Chances are you’ve heard the story: on December 28, 1895, as part of a program of ten cinematic “actualities” screened in Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumière debuted what came to be hailed as the world’s first documentary. The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station consists of a single fifty-second shot of a locomotive pulling up to a platform—a quotidian event, but one that had the audience screaming for the exits because they thought the train was about to plow them down.
The age of fungible reality, otherwise known as the modern world, had begun.
As origin stories go, the Lumières’ ghost train ranks up there with Bicycle Day and Alexander Fleming’s Petri dishes. Unlike those later incidents, however, it’s a total lie—a prime example of how “the thought of an origin,” as Judith Butler writes in a different context, sometimes yields “recourse to an imaginary past.” In fact, the La Ciotat reel wasn’t shown publicly until January 25, 1896, meaning that at least ten of the Lumières’ own films have prior claim to the title of first documentary. More to the point, the La Ciotat train—monochromatic, semitransparent, and, lest we forget, completely soundless—didn’t frighten anyone, because it wasn’t frightening.
But though the December 28 program was indeed a milestone in the Arnoldian transition from old order to new, it was the January 25 event—or, rather, its subsequent mythopoesis—that offered a glimpse of the surrender to come. The so-called golden age of invention (ca. 1870–1940) ushered in a ramifying array of technologies that transformed the pace and scope of daily life. But however difficult it was for senses accustomed to the limitations of flesh and gravity to cope with an accelerated world, the new technologies were by and large concerned with mediating between the body and atomic reality: electricity and sound waves, germs and air, paper and steel. They were tools, in other words, and humans have always been the tool-using species.
The retconning of the Lumières’ film augured something new. Recall the brothers’ name for their subjects: actualities. History, beholden to religion and politics, had always been as likely to efface truth as reveal it; it was science’s job to set the record straight. But it turned out science served its own master, less ideological than divine right, but more corrosive: the market. Where formerly we told stories, now we sold them, and value (where value functions as a metonym for veracity, because no one wants to believe they’re giving away money for nothing) was increasingly judged on persuasiveness rather than material antecedents (cf. the stock prices of WeWork, AOL, Tesla). The idea that moving pictures were so lifelike that viewers mistook them for reality had audiences flocking to theaters, so the agents who profited from the new medium let the fable stand. Abusus non tollit usum, as the adage has it, but 126 years later you still find the anecdote cited credulously in even a cursory internet search.
Daughters of Butler
Of course the internet will also tell you that the moon landing was faked, vaccines cause autism, the loser won the 2020 election, and a certain dress was really white and gold. By which I mean that the manifest ontological dislocations of the Real Housewives are neither original to the franchise nor confined to it, and singling it out for blame is a bit like cursing the mouthful of water that drowns you rather than the ocean your plane went down in. Bravo’s flagship franchise began as a gloss of Desperate Housewives, itself a parody of “serious” television built around the tropes of daytime serials, but at this point the shows have become their own parody, of femininity if not simply reality TV, however we define that benighted phenomenon. Perhaps we should start there. As the controversy over La Ciotat demonstrates, firsts are often contentious. Nevertheless most people cite Craig Gilbert’s 1973 chronicle of Pat and Bill Loud and their five children, An American Family, as both landmark and benchmark, establishing the model for everything from The Osbournes to the Kardashian-Jenner clan’s ever-metastasizing appearances. Chief among An American Family’s innovations was its rejection of the observer effect. If the cameras were around long enough, Gilbert argued, the subjects would forget they were there, or at any rate not be affected by them. Critics were dubious about the contention, and the Louds themselves maintained that Gilbert manipulated the family to increase the drama, but contemporary producers remain vested in the idea. Oh sure, the situations may be exaggerated, like the obligatory “girls’ trips” that occur in every iteration of the Housewives (because the only thing more fun than moneyed middle-aged women acting out is moneyed middle-aged women acting out on top of camels), but the players’ actions are entirely real.
The age of fungible reality, otherwise known as the modern world, had begun.
But what does “real” mean in this context? Think of all those launch parties for the Housewives’ redundant alcohol products or autotuned singles. Drinks are drunk and tongues are loosened until eventually someone mentions a rumor that Luann-Shannon-Camille-Ramona-Lisa-Meghan’s husband is stepping out on her. The instigator may not have thought of herself as a pot-stirrer, to use the ubiquitous term, but the moment she poses her question she becomes one. Or does she? In their groundbreaking 1990 study Gender Trouble, Butler, following Monique Wittig and Simone de Beauvoir, argues that the set of behaviors conventionally labeled feminine is a performance that, rather than stemming from a subject, actually produces that subject. In a patriarchal society, the female body only acquires identity—epistemological, provisional—when it enacts so-called feminine behaviors that complement a naturally given masculine identity. If we accept this premise, then it’s logical to conclude that the Housewives are what they appear to be because they can’t be anything else. Patriarchy denies them an identity not confined to gesture and display; the camera may amplify the show, but doesn’t fundamentally alter it.
