The Idiosyncratic Archetypes of The Real Housewives

When one sees Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Jen Shah sling water at a camera crew during an argument between co-stars Whitney Rose and Heather Gay, several thoughts occur. There’s the absurdity of a bedazzled wealthy woman throwing a tantrum while sitting in a rusty tub built into the land as a hot spring. Disconcertingly, amusingly, you notice her quick reflex toward such a dramatic gesture, and how transparently she’s performing for the camera. It’s almost like we’ve seen this before, and she knows that we know this. 

At the risk of being glib, of course you’ve seen it before. The wealthy women of Bravo’s hit reality soap TV franchise Real Housewives rework the domesticated term “housewife,” imbuing it with a sense of agency. They fundamentally live their lives as a presentation. Since the debut of The Real Housewives of Orange County in 2006, executive producer Andy Cohen has founded related shows across cities, countries, and continents. The various women featured contend with their businesses, their gender, their race (sometimes), and their friendships. The shows allow viewers to voyeuristically peer into the lives of the kind of women whom they simultaneously disdain and aspire to be (in both respects because of their great wealth). Over time, the Real Housewives have become a baseline to understand not only a certain kind of reality television language, but more broadly a pop culture archetype. 

You don’t have to know the context of the outdoor tub scene, nor the context of the performance that Jen appears to be emulating: Teresa Giudice’s dramatic table flip from the first season of Real Housewives of New Jersey. Jen’s fit lives in the shadow of earlier infamous moments; it’s these kinds of scenes that give the various shows dramatic weight, showboating that earns notoriety analogous to, say, Julianne Moore’s expletive-laden monologue in Magnolia. Such much-memed moments include Teresa’s table flip, Bethenny Frankel screaming “Go to sleep!”, Taylor Armstrong’s tearstained finger pointing, or NeNe Leakes telling Sheree Whitfield how “rich” she is. These images have seeped into pop culture beyond the fandom of the shows themselves, decontextualized and GIF’ed and parodied, but they have also become significant within the meta-narrative of these shows, particularly for the SLC freshmen. (The Housewives of color, such as on Atlanta and Potomac, also have their own interesting conversation around the racialized connotations of some of these archetypes.)

The actions each Housewife takes to fill out her own “character” (Whitney Rose instigating, Meredith Marks “disengaging,” Lisa Barlow prioritizing work over family, Mary Cosby detailing her numerous houses filled with garments), are not performed in a vacuum. Heather Gay has said on the record that she was a Bravo and Housewives fan before she made it onto one of the shows, implying at least a passive internalization of the performances that have come before. Beyond the vernacular drawn from earlier reality shows, the Real Housewives have their own established tropes. And the women are already negotiating their socially established roles (in this case, those of Mormon country), meaning that when we watch them, we are seeing performances of performances of performances. 

Even the extended cast beyond the Housewives are keenly aware of this meta-performance. Doreen St. Félix notes in the New Yorker that Meredith’s gay son, Brooks, “seems to be a student of the “Housewives” phenomenon” and is “fluent in the show’s tropes.” He appears as a requisite gay “friend of” a cast member, a tokenized Greek chorus who’s in on the joke. But St. Félix points out Brooks Marks’s “miscalibration of the etiquette of the genre.” A potentially good performance of a relatively enjoyed species of side character is soured by Marks’s “exaggerat[ion] of the scene.” Even within the series’ professed artifice, his error in affect and emotion rings discordant. 

This is also the case with Jen Shah. Being Muslim and Polynesian, she must reconcile not only the collective memory of various Housewives before her, but also how her identity markers shape her performance, and any perceived error in it. The spa tub scene is curious; the rapid escalation of the argument feels all the sillier, and thus more intriguing, because the women are each sitting in their own tub, giving the editing a jittery feel. As the discussion ramps up, Jen’s expressiveness balloons. She’s revved her arm like she was ready to spray anyone in the vicinity before the conversation even began. The camera cuts to the crew, melting the fourth wall. But Jen’s apparent calculation comes across as almost too prepared, as if she’s trying to deliberately engineer an “iconic” moment. Her awareness of Housewives tropes presses against what audiences will allow as believable. 

But perhaps there’s something to the bald-faced grabs at these tropes. Is she throwing everything at the wall to make some kind of confrontational amalgam in time for the series’ 15th anniversary, confronting the viewer with what “mess” truly looks like? Does the fact that she’s a woman of color shape underline how these archetypes tend to be settled into a racialized context whenever the audience clocks what they may consider a divergence from “respectability”? In a way, it’s inevitable that the specter of Housewives past should show up in these roles. Contrivance has always been the name of the game with these shows, from the kitschy taglines to the glaring pot-stirring over minor social infractions. Think of it as “Housewife Performativity.” But though Jen’s conniption might be an obvious attempt to attract the camera, through her imprecision as a reality TV performer, she might reveal that in internet-addled 2021, there’s nothing more sincere than complete artifice.

The cast members in the various iterations of the mega-popular franchise demonstrate the increasing self-awareness of performance in reality television.Read MoreFilm, Documentary, Real Housewives, Reality TVHyperallergicRead More

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