It’s a burning question inquiring producers want to know. Why? Because they’re chasing ratings. Bravo execs want to know if you’ve tuned in to watch: cat fighting, a-little-on-the-heavy-side-of-recreational alcohol consumption, backstabbing, shopping, gabbing, partying and dream-seeking. Specifically, TV officials want to know if you’ve tuned in to see how The Real Housewives live.
Currently delivering six versions of the reality TV phenomenon to hungry viewers, to include The Real Housewives of Vancouver, The Real Housewives franchise premiered in March 2006 with The Real Housewives of Orange County. The series currently follows the lives of relatively wealthy housewives and professionals living and working in various American cities. And… apparently, American viewers prefer to watch this type of salaciously catty behavior by women more than men. In an attempt to answer The Real Housewives ratings craze, Fox Television piloted the series Househusbands of Hollywood in 2009. It ended with continuously plummeting ratings after only 2 seasons. Viewers have spoken. Somehow, there is something more sating about peering in on the calamity in a woman’s life.
Folks at RealityTea, a blog devoted solely to the inner workings of Reality TV (along with others who are baffled but watch anyway), can’t help but ask: “Why? Why are we so drawn to the dysfunction, the orchestrated drama and the opportunity to observe women embarrass themselves and ruin their lives on national television? The even bigger question is: How much of this is reality at all?” To answer the question of why they do it, there’s probably no single, resounding answer to satisfy all situations. It’s probably safe to say, though, fully understanding the way women and families are portrayed on the show, that those willing to sign up anyway don’t mind the attention. To RealityTea’s question about how “real” the Real Housewives’ public lives really are… it’s long been said that art imitates life. Ironically, that may have been truer before the dawn of reality TV. In fact, former Orange County Real Housewife, Peggy Tanous, stated to the , “We started meeting with producers to discuss storylines reveals. I started getting anxiety thinking about all the forced drama…” Peggy cited the end of her friendship with another Real Housewife and the “contrived storylines” as her reason for bowing out of season two.
Sadly, the irreparable psychological and emotional effects of intense, nationwide scrutiny (and all that goes along with it) can’t be simply fixed by refusing another season. The suicide of Real Housewife husband, Russell Armstrong, serves as a startling reminder that we all play a part in the risky business of Reality TV.
On the flip side, some of the risks taken by Reality TV’s most celebrated Real Housewives have proven well worth it. Bethenny Frankel (Season 2005, Real Housewives of New York) would likely report that the same public awareness criticized by many reality stars helped boost her career as a world-renowned author, entrepreneur and natural foods chef. Frankel’s success story has echoed in the lives others, as well. Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star, Lisa Vanderpump, is slated to appear in a spin-off series about the inner workings of her new, Hollywood restaurant, SUR. In the same vein, Real Housewives of Atlanta star, Kandi Burruss – has used star power gained by the Real Housewives franchise to help realize personal reveries. Burruss, like Vanderpump, is set to star in a Housewives spin-off show, The Kandi Factory, which will feature Burruss soulfully crooning R&B hits.
Why do we watch?
Despite tragedies like Armstrong’s death as well as the fairytale-like stories of explosive success that don’t seem all that realistic to the average person, millions of viewers plop onto their couches, night after night, popcorn bowls clutched, to tune in. The perplexing question remains: Why? It is intuitive to think we watch TV to escape the drama, stress and turmoil of reality. It seems counterintuitive that we tune in to watch “reality” television, fixating on others in the landscape of their lives, wrought with many of the same stressors that leave us wanting to run for the hills. So why do we do it?
According to a study led by psychologists Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, Reality TV allows Americans to indulge their own fantasies about garnering overnight fame. Ordinary people can tune in to see people a lot like them and daydream that they, too, could become famous TV “celebrities.” Reiss and Wiltz point out that it doesn’t really matter that these “celebrities” are often shown in an unfavorable light. The fact that millions of viewers are paying attention suggests that these “ordinary people” are important. Reiss and Wiltz point out that people reflect on some level to ask themselves, “If these former ‘nobodies’ can become stars, then why can’t I?”
The message of reality television is that ordinary people can become so important that millions will watch them. Reiss and Wiltz learned from their investigation that the private thrill of many television voyeurs is that someday, those being watched – whose daily lives somehow garner the attention of millions – just might be us.
However, we should be careful what we wish for, because – like the Real Housewives – we, too, are reminded that few things come without their price. Reality TV stardom is no exception. Anna Wu with AOLtv points out that former reality TV celebrities are, essentially, stuck. Wu reflects that they are “too well known to fully sink back into the shadows of normalcy after their fifteen minutes of fame, but they do not have the talent or star power” to further their celebrity careers. Real Housewives’ experiences are a cue to reflect on our own lives, and how our actions necessarily affect the lives of others. We propel them into the spectacular with our hunger for the sensational. Without our viewership, after all, The Real Housewives and other reality TV shows wouldn’t exist. As the modern-day maxim eloquently reminds us, “Not everyone is relevant to your purpose. Don’t spend energy making irrelevant people relevant.”
Amie Martin is a master-level social worker, freelance writer, and mom/stepmom to five wonderful, quirky, interesting children.