come to India, though not The Real Housewives, but the show may just have made a backdoor entry, at least in spirit, with the equally vapid Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives.
Needless to add there is now a certain condescension associated with the word ‘housewife’ but nobody objects to it being used for a bunch of women who do not even fit that mould. Is this continuing portrayal of women as vain, insecure, hysterical, quarrelsome and gossipy just a kind of backlash (Susan Faludi used this term) against the gains of feminism? Or is it a subversive way of empowering women– if you can’t change things, why not twist them to your advantage?
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated June 30, 2021)