Imitation game

How technology made Bravo's 'Housewives' real

The 'Real Housewives' franchise lives and dies on its stars' iPhones.

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The old and the new, and the modern and the traditional, often stare one another in the face on reality TV, a genre and mode of television-making that roots itself both in the ostensibly banal of the everyday and the high emotions of orchestrated melodrama. It’s just in the way they do it.

For the women on Bravo’s enormously successful Real Housewives franchise, they regularly find themselves looking “back” at themselves — in mirrors, in phone screens, in flashbacks — self