With feminism a pervasive movement this century, the idea of female empowerment is closely associated with women binding together to end the patriarchy. Catty remarks and girl-on-girl envy has come under scrutiny now that a coalition of women battle to achieve gender equality. Pop culture has certainly been a witness to the effects of this. The media has been excoriated for pitting female celebrities against each other and for reporting on the self-aggrandising tit-for-tat between pop stars.
One pop culture phenomenon that surely needs examining under the microscope is reality television, specifically the international Real Housewives franchise. The show, introduced in 2006 with the Real Housewives of Orange County, had a premise to follow the lives of wealthy women in an affluent enclave of the O.C. Now, with its ubiquity across the globe and spin-offs in further locations, the Real Housewives has heavily focused on lies, deceit, rivalry and outlandish allegations to captivate viewers.
Table-flipping, glass-smashing and hair-grabbing has tainted the Real Housewives as women with a vengeance. A prison sentence, a husband’s suicide and cast members with salacious pasts has seen the reality show become embroiled in scandal after scandal. The question remains, are the Real Housewives befitting to a world self-aware to its treatment of female friendship?
Some fans of the franchise may recoil at its definition of toxic feminism by describing it as a highlight to the trials and tribulations of marriage, motherhood and friendship. Others may wish for its removal from network scheduling, classing it as pejorative in the present day’s analysis of female struggles.
It is worth noting that many of the “Housewives” past and present have acquired or sustained longstanding friendships with their cast members. The Real Housewives of New Jersey alumni, Teresa Giudice and Dina Manzo, share a 25 year-plus friendship that has only become stronger since they were thrust into the spotlight ten years ago. Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, the tumultuous sisterly bond with Kim and Kyle Richards has been rocky but is now seemingly at peace since the former exited the show. It hasn’t been plain sailing, however, with a litany of cast members walking away from valuable female relationships by blaming the nature of the franchise. Arguments and back-stabbing have meant some have never returned to the reality TV world no matter what pay packet they’ve been offered. No matter the outcome of their role on TV, they all bask in the glare of the spotlight with obligatory endorsement deals and a spike in their social media presence.
The franchise, alleged to be scripted and constructed for entertainment, creates an illusion between reality and binge-worthy entertainment. The Housewives are never cordial, nor are they always respectful to one another’s personal and professional endeavours. This is either because the production team pick the most perfect-for-television cast, or they create their own dystopia around the women’s lives and inner circle. Becoming fixtures on cable television, the cast then proceed to be Machiavellian in their future decisions. Whether they are promoting their brand or changing their face with plastic surgery, they are all out for themselves with ostentatious expressions to an all-consuming fanbase. The friendships they cherish then become second-best to Instagram followers and television interviews.
Whether one is a fan of the Real Housewives or not, it is worth questioning its relevance in a female encompassing future. The #MeToo movement has seen swathes of women come forward harmoniously to attack the endemic harassment issue in the workplace. With catfight-driven women on reality television displaying few signs of concluding, its paradox with societal attitudes versus its popularity on television is a debate worth having.