The Real and the Reality of the Real Housewives

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I’m not sure why I am so infatuated with a couple versions of the Real Housewives franchises on Bravo.  I almost think it would be better if I liked all the Housewives series, but I actually pick and choose which ones I watch. Moreover, I pick and choose the two least popular franchises, Orange County and New York, which returned to the Bravo airwaves tonight.

For some reason Atlanta and Beverly Hills always seemed too outlandish to me. These people seemed over the top from the jump, whereas the OC housewives, who are the OG housewives, didn’t really know they had to act crazy to be famous.  They are all crazy now, don’t get me wrong, but originally they were actually still sort of friends in real life prior to the show, plus they had legitimate drama, the kind that comes with raising teenagers and having jobs, not the kind that comes with throwing endless cocktail parties or launching your own boutique purse line.

The ladies of New York originally tried to keep it sophisticated and minimally dramatic too.  They were Manhattan ladies after all, they had to be above the drama.  That didn’t last long.  They quickly devolved into their own breed of antics that produced the most absurd, bizarre fight in Housewives history: Kelly Bensimon having a full blown mental break with reality on Scary Island.

What I love even more than these absolutely insane fights is the way the ladies attempt to rationalize their behavior once America has had a chance to comment and their comments amount to, “Holy shit, what a psychopath.”

It is terrible schadenfreude, I realize, but watching Bensimon try to pawn off her insane and sad breakdown as an example of “systematic bullying” was a marvel to see.  To watch this woman just refuse to acknowledge the undeniable video evidence she straight up lost her mind with such fervor and conviction was like observing the most fascinating psychological case study through a two-way mirror. Even though she can’t reconcile what is fighting and having a breakdown and what constitutes “bullying”, Bensimon clearly saw that everyone hated her and, from what I can tell, she kept tabs on what just about everyone was saying about her. So much so that, when that episode aired, I tweeted something about her being cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and shortly after that she started following me on Twitter (she has since, wisely, pared down her list of followed accounts).

We have a great example of this image adjustment happening on the New York franchise right now.  Last season, Aviva Drescher was one of the new Housewives on the block.  Initially, the pretty blonde with a prosthetic leg, massive anxiety and codependency issues, and the fancy Manhattan upbringing was depicted as the new, nice housewife, while Heather Thomson was portrayed as the new instigator.  As Season 5 progressed though, Aviva’s patience with her castmates wore thin and she began lashing out at the “white trash” of the cast, Sonja Morgan and Ramona Singer.  At first, the frustrations paralleled those of the viewers, but once she started to become straight up vicious as opposed to a somewhat catty mean girl, she started getting the villain treatment from the editors and producers.  Rightfulyl so really, as this girl, who is supposed to be a high powered executive, couldn’t board and ride a small plane without her husband, couldn’t get on elevators in skyscrapers (which, um, why live in NYC, you know?), and seemed to be driven to madness by a couple middle aged ladies getting boozy and shaking their tatas.  In other words, she was on her way to being systematically bullied into a breakdown. The season ended with massive fights, and on the reunion Aviva continued to ride the Kelly Bensimon cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs crazy train insisting she was not overreacting at the behavior that is so unsurprising to the rest of the cast.

The beginning of this new season offers Aviva a chance to do what folks like Jill Zarin and Alex McCord have tried to do before her, which is redeem her image and ensure she gets more positive storylines.  Despite offering no credible explanation as to why she wants to mend the fences with two women that seem to drive her to the brink of her sanity, she spent the bulk of tonight’s premiere basically trying to win her way back into Ramona’s good graces without doing the one thing she needs to do in order to make that happen: apologizing for the fact she told this woman she was white trash, was likely an alcoholic, and appeared to be having her life spiral out of control in front of reality TV show cameras.

Instead, she awkwardly pulls Ramona aside at a birthday party and decides the best way to start this conversation is to ask for a hug.  Not forgiveness, a hug.  And I have to give it to Ramona, she says what most sane people would: “I don’t think I am up for hugging right now.”

