I have to confess something- something dangerous. I am an addict of the Bravo Television’s The Real Housewives (TRHW) (2006-present) and it appears that I am not alone. The franchise follows the lives of wealthy ‘housewives’, traversing the American dream through business ventures, relationships, dinner parties, and retail therapy. Believe it- this makes for wicked entertainment.
To date there have been nine American and eight international versions of the reality show including: TRHW of Orange County (2006-present), Beverly Hills (2010-present), Dallas (2016-present), Athens (2011), Melbourne (2014-present) etc. with episodes consistently attaining viewing figures over the two million mark in the United States (ShowBuzzDaily, 2016). Many of the TRHW instalments have garnered such popularity and attention that they have spawned their own spin-off shows with specific ‘housewives’ taking centre stage. Clearly, there is a dedicated following for such programmes, as supported by the replication and ratings statistics, but it is also the interest from wider cultural fields that suggests TRHW is more than just a reality show.
The franchise has been the target of numerous parodies including a 2017 BBC comedy sketch that associated TRHW with the Jihadi Bride phenomena; TRHW of ISIS (Topping). Likewise, many academics and theorists have engaged in critical debate concerning the show’s debased relationship with gender, class, and consumerism in writings such as, Bravo’s “The Real Housewives”: Living the (Capitalist) American Dream? (2014, Cox). The validity and relevance for political and feminist discourse of this nature is wholly important, especially considering the current populist climate. However, I would like to approach TRHW from a more fundamental and functional level that derives from its polarising effects.
Although vapid and verging on brain-dead mindlessness, TRHW undoubtedly exploits this characteristic, unashamedly exulting in this form of entertainment. Higher authorities of the show are very aware of its extreme nature with the executive producer, Andy Cohen, comparing the thrill of watching to taking “crack cocaine with no side-effects” (ABC News, 2011). What Bravo has achieved within the programme is unique, difficult, and quite extraordinary; examining surface level to an almost molecular detail. For example, in a scene from the 2015 season of TRHW of Orange County, ‘housewife’, Heather Dubrow goes shopping for luxury door handles to accommodate her newly built mansion. The camera gazes over a vast variety of handles all singularly worth hundreds of dollars (Reality Tea, 2015). It is this excruciatingly intricate quality of vapid-ness that I find so fascinating, where the show starts to inflect. It transitions from an origin of entertainment into a more perceptive and engaging cultural apparatus, whether intentional or not. Ultimately, TRHW is questioning how images currently operate within visual culture.
If we take the very title of the franchise, ‘real’, we know of course that what we are viewing is anything but. Editing and wider interests from producers and cast members will always impact on the legitimacy of the show’s events but the very notion of a camera’s role means relaying anything ‘real’ is impossible; ‘…the image is bound neither to truth nor to reality; it is appearance and bound to appearance’ (Baudrillard, 2004: 71). It has been claimed by former cast members that clauses within their contracts allow Bravo to screen false and disparaging information about themselves (Day, 2014) for entertainment purposes. I think this is why I am hesitant towards the feminist and classist debate surrounding the TRHW because it verges on patronising. The viewer is acutely aware in what Bravo is attempting to do, as if both are part of a symbiotic relationship. The viewer does not expect, care, and want a truth.
It is no wonder then that the franchise has amassed such a following for its vapid-ness, where a dichotomy between antipathy and attraction has emerged from the excesses of image and culture. Viewers, like myself, revel in a twisted relationship with the show, aware that an ‘aesthetic performance’ (Baudrillard, 2004: 73) is playing out on screen. This excess is not only generated from the show’s extreme surface level but also in the replication; seventeen instalments of the TRHW and fourteen spin-off series currently exist, whilst the Bravo network simultaneously broadcasts the multiple versions alongside one another.
