Former housewife Kelly Bensimon said Bravo’s Real Housewives series is, “not a show that celebrates women”. Here are six examples that prove she’s wrong, and the reasons we need to stop pretending Real Housewives is all about screaming matches and dramatic exits.
I wrote an article last week that made me uncomfortable. Titled “Real Housewives Duos We Wish Would Stop Fighting”, it focused on some long-running feuds between housewives in Bravo’s Real Housewives series. While entirely true, the article perpetuates the story that Bravo wants told about the housewives: that they’re catty, vapid, and passive aggressive. And that when they’re not passive aggressive, they’re straight aggressive, which should make viewers feel shocked and horrified. The desired reaction is based on a discomfort with feminine power and, consequently, feminine aggression.
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Physical and verbal battles are commonplace in the series, but criticizing these aspects of the show as if they’re shocking and horrifying is rooted in sexism. In addition to the stigmatization of female aggression on the show, we as viewers do not need to maintain that the feuding is the show’s defining characteristic! Bravo wants us to believe the most interesting aspect of the housewives is that they have some gnarly fights. The site links episodes with incendiary passages highlighted from the housewives blogs, taken out of context to cast focus on conflict while often ignoring the positive and plot-related portions of the show.
“It’s not a show that celebrates women,” says former RHONYC star Kelly Bensimon. Watching the show can be complicated and isn’t without problems, as detailed here and here. But I beg to differ with Kelly- there are simple moments that celebrate women everywhere in the show.
The housewives’ ability to wrap themselves in the comforting and hilarious ties of female friendships even within the patriarchal structure of both their own lives and reality TV is a testament to the enduring power of women working with women. So I contest Kelly Bensimon, because in the moments the housewives enjoy the type of bonding that make being female livable, celebrating women is exactly what the show is doing. Even if it doesn’t mean to, even if it doesn’t want to, even if the narrative attempts to confine the wives within an agenda to shock and disgust.
While noting that they were far and few between, critic Giovanna Derenzo wrote, “Particular characters featured in the series attempt to fight the ideological system, offering a glimmer of resistance.” Below, I’ve detailed scenes from the past two seasons of RHONYC, The Real Housewives’s New York installment, that celebrate women simply, and that in doing so fight the ideological system the show was predicated on.
Dorinda’s Daughter Calling Her a Chubby Chaser, Season 7 Episode 4
As soon as I left home, my relationship with my mom changed from arguments about dirty dishes to picking apart the subtleties of Jane and Michael’s relationship in Jane the Virgin. It’s not so different between Dorinda and Hannah, and Dorinda says, “Hannah and I have gone through so many different stages…there’s a lot of banter that goes on between her and I.” Here, Hannah accuses, “Mom, you’re a chubby chaser!” And the two giggle like they’re punch-drunk as Hannah picks Dorinda out an outfit that she says is lovely but interestingly doesn’t wear. While most of the show focuses on friendships between adult women, this exchange puts a lively focus on mother-daughter relationships.
When Bethenny Advised Sonya on Self Care, Season 7 Episode 6
After a drunken night in Atlantic City, Bethenny confronts Sonya about her drinking and mental health. This is Bethenny Frankel being as gentle as Bethenny gets. She says, “You’ve gotta take it down a notch. You’ve gotta start nurturing yourself in some way…You need to take care of yourself. It’s coming out. It’s not working. It needs to be fixed. You need to talk to someone. I will help you, but I’m not your enemy. You can trust me, I just want you to know that for the time being you need to drink less. Make yourself a drink maximum and you need to talk to someone and you need to open about it.” She’s patient and slightly rambling, just like my friends, and they both tear up. The humanity and concern in this exchange is touching and can transcend class and age.
When Sonja and Luann Are Roommates, Season 8 Episode 1
When Luann is left without a place in the city, Sonya offers her extra room up saying, “She’s gonna fill a void in my heart and my home.” Every time Luann stays over, it’s a flat-out slumber party. Their scenes at Sonya’s– Luann takes a bubble bath while Sonya does her nails, they drink wine in bed, they wear matching pajamas– are reminiscent of The Parent Trap or Mean Girls. They’re taking a break from reality (well, one kind of reality!) to enjoy some pure silliness and prove that age doesn’t change much in a friendship.
When Jules and Bethenny Get Lunch, Season 8 Episode 5
In Season 8, Jules is trying to find her place in the show as a new housewife. She hasn’t hit it off with any of the housewives in particular, so she invites Bethenny to lunch. As strong and opinionated women, it’s significant to watch them slowly move from calculating each other as a threat to sharing pieces of their lives. Jules shares her history with an eating disorder, and Bethenny relates with some history of her own. In a society that compels women to see each other as competition, these two have overcome the negative expectations. Bethenny calls Jules, “vulnerable and courageous” for being so open about her past, and Jules smiles, saying, “I’m so relieved to get to know you.”
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When Carole Let the Feels Flow About Her Kitten, Season 8 Episode 7
In an episode otherwise featuring animosity between the housewives, Carole opens up to Bethenny about the impact a foster kitten had on her. Carole shares some of their conversation in a confessional, saying, “I wanted to at least get to say goodbye to him. I didn’t get to do that,” and reflects, “[I] can’t love anything unless I know it’s temporary…I owe this little kitten a lot. This little kitten taught me what every relationship could not teach me, and that is you cannot live life as though it’s temporary.” She’s alluding here to her first husband who died of cancer five years after their marriage. The past is coming back for a visit after an emotional experience, and who best to hash it out with then a trusted girlfriend?
Jules and Dorinda in The Berkshires, Season 8 Episode 9
Jules and Dorinda become easy friends once they’re introduced, which makes sense given their kind but no-nonsense communication styles. Jules puts extra effort into making Dorinda’s day special on her birthday, producing a cake with lit candles and putting on a pair of sexy onesie pajamas to make Dorinda laugh. ‘She focuses on the good,” Dorinda says. This episode is simple in its kindness. Less than material gestures, Jules and Dorinda spend most of the time chatting on a couch and getting ready for bed, because it’s the little, everyday things that make their friendship what it is.
What do you think about the reputation of The Real Housewives and what it means for feminism? Do you have a favorite moment of solidarity between the housewives of RHONYC? Comment below! Want more? Follow our RHONYC page on Facebook!
(Images courtesy of Bravo and BuddyTV)