While most people would relent after a person won’t even drop them a courtesy hug, Aviva’s quest to be perceived as nice by the viewership continued on with her calling Ramona insisting they should have a drink, patch their friendship, and try to soldier on.  Ramona, again, is like “not interested”.

Eventually Ramona gets peer pressured by the other Housewives to go and what does Aviva, who accused this woman of being a raging alcoholic less than a year ago suggest? A tequila shot.  

What fascinates me about Aviva and Kelly before her is the remarkable balance of complete self-awareness and complete lack of self-awareness the two display all at the same time.  You obviously aren’t thinking about how you come across to a person if you call them alcoholic white trash (fwiw, I would much rather hang out with alcoholic white trash than most any other of the social groups depicted on Bravo TV reality, so it doesn’t seem all that insulting to me), but you have to be a special breed of calculating to go out of your way to mend a friendship not because you want to, but because you know your image needs the boost.  As I mentioned, to not even pretend to offer an explanation why your reality show persona would ever want to deal with these women again indicates you don’t quite get how you’re coming across to people. 

They say these shows are vapid, empty drama that is completely scripted and devoid of reality.  But, as NPR’s Linda Holmes noted in her awesome piece on The Bachelor today, there is in fact a very real narrative taking place here and it takes place in these moments.

With these friendships basically being completely forced and manufactured for the show, with a few exceptions, the way these women engage with one another is basically a blank canvas for them to depict a version of themselves that will either earn them a bigger paycheck by bringing in ratings for their franchise or earn them respect and goodwill from their viewers.  Aviva can kiss and make up with Ramona (or at least attempt to) without feeling like she is compromising herself, because her friendship with Ramona is completely made up for the show.  She is just performing what kind of Housewife she wants people to think she is. And that performance is what I find to be the most fascinating part of these shows, because there is the narrative the show tries to put forward about what is happening, there is the narrative the housewife is trying to put forward, and their is a whole meta narrative where avid reality viewers get to read between the lines as these two narratives battle it out for supremacy.

As a lazy former film scholar, I love when the subtext is just right there for me to consume and interpret, so yeah, reality is, in a way, pretty junk foody, but really it is junk food for the lazy academic in me I was discussing the other day.  Here is a readily apparent struggle between production, cast, reality, and the show itself that I don’t even have to dig all that deep to find because if there is one thing the Housewives will never, ever do, it is subtlety.

Watching these moments where the persona on the show rub up against these ladies real lives, as it did with Countess Lu Ann’s shall we say nighttime activities while she was away from her on-show boyfriend on a girl’s trip, is where reality TV is at its best.  You see these women try to negotiate these two lives and construct a narrative that makes sense.  Lu Ann was a pro at this, always effortlessly exuding her haughty dignitary persona and simply batting away the rumors of infidelity, open marriages, and the poor house with one well-manicured hand.  The same way it is impressive to watch a skilled craftsman at work, it is impressive to watch Lu Ann navigate the murky waters of RHONYC.

But the true beauty of the show is watching not so savvy people who believe they are savvy struggle and strain their way through these unspoken conflicts between show self and real self.  It is mean to take pleasure in it, I realize, but when it comes to the Housewives, I don’t really feel too bad about relishing in the performance these ladies are so eagerly volunteering to give me and the Bravo audience.

This season is going to be a whole lot of Aviva trying to revive her good girl persona and, judging by the previews, failing. As you can see from the clip, she appears to possibly even embrace her evil ways by going after the one unassailable Housewife, the universally beloved seemingly normal by Housewives standards, Carole Radziwill. So you know things are gonna get cray and, if that isn’t enough, the season preview features Aviva’s prosthetic leg on the ground without her at a party, so one can hope there is a really salacious explanation of how it got there.  If you feel bad marveling at that leg, don’t.  It is actually a pretty perfect metaphor for the Real Housewives franchise.  You have a lady like Aviva who works very hard to make it seem like she is a person with two legs, even though that isn’t the case, and their is nothing Housewives producers love more than rolling up that stocking and unveiling that, it may have polish, shine, and work as an illusion most of the time, but in the end, it isn’t what it seems at first glance.

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