Butler, however, contends that the artifice of femininity necessitates an equally artificial set of masculine prompts and responses, thus exposing maleness to be as culturally determined as femaleness. “Gender parody,” they argue, “reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin.” Instead of one gendered construction, then, you have two; but when you become conscious of the performances they become deconstructions as well—parodies, to use Butler’s term. In other words, the very enactment of patriarchy’s most entrenched binary contains within it the power to break down not just the relationship but the distinction between woman and man, feminine and masculine, and the meanings that attach to same.
Indeed, as you watch the Housewives’ preening and vamping, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the syntactic/synaptic gaps between the “female” actors and their “feminine” actions are anything other than beguiling performances—“beguiling” in its original sense of deceptive as well as charming, “charming” in its original sense of casting a spell on someone to control them. Contrary to Butler’s expectations, however, the Housewives’ display fails to induce reciprocally self-conscious peacocking in their male consorts, who time and again fall back on emotionally constricted, financially provident displays of broey blahness. The point here isn’t that Butler was wrong, but that, in a capitalist context, even “‘subversion’ carries market value.” Which might explain why, three decades after Butler hypothesized that the shortest route beyond gender is actually through it, we find ourselves confronted by a generation of women, led or at least exemplified by Bravo’s Housewives, who have internalized the theatrical aspect of gender without embracing (enforcing?) the liberating possibilities Butler hoped self-awareness might provide. Instead of parody we have mere excess; instead of parity, retrogressive fantasies of female vanity, sensuality, and sybaritism. No doubt the performance is for the market as much as the male gaze, but regardless of who’s watching, let alone what they’re paying, the product on offer seems every bit as contingent as it did as far back as 1949, when de Beauvoir noted acidly in The Second Sex: “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.”
In the first installments of the Housewives, Orange County (2006–) and New York City (2008–), identity was defined as a question of money, and how much you did or didn’t have. The casts’ femaleness was treated as self-evident and their whiteness went largely unremarked upon, at least within the show. The third installment, Atlanta (2008–), whose cast became all Black after Kim Zolciak-Biermann departed in its fifth season, began to complicate the dynamic, although subsequent series largely maintained the segregated dynamic.
Instead of parody we have mere excess; instead of parity, retrogressive fantasies of female vanity, sensuality, and sybaritism.
Salt Lake City (2020–) reflects a notion of identity that, if not more complete than its predecessors’, was at least more complex than the separate-but-equal vibe. The freshman cast included an African American, a Tongan American, and four white women. One of the white women, Meredith Marks, is Jewish and another, Lisa Barlow, describes herself as “Jewish by heritage, Mormon by choice.” The other two white women, Whitney Rose and Heather Gay, are former Mormons: Rose left after divorcing her husband, Gay after (forgive the passive construction) having been divorced by hers. Jen Shah, the Tongan, grew up Mormon but converted to Islam after she married a black Muslim, not least because of the Mormon church’s troubled history with people of color (I believe “Assalamulaikum, bitches!” was her final comment on the matter). Mary Cosby, the African American, is a Pentecostal Christian, and the cast was supplemented in the second season by Vietnamese-born Jennie Nguyen, who sometimes references Buddhist traditions, but is officially a Catholic.
The casts of every other edition of the franchise have ethnicities and religions, of course, but Salt Lake was the first installment to build identity into the show’s foundational ethos. The moment Shah says, “In Utah I’m Black because people don’t know any better,” you feel you’re in for a new experience, no less massaged than previous installments, but with something besides the cast members’ personal brands at stake. Oh sure, the same catfights, drunken shenanigans, and product placements are on display, but the show’s through line is an extended takedown of Mormonism, which isn’t the kind of thing you expect from the network behind There Goes the Motherhood. Gay all but denounces Mormonism as a cult in season two, and a host of walk-ons and extras join in the piling on. Mormonism’s no more or less risible than the other sky daddy religions, of course, but it began in the modern era, so its founders’ fabulation is a matter of public record. I.e., it’s a soft target. But despite the cutesiness of Gay’s tagline (“I was raised a Mormon, but now I’m raising a glass of champagne”), her obvious pain at the loss of her “forever family,” not to mention her flesh-and-blood relations, and her dogged confrontation of the injustice of her exile is as close to a critique of America’s “medieval form of unreason” (pace Salman Rushdie) as you’re likely to see in this context. When she says, “I grieve the life I wanted to have,” the sentiment comes across as both heartfelt and astute, which, frankly, aren’t qualities one associates with Housewives, at least not at the same time. The only defense comes from Barlow, but since she seems unclear on what Mormonism is, she doesn’t exactly do the church any favors. She calls it “Mormon 2.0,” but I’m pretty sure that listening to her draw a nonexistent distinction between “cultural” Mormonism and “scripture” while plugging her tequila line and drilling her son on the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not smoke, thou shalt not do anything bad, thou shalt not watch porn) is what people really mean when they use the term “American exceptionalism.” The fact that she does it all in a New York Jewish accent only adds to the Mel Brooksiness of the spectacle, although I suspect Brooks would dismiss this particular satire as too easy.