It is a strange phenomenon that so many instalments have been created, of course not in terms of financial return for Bravo but in terms of demand- why do viewers want to watch systematic replication over and over again? Each version follows a near identical format including: types of character (i.e. the ‘matriarch, the ‘bitch’, the ‘new-one’), structure, and plotline. Each season culminates in a three-part reunion show, where the ‘housewives’ discuss, in a lavish studio set, the drama that has unfolded over the past months with Andy Cohen as host and mediator. The only aspects that noticeably differ between each of TRHW programmes are the locations and accents.
It would not be wrong to think that the franchise belonged to the series of works, Versions (2009-12) by artist Oliver Laric. Versions (2009-12) confronts ‘how original and copy, thing and thought, event and document, are collapsed in a flattened information space’ (MIT, 2013) through the image’s unstable and precarious nature. Then perhaps the demand for the multiple versions of TRHW is not only attributed to its addictive vapid-ness but also to the way images are reproduced and distributed within visual culture.
Theorist, W J T Mitchell (2011), has compared image reproduction and distribution to infection outbreaks, where images like viruses/bacteria multiply and multiply in a cloning process. Today’s technology and social media platforms allow images to ‘[…] migrate around the planet at blinding speed; they become much more difficult to quarantine or censor; and they are subject to more rapid mutation than ever before’ (Mitchell, 2011: 73-74). As conveyed by Mitchell, this process is often quite a violent one, where images are accelerated, stretched, and strained beyond original intention; they mutate. Thus, TRHW also mutates.
Disguised as a lifestyle show, TRHW has an underlying unequivocal violence that stems from its banal quality. The ‘housewives’ go to self-destructive lengths to accommodate the invasiveness of the camera, where addiction, bankruptcy, suicide, and custody battles simmer beneath the image’s surface of dinner parties. Engineered physical fights, verbal assaults, threats, and vicious arguments ensue throughout each season. Ultimately, the most banal scenes like the one in which Heather Dubrow shops for door handles could be argued to be the most violent of all- it is an annihilative process in a ‘war of images’ (Mitchell, 2011: 3). Despite the scene’s superficial-ness it perceptively highlights the excesses of culture and how images have become these consumable pornographic commodities. The demand and success of the show is built around this very violence.
In 2014, journalist Will Self wrote an article entitled; we are the passive consumers of the pornography of violence, concerning the online Isis execution videos. I would like to amend this title in terms of TRHW; we are passive consumers of the pornography of banality. I found it interesting that a BBC parody had also compared TRHW to Isis jihadi brides, as I had considered a link between the franchise’s use of images and the Isis execution videos long before the parody aired.
I freely admit to having watched some of the Isis execution videos. However, when it is suggested that the ideology of Isis or Bravo’s misogyny is supported from watching their respective programmes, I must disagree. It seems arrogant to assume context surrounding an image, considering Baudrillard’s argument that only appearance is involved (2004: 71). Having scrutinised output from both, a bizarre convergence between TRHW and Isis seems to take place.
For example, one of the execution videos records a jihadist running over a singular prisoner with an armoured tank. This is a grotesque excessive act but verges on the absurd and arguably the humorous like a ‘housewife’ spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on door handles. Artist, Thomas Hirschhorn wrote an essay; why is it important—today—to look at images of destroyed human bodies? (2013), arguing that if we refuse to acknowledge and analyse such images then we fear losing an ability to interpret information. To look at such images (and I include TRHW in this) could be a surprising and challenging act; images are not concrete and physical devices.
The fact that parodies of the TRHW exist become problematic because the show is already self-parodying and self-deprecating, often mocking the ‘housewives’ for their laughable behaviour. Comparably, the SNL skits in which Alec Baldwin impersonates Trump, although humorous are difficult scenes to watch. The skits do not evoke any form of criticality because the parodies are a literal response, feeding the already extreme rhetoric of Trump. Trump, like TRHW is a self-parody. Time and time again we fall victim to the same images resurfacing in different contexts, unaware of their new intentions and mutations. These examples articulate our current lack of understanding towards the vacillated position of the image in visual culture; we fail to interrogate.
