You may notice that I am not defending the Real Housewives of Miami, Atlanta, or New Jersey (and nobody defends D.C.). Those shows might have a lot of wonderful things in them, but I can’t watch them because I sometimes worry that my disdain for the women slides over into racism. Why put myself in such a compromising position? There are a lot of Jews in the New York City show, but as Bravo has shown with its recent Princesses Long Island, the network’s deeply sensitive portrayal of Judaism allows the nation to encounter a much broader and diverse range of Judaisms than most Americans will ever see. Julie Klausner has of course argued that Jill Zarin is bad for the Jews, but I don’t think she is bad for my moral center, and that’s what I’m worried about.
Orange County is comfortably white, but I have begun to feel too much sadness for the women like Vicky who have now been a “Real Housewife” for 10 years and are clearly hurting their families by remaining on the show. Still watch it, but I won’t defend it.
But the Real Housewives of New York and Beverly Hills aren’t just good for a night of drunken decompression after a long day of childcare and fellowship proposals, they are also GOOD in a non-instrumental sense.
The Real Housewives of NYC and Beverly Hills, unlike the other cities, distinguish themselves with piles of money and/or fame that derives from outside the franchise. Not all of the housewives were truly rich before the show, but there are a couple of super wealthy ladies who actually don’t need to work or shill their own face creams.
This leads to my first point. The Real Housewives contribute to the important work of demystifying the American economy. Many Americans like to imagine that they will be millionaires someday, or they just want to join the 1% who make at least $400,000 a year. This of course leads to all kinds of fantasies about what they would like to pay in taxes if they ever joined this cohort. Breaking through these fantasies, however,the Real Housewives usefully display the differences between the “leveraged” and the “super rich” and the various attached costs and benefits.
The Leveaged: There are definitely housewives like Taylor (whose husband killed himself last year), whose 1% status teetered precariously on a series of business deals (via the now deceased husband) that seem to have been based in borrowing huge sums of cash from banks and collecting money from other business people as investments. Often in Real Housewife land these business deals are about real estate. But the show beautifully displays the insecurity of this kind of money as the housewives dramatic personal highs and lows track their risky business deals. Divorces (and I guess death now) track the bubbles of the economy. The Queen of Versailles stole all its tricks from this franchise.
The Super Wealthy: These women include Camille Grammer (the ex wife of Kelsey), Yolanda, the Maloof (of the Maloof hoof), and Sonya pre-Morgan divorce. These people are making so much money, and are so inordinately free of any sense of social responsibility, that one of the major questions left open by the show is why they don’t just adopt all the leveraged ladies and buy them little cottages in West Hollywood.
Americans tend to fantasize about “being rich” in a highly generalized form, but there are real material differences between the rich and THE RICH, which Real Housewives lays bare. Forget about taxing the 1%, Yolanda and Camille Grammer could be subsidizing some single payer healthcare for the entire LA metro area. And Andy Cohen at Bravo doesn’t just stop at this important distinction, he goes on to clarify the difference between social capital and capital capital. In a brilliant move last season on the Real Housewives of New York, he hired Carole Radziwill–the widow of a now deceased Kennedy. Carole seems to not only have attended actual universities but also has all the social connections of an actual socialite. She is someone who actually gets invited to Met Balls and Opera Galas, unlike her New York cohort who betray their new money class status by actively using the word “socialite” to describe themselves. Carole might not have the biggest apartment, but she has ready access to book contracts and media tycoons that will insure her continued and secure access to money. You can’t buy the stability of social capital. Maybe that will be my tagline if I am ever invited to the Real Housewives of Brooklyn.
Also, these women are creating a new artistic medium based in the post-human cyborg body. No old-school “natural” body can do what they do.
Finally, unlike most reality TV, viewers are invited (the passive voice is absolutely necessary in describing the relationship between viewers, producers, and housewives), to love these women. Cathecting onto unlikely wives creates an emotional turmoil that I find very confusing and productive every season. Do I “like” Yolanda because she seems smart? Or do I just like her two acres of lemon trees that she grows for the exclusive purpose of making juice for the Master Cleanse? I’ll NEVER KNOW!