Nor does the preoccupation with Mormonism occur in a theological vacuum. Islam gets a little side eye, and Marks’s Shabbat dinner in season two comes across as a hollow display of ritual, with a little antisemitism thrown in (Barlow’s son, whom Hitler would have considered Jewish even if his mother lets him dress like a neo-Nazi, can’t stop giggling as Marks’s daughter recites the kiddush, which duty falls to her because Marks, who planned the event to honor her dead father, doesn’t know the words). But the biggest kick in the pants is definitely reserved for Christianity. I’m not saying Mary Cosby runs a cult—though a bunch of her former congregants do, and accuse her of stealing their money as well—but I will say that if I ever wanted to write about a cult I’d make it look pretty much exactly like Cosby’s Faith Temple Pentecostal Church, whose browbeaten congregants stare at Cosby like street-corner junkies hoping their dealer doesn’t get busted before they cop. Cosby’s McMansion is a hoarder’s paradise of designer clothes and she seems to start each day with the goal of wearing as many of them as possible. Not since Teresa Giudice has a Housewife worked so hard to make herself look like a criminal, nor been as surprised when people come to believe she is one. Even Jen Shah, who really is a criminal, at least tries to pass herself off as a businesswoman when the cameras are rolling.
Oh right. Jen Shah.
Even before she was arrested and indicted for “conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with telemarketing” and “conspiracy to commit money laundering,” and pled guilty to the first charge, Shah was SLC’s breakout star. Hair and lips, dresses and house: Shah’s were pointedly bigger than the rest of her castmates, and so was her ego. Her assistants were the Shah Squad, her house the Shah Chalet, and everything she did was Shahmazing. Who threw the show’s first drink? Jen Shah. Who spread rumors of Marks’s (apparently tacit) extramarital affairs? Jen again. Who called a fellow cast member “grandpa fucker”? That’s right, Jen. To be fair to Shah, Cosby not only fucked her grandpa, she married him and had a kid with him. To be fair to Cosby, it was her grandmother’s second husband and not her biological grandfather, and her grandmother asked her granddaughter to marry him. Is that fair to Cosby? When it comes to mitigating the profound eeeeeeeew of allowing a penis that’s been inside your grandmother to penetrate your own body, I draw a blank.
In hindsight, though, all of this disappears behind two or three throwaway scenes of Shah and “first assistant”/co-conspirator Stuart Smith perpetrating their crimes. The rare sense of watching something consequential on a Bravo program is in no way undermined by the fact that Shah and Smith are in all likelihood going through the motions. Indeed, the idea that they’re pretending to commit a crime that they have in fact already committed is what makes the experience so uncanny, and once again calls into question the ontological status, not just of the casts’ gender(s) but their lives, and life in the age of reality TV and social media. No doubt Joan Didion or George W.S. Trow could offer more sophisticated insight, but the closest this writer can come to describing it is that Oh! Oh! feeling you get when you catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt as an extra in the background of the beach scenes of the otherwise forgettable 1980s movie Hunk: despite the utter improbability that such a confection could actually exist, Pitt’s frosted tips, bee-stung lips, and perky nips are there to remind you that this is, somehow, on some level, real.
The question, then, is whether the Real Housewives are pretending to be Real Housewives for the camera, or if their performances are in fact how they live their lives, and merely happen to be recorded. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg, tail-wagging-the-dog, pearls-before-swine dilemma, and after sixteen years and eleven American installments (and nineteen international installments, and twenty-three spin-offs) we’re even less certain of where we stand than we were in 2006, and are left with the proto-Butlerian premise we began with, namely, that regardless of who these women “really” “are,” we perceive them the way we do because this is how they want to be perceived: as greedy, vain, materialistic agonists. Instead of a simulacrum of reality, they confound us with the reality of a simulacrum—not An American Family after all, but Candid Camera, which turned out to be a truer harbinger of where television was taking us than its high-minded successor. From Survivor to Big Brother, from The Bachelor to the Real Housewives: the market hands you a prompt, then sits back to see how much you’ll humiliate yourself for money.
