Close-reading the Housewives (for our own sins)

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 3:02pm

NOSELL

Bravo Cable

Imagine a reality television show devoid of sin. Oh, it’s already been cancelled. Now, imagine watching a reality television show, but this time, the disgustingly great feeling of schadenfreude is missing from your viewing experience. Not nearly as fun, right? Since the dawn of the genre, reality television and the idea of sin have been intrinsically intertwined. It’s easy to see why: Few reality shows have ever touched on subject matter extending outside of the realm of petty social in-fighting, sex and the fallout from having it, beach vacations and other exploitative pursuits. So depraved is the reputation of reality television and its viewers that it’s almost become a sin to admit to being a fan. 

But how could you not consider it to be a vice? The industry is comprised of channel after channel, program after program built upon the foundation of miserable people gathering together weekly (in person or on Twitter) to watch other people’s lives in some state of disarray. What ground do we, the fans, have to stand on? 

What I have found in my near-lifelong addiction to reality television is that, contrary to popular belief, what lies beneath most people’s fascination with reality television isn’t a superiority complex, but rather a level of underlying self-identification with the caricatured people on our screens. This is particularly true of the network providing some of the most nuanced and individualized depictions of American superficiality, Bravo. 

The seven deadly sins, or capital vices, are essentially our own natural tendencies in overdrive. We are all born with the ability to feel jealous or angry or like you’d fuck the shit out of Harry Styles. However, the sins provide a sort of exaggerated, cautionary framework to indicate when you have experienced too much of a good, bad thing. I see a striking parallel between this notion and how we view the stars of reality television in relation to ourselves. I almost see them as the contemporary versions of stock characters used in early theatre to espouse morals. In viewing the sensationalized versions of vulnerabilities we most likely already recognize within ourselves, in a sense, we are better able to reflect on and ground our own anxieties. 

No one likes to admit to their own sins, but we are self-aware enough to look for it in other people. Is this healthy? 100% no. Is this better than having no awareness of the origins of your feelings of inadequacy? That’s up to you to decide. But, until Bernie gives me free healthcare or CAPS finally remembers that I’ve already filled out that form before, I’ll continue to self-medicate with the icky comfort Bravo provides. 

A close reading of something as seemingly trivial as reality television, specifically something as notorious as the “Real Housewives” franchise, may be off-putting — I’m keenly aware of how this could be viewed. But, you’ve already made it this far, why not stick around for some armchair psychoanalysis? 

Here are the Real Housewives as the seven deadly sins. 

PRIDE: A tie —  LuAnn de Lesseps (“The Real Housewives of New York”) and Karen Huger (“The Real Housewives of Potomac”) 

There are many ways to define pride. Webster’s defines it as a “high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit or superiority,” but it could also be pretty well summed up through the act of brow-beating everyone in your life to refer to you as “Countess.” Unironically. To be fair, once LuAnn de Lesseps of “The Real Housewives of New York” was divorced from her now ex-husband, Count Alexandre de Lesseps, she did stop using her courtesy title. After she was forced to do so. Seven years after the divorce papers were signed. While LuAnn serves as a reminder of a bygone era of early reality television pridefulness — when stars actually believed that they could dupe audiences into looking past the very apparent shortcomings of their lives via performative haughtiness — Karen Huger, the self-proclaimed “Grand Dame of Potomac,” represents the future trajectory of this cautionary tale.

The more I mull over the topic, the more I believe that the act of forcing others to call you by a fabricated title of nobility might just be the best metric to gauge one’s pridefulness, as well as his or her grasp on reality.  Huger prides herself on two things: her marriage to the “Black Bill Gates” and her wigs. Ironically, both of these things have been weaponized against her to poke holes in her delusions of grandeur. Her husband, Ray Huger, more Papa Smurf than Bill Gates, was outed for “personally [owing] nearly $1.5 million in back-due federal taxes, and his software company owes more than 3 million.” As for her wigs, please do me a favor and Google the video of her wig falling off mid-argument, and see her attempt to act as though it is not happening. You won’t regret it. 

Karen refuses to make substantial comment on either of these matters, choosing instead to pick fights about her fragrance line (that is still missing from department store shelves). Unlike during the early years of the “Housewives” franchise, now, everyone can see through the illusion of elitism propped up by the Bravo network’s checkbook. But, the beauty of the pride archetype is the hilarity that comes out of their efforts to convince us otherwise.

WRATH: Lisa Vanderpump (“The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”) 

Unlike pride, wrath is an easier sin to unknowingly fall prey to. Anger is a slippery slope, but wrath only comes when you prolong the effects of the initial burn and then weaponize it to hurt the person who hurt you instead of acknowledging the feeling in the moment. Using her British origins as a crutch for her passive aggression, Lisa Vanderpump of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has made an art form of grudge-holding. Lisa was likened to chess master Bobby Fischer one time for her careful manipulation of others. Eight years later, we are still talking about it. No comment on whether or not she sees the irony of accusing others of being “real” chess masters for scapegoating her as the chess master. Though I am admittedly a fan of both a good grudge and Vanderpump, she has never been able to hold down a considerable friendship on the show for more than two consecutive seasons. Maybe she’s better off taking a note from other “Housewives” franchises and just escalating to physical fighting. 

