There are the women from Miami, mostly-Latina glamazons with penchants for neon maxi dresses and roasting pigs on spits. Then there are the women from New York, with their own skincare lines and shape wear and lots of affairs and divorces. And Orange County, artificial towheads that boat and do yoga and drink wine. Well, all the women drink wine. And the women from Beverly Hills, keen on writing autobiographies and throwing the kinds of parties that involve naked shot girls and live water nymphs that splash around their pools. And the women from Atlanta, an all-black ensemble in love with masked charity balls and eating up drama started by catty hairdressers. Oh, and the women from New Jersey, all of whom have suffered from physical altercations and court cases and unfortunate bedazzled t-shirts. They range from early thirties to late fifties. Most have kids, some don’t. Most are married, some are not. Most live in gorgeous homes, some don’t. There is no one Housewife that defines the others.
My free time, valued highly as it is, revolves around all of these women (and the accessory-role others in their families), and has since the very beginning of their introduction into pop culture and my then-young teenage life, circa 2006. The multiple casts across states, a revolving door of large and small personalities, function as an effective, comforting distraction from The Real Worries of Inside My Head. What is this doing to my brain and what damage has already been done? Can it be undone? Is it fair to call it damage? What is it about BravoTV’s formula that has gotten me so hooked, not unlike a thrilling and regrettable drug dependence?
The only way I can even start to unlock the mysterious hold that the Housewives have on me is by examining what they even mean. What are The Real Housewives? Let’s break down the series title, word for word: “The Real Housewives of _________.”
“The”, if we are speaking in terms of linguistics, is a determiner, which signifies that whatever subject we are referring to has a certain class, as in, importance, and that the subject attached to the affix “The” is an exclusive one. As opposed to “A Real Housewife”, which could be ANY real housewife ranging from trailer wives to boring suburban wives to wives of straw huts, we have “The Real Housewife”, a special, hand-selected real housewife that you know is going to deliver a large dose of entertainment and demonstrate how to live her own specific version of classily.
Then, we have “Real”, possibly the most intriguing part of the series title. Capital-R “Real” is often added as a qualifier, an adjective to assure that the subject it attached to is authentic. “Real” has something to prove: Real Jordans, tags on; Real genuine freshwater pearls; Real fresh squeezed Florida orange juice, not from concentrate. “The Real Housewives” means that the Housewives are proving something big. I believe the “Real” trend was born from MTV’s “The Real World” (as opposed to the televised, scripted world), and the new genre of Reality TV in general. “Real” combats any reservations that Bravo’s show about housewives participating in modern, privileged housewifery is contrived and possibly fraudulent. When it’s “Real” housewives, it’s all about the truth, and seeing (on TV) is a large fraction of believing: voyeurism at its most PC.
Now, onto the subject: “Housewives.”
A wife, first off. Then, a house. She must be married and living in a house, which usually exists in the suburbs (if we assume apartments are in the city and barns are in the country). Funny that “House” comes before “wife”, signaling the greater importance of the physical manifestation of domesticity that trumps the intangible bond of marriage.
There’s the housewife of yore, like the Lucy Ricardo kind of Housewife, intent on bleaching and laundering and baking and bed-making. I believe we look back on the housewife of yore through pink-tinted glasses, we look at her pink-tinted self in a funky floral housedress and hair scarf and we place her in a cozy corner of pop culture and conveniently forget about that deep-rooted, Betty Friedan-coined “problem that has no name”. I will go out on a limb and say that before “The Real Housewives” swept the TV world, we had no other way to think of “housewife” than the unidimensional, cozy-feeling Lucy kind.
She is the woman that all those vintage cleaning supply ads called out to (my Aunt Dianne collects them and frames them because they’re “kitschy and fun”); they tell her to use Lysol on her floors, tables and even “intimate parts” to ensure a proper clean for her home and husband. Fun. We try to forget her in order to combat darker associations with the word “housewife”, associations with imprisonment, feeling chained to the home and children, loneliness, affairs, depression, suicide. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan boldly claimed that “women who 'adjust' as housewives ... are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps .. .they are suffering a slow death of mind and spirit.”