Where the Housewives update Candid Camera’s formula is in the choice of patsy, whose role is played not by an unsuspecting performer but by the audience, which, like Trump voters, doubles down on the illusion each time a new deception is revealed. This is disorienting in its own right, but even more so given how concerned the people we’re watching are with what they call “being fake.” To be fake in a reality TV context is not simply to express a sentiment to one person that’s disavowed to another. It’s to convey a sense of oneself at odds with who one really is, a proposition that rests on the questionable belief that a single continuous identity is responsible for the competing statements. Moreover, since both the pose and its contradiction have been recorded, exposure is built into the performance, which leads to yet another unsettling question: Is duplicity really duplicity when its unmasking is not just inevitable, but planned for? An actor’s lines aren’t true, after all, but they’re not lies either, because the audience is aware of the script. But what happens when the audience forgets or denies the nature of what they’re watching? Do both statements become false, or do both instead become true, or do they originate as false (or true) and only gain (or forfeit) truth value when they’re broadcast? And if we extend these questions to the Housewives themselves, we’re forced to ask when, exactly, they become what they want viewers to believe they are, which is to say, when do they actually exist? Is it when they play their part for the cameras, or later, when the footage airs, or do they in fact become contingent entities as soon as they sign their contracts, Barbie dolls to be dressed, posed, or replaced at will, and whose only continuity is their willingness to be what they’re paid to be?
If it feels like I’m alluding to words like prostitution and whore here, I apologize. What I’m really trying to do is avoid them, not because the comparison is inapt but because the only thing less appealing than a gay man whose job is goading grown women to act like mean girls is a gay man criticizing those women for reminding us that misogyny remains profitable for women willing to objectify themselves, because misogyny remains one of the two or three matrices in which women live their lives. Feminism tells us that it’s inappropriate to call a woman a whore because what you’re really doing is calling her the kind of woman who wants to be a whore (as opposed to a victim of sex trafficking), and there’s nothing immoral about wanting to be a whore. But between these two poles—utter coercion on one hand, absolute freedom on the other—lies a blurred spectrum of female experience in which recourse to sex work often presents itself as the most profitable and/or least horrific job available in a patriarchal economy, where lucrative or even sustainable employment for women is not only rarer than it is for men, but is often defined or circumscribed by its relationship to men, housewife and whore being merely the most obvious of these phenomena. But prostitution’s labor-intensive, marriage even more so. They can only be plied on one mark at a time, and the transaction can take hours or years to reap rewards. By contrast, reality TV turns on economies of scale. The merch appears in front of millions of potential customers at a stroke, and though the return per view might be lower than marrying rich or landing a Pretty Woman-level punter, the potential profit’s way higher. All of which is the long way of saying that it’s hard not to read Giudice’s career- and franchise-defining table flip as a projection of her own debased position in life.
“They are a cruel race, these Housewives people. Jealous as vipers, dim as low watt light bulbs.” So wrote Richard Lawson, whose brilliantly surreal recaps of the Real Housewives on Gawker c. 2010 are probably the best, and only, critique the shows require. (“When Jill woke up and walked into the living room Luann was passed out on the couch with a man’s phone number written in permanent marker on her cheek and her underpants around her ankles, and Ramona was hovering in the window, like David Arquette in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. ‘Jillll,’ she said in a ghostly moan. ‘Want to come over to my houseeee?’”) Lawson’s critiques find the Butlerian potential in the Housewives’ performances that they themselves miss, and, in exposing the B-movie schlockiness at their root, allow audiences to laugh at the Housewives while allowing the Housewives to collect their checks.
It’s a win-win situation all around, except for, you know, truth, which fuels the endeavor but is consumed in the process.
It’s a win-win situation all around, except for, you know, truth, which fuels the endeavor but is consumed in the process. Not voraciously but veraciously, by which I mean not truth hunger (or reality hunger, to use the term from David Shields’s 2010 polemic) but the actual consumption of truth, a fundamental transformation that runs on the energy of the real but in the end produces only shit, which, per Milan Kundera’s famous treatise on kitsch, we must deny is shit, because to acknowledge its foulness would be to implicate ourselves in its production. The Real Housewives’ producers and cast are transparent in their motives: they want to make money. It’s viewers who, more than a century after The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station didn’t scare anyone, prefer to pretend that glam squads and gin-soaked bitchfests are everyday, let alone admirable, experiences in the casts’ lives rather than manufactured scenarios whose ratings appeal has been vetted by two decades of reality programming. We’re the consumers, ergo, we’re the shitters. Think of it as an inversion of the invisible uncanny in The Human Centipede. Shit’s never actually seen in the movie, but the manner in which we’re forced to imagine it makes it far more palpable—and horrifying—than any scatological image. By contrast, shit’s all we see in the Real Housewives, but imagination renders it not just invisible, but the very image of glamour (yet another “feminine” word with magical connotations, although it actually derives from the word grammar, reminding us yet again that it’s language that casts the spell, not women). The ouroboros comes full circle: the serpent eschews the apple and consumes its tail instead. In one version of the Midas story, when the king realized his touch turned even his food to gold, he ate the only thing left to eat: himself. But what came out the other end?