Philosopher, Baudrillard wrote;
‘Today transforming the world is not enough. It will happen no matter what. What we urgently need today is to interpret this transformation- so that the world does not do it without us, and ends up being a world without us’ (2010: 79)
TRHW has been lauded by many (including its dedicated followers) as a destructive force within culture (Day, 2014). Again, I would like to disagree; assuming an image’s intention is a dangerous action. To challenge, interpret, and analyse visual culture is more important than ever in a world that is supposedly (mis)understood more and more through the screen. Images once thought to be antithetical from one another may have a surprisingly common cause. Images are complex; they can often be humorous, violent, and rather slippery abnormalities.
Ian Williamson is a Fine Art graduate from Kingston University (2016). He has organised exhibitions across the South West of the UK, London, and Los Angeles. His practice confronts the increasingly unstable device of the image and its impact on delivering a coherent understanding of our global condition. Often his work takes the form of a video installation to address the physical and virtual position that the image so ambiguously navigates. Along with his own practice, Ian is also part of Dank Collective- a collective exploring performance, video, and online platforms.
Please follow the link to Ian’s Vimeo account.
ABC News, 2011. Fired ‘Housewives’ Stars Break Silence. [online] Available at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8m4T41gggTc> [Accessed 25.1.17]
Baudrillard, J., 2004. The Intelligence of Evil; or, The Lucidity Pact. Translated from French by C.Turner., 2005. Reprint 2013. Mumbai: Bloomsbury Academic
Baudrillard, J., 2010. The Agony of Power. Translated from French by A. Hodges., 2010. London: Semiotext(e)
Cox, N.B., 2014. Bravo’s “The Real Housewives”: Living the (Capitalist) American Dream?. In: A.F. Slade., A.J. Narro., and B.P. Buchanan, eds. 2014. Reality Television: Oddities of Culture. Lanham: Lexington Books. Chapter 5.
Day, E., 2014. Scott Dunlop: ‘You can hate The Real Housewives but you can’t ignore it’. The Guardian [online], 16 February. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/feb/16/real-housewives-interview-scott-dunlop> [Accessed 2.2.17]
Hirschhorn, T., 2013. Why Is It Important – Today – to Show and Look at Images of Destroyed Human Bodies?. [pdf] Institute of Modern Art. Available at: <http://www.ima.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/thomas_hirschhorn_touching_reality.pdf> [Accessed 2.2.17]
Larios, P., 2014. Iconoclash. Frieze, [online] Available at: <https://frieze.com/article/iconoclash?language=en> [Accessed 27.1.17]
MIT List Visual Arts Cente, 2013. OLIVER LARIC: VERSIONS. [online] Available at: <https://listart.mit.edu/exhibitions/oliver-laric-versions> [Accessed 1.2.17]
Mitchell, W.J.T., 2011. Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. London: University of Chicago Press
Reality Tea, 2015. Real Housewives Of Orange County Secrets Revealed Recap: Brooks, Butts, And Everything Nuts. [online] Available at: <http://www.realitytea.com/2015/11/13/real-housewives-orange-county-secrets-revealed-recap-brooks-butts-everything-nuts/> [Accessed 29.1.17]
Self, W., 2014. Will Self: we are passive consumers of the pornography of violence. The Guardian [online], 23 December. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/23/-sp-passive-consumers-pornography-violence> [Accessed 29.1.17]
ShowBuzzDaily, 2016. SHOWBUZZDAILY’s Top 150 Tuesday Cable Originals & Network Finals: 12.27.2016. [online] Available at: <http://bit.ly/2lRm02B> [Accessed 26.1.17]
Topping, A., 2017. Real Housewives of Isis: ‘They want Muslims to be offended, but we aren’t’. The Guardian [online], 6 January. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/feb/16/real-housewives-interview-scott-dunlop>
Featured image: Real Housewives of Isis. A sketch part of the BBC comedy show, Revolting (2017). Photograph: BBC