GREED: Another tie — Teresa Guidice (“The Real Housewives of New Jersey”) and Phaedra Parks (“The Real Housewives of Atlanta”) 

Easily the most recognizable of the “Housewives” couples, you’ve probably seen Teresa and Joe Guidice on the cover of a magazine when the line at the grocery store is taking too long. Whether the story is covering rumors about Joe, Teresa’s infidelity or Teresa’s rise to the top of the bodybuilding world, they can’t seem to stay out of the news. You may think I’m going to be making the argument that they represent the downside of when one is too greedy for the spotlight — but you’d be wrong. The Guidices represent greed because of their 39-count conviction for charges of wire, bank and bankruptcy fraud. 

It would be inaccurate to include a section on greed and not memorialize the first couple in franchise history to do hard time while still signed onto the show, however, I have a conscience and know that Teresa and her four daughters are going through an even harder time right now dealing with Joe’s deportation back to Italy.  The number one rule of the Housewives is that “you don’t bring family into this,” so like my televised icons, I will also choose to situationally invoke this principle and give her a break. 

After all, at least Teresa copped to her charges — unlike Phaedra Parks from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Who can forget that one time Phaedra’s husband, Apollo, was convicted on charges of producing and cashing fraudulent insurance checks and Phaedra apparently “knew nothing” about it? And can you believe the timing — just when they were almost finished building their extravagant new home? The interesting thing about these twin displays of greed is that both the Guidice and Parks families began their tenure on their respective shows espousing the traits associated with pride, and only turned to crime when it became clear that they could no longer keep up with Joneses — or their castmates with more money. 

LUST: Ramona Singer (“The Real Housewives of New York”) 

Bravo fans (who I keep addressing, but know aren’t actually reading this), I know there are plenty of other options in the Housewives arsenal who probably would have been simpler picks: Brandi Glanville, Claudia Jordan, even Ramona’s blonde-in-crime, Sonja Morgan. But the thing about lust is that the sin of it lies more in the excessive and obsessive act of desiring*, not necessarily the catharsis that comes in the follow through. 

*The Catholic Church gets final say, though.

The other women have demonstrated the follow through, so consequently, the housewife who serves as the cautionary tale of this sin is the one who would never cop to the charge, Ramona Singer. For context, in earlier seasons, Ramona was a staunch traditionalist. She was the woman who, because she was married, demonized the single women in the friend group and self-indulgently used her own marriage to support the archaic idea that if you can keep your man happy, he will stay. Then Ramona’s husband Mario publicly left her for a woman 30 years her junior. Go figure. 

While this karmic retribution could have provided a learning experience for Ramona, she ultimately did not take this route. Maybe it’s because she’s insecure about reaching her 60s. Maybe it’s because her daughter doesn’t visit enough. Maybe old habits die hard and after you’ve internalized misogyny for over 50 years, you just can’t break the habit. Either way, Ramona embodies lust in its most exaggerated form, not only because of her continued undying need to prioritize the pursuit of a significant other above all else, but because she also has developed a cringe-worthy pattern of hitting on, sending drinks to and publicly making out with men who have already been claimed by her close friends. 

GLUTTONY: Kandi Buruss (“The Real Housewives of Atlanta”) 

To me, gluttony isn’t that big of a deal. Yeah, I do ask for double rice at Chipotle — you wanna fight about it? Honestly, I don’t think many people retain the nuance to be able to delve into what connotes gluttony without veering fully into the territory of fatphobia, so to save us all the headache, this categorization will not be a condemnation. 

Kandi Burruss is a cut to the chase kind of woman. As she said prophetically in her season seven tagline, “I’m not about the drama. Don’t start none, won’t be none.” She’s earned a reputation for being one of the most prolific songwriters in R&B (penning TLC’s “No Scrubs” amongst many others), and being the one Housewife to always locate the food or snacks when the cast is away on a girls’ trip. And for that, I give her props. 

ENVY: LeAnn Locken (“The Real Housewives of Dallas”)    

Yes, there really is a LeAnn and a LuAnn within the “Housewives” franchise. And what about it? Envy, like greed and lust, is characterized by an uncontrollable desire for something that other people have. And though she’s open — very open — about her humble upbringing as a carnie, you’d think she'd be a bit more transparent about her feelings of inadequacy toward her castmates. 

Instead of outwardly expressing a desire for more, LeAnn claims she’s “happy” with what she has while simultaneously planning a wedding she can’t afford and blackmailing (on camera) an upscale wedding dress designer to give her a gown for free. However, the sin isn’t inherent in the striving for a better life. Her sin isn’t even marrying a cop who wears a permanent eye patch. Like Watergate, the true sin comes in the cover-up. Rather than honesty, LeAnn opts for reactive (and misplaced) ridicule of friends’ things as being low quality — like castmate Kary Brittingham’s seven-bedroom, waterfront beach villa in Careyes, Mexico that she claimed was “too small” and had “too many stairs.” As a comparison, LeAnn did not provide food at her wedding. 

SLOTH: Any of the one-season wonders that gave zero effort to produce drama

Last, but definitely not least, sloth is characterized by “an excessive laziness or the failure to act and utilize one’s talents.” You can see where I’m going with this. Who feels self-important enough to sign on for a reality show and then proceed to act as though they are above the genre by providing viewers with absolutely no drama, no effort and no vulnerability? I won’t name names, because I honestly can’t remember most of them.