But did these women Friedan was referencing have the access to Ivy League educations and multiple nannies, private masseurs, caviar facials, party planners, gala hosting opportunities, weekly girls’ trips and top-shelf white wine? No. Housewives today, the ones who call themselves housewives, emulating the ones on TV, they have lots to be happy about. Lots to be sad about too, possible death of mind and spirit because money can’t buy happiness (unless happiness is of the artificially-acquired kind), but most definitely at a lower rate than the days of the Lucy Ricardo. Housewives have a different face these days; it’s something to brag about.
When the show Desperate Housewives first aired in 2004, it seemed to capitalize on the dark associations only, making a mockery of the state of housewifery in the new millennium. Being a millennial housewife meant the same mundane tasks of marriage and child-rearing, only with soap opera-quality romps with gardeners and occasional knifing and murdering. The problem with the Desperate Housewives was that a) they were too desperate to love and respect (but easy to hate), and b) they were not Real, they were just some fictional women in a campy comedy-drama.
But back to the linguistic breakdown. The Real Housewives of________. “Of”, posed right before any given wealthy locale in the United States. “Of” is in the same semantic category of “The”: determiner. Like “The”, “Of” dictates some sort of class of the subject it affixes. Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Real Housewives of Orange County, New York, New Jersey, Miami, District of Colombia, Beverly Hills. Even when fans of the show abbreviate it, they leave in the “O” for “Of” when they could just as easily jettison it for a shorter acronym. But they don’t (save for RHOC, which the people decided looks ridiculous with two O’s): RHONY, RHOA, RHONJ, RHODC, RHOBH, RHOMIA. My personal favorites, RHONY and RHOBH, because I can say them like a word. Rhony (like Pony, but with an R) and Rhobh (like the male name “Rob”). The housewives have birthed a new lexicon!
And lastly (and firstly too, as this is where we really begin to get into it), there’s the city after “Of”.
In order of airing: Orange Country, CA; New York, NY; Atlanta, GA; Franklin Lakes, NJ (though strangely, this is the only Real Housewives branch that goes by the state and not city in its title, possibly because Franklin Lakes is a lesser known gated suburb and New Jersey speaks volumes in its own post-Jersey Shore phenom); District of Columbia; Beverly Hills, CA; Miami, FL. Each city has a distinct color palette, accent, inexplicable feel. There are purposely-cast stock characters in each city, so that no matter which RHO you’re watching, you get a mixed bag: an evil queen kind of woman (or three or four), a peacemaker-mother hen (but don’t count on her to always be the oldest), a flip-flopper Benedict Arnold that doesn’t get caught until the end, an outlier who usually doesn’t belong and/or is cooler than the others and knows it. This is the recipe for maximum entertainment.
If BravoTV sees that there isn’t an adequate amount of entertainment value in a season of RHO of any given city, they are not shy to boot the boring women and bring in new ones to fulfill the mixed bag quota. It becomes a frighteningly-simple formula. However, many RHO fans are not equal-opportunity fans of all the cities because like I said, different flavors/feels. My mom and I like New York the best, if only because it resonates with us in a sick kind of way because we are from there and have a few degrees of separation between some of the women on the show. My mom is not a self-proclaimed housewife in the slightest way, but when we watch the housewives on TV, I can tell that she kind of idolizes them. Or envies them. Not sure which one. She says she wants to come back in her next life as either a) a Real Housewife or b) a pet of a Real Housewife, maybe a super-spoiled cat.
I think of Friedan again.
“The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.” Isn’t having and honing a TV persona the quintessential example of a modern creative work? Housewifery has turned into an honor, an art, a privilege; not a curse anymore. Not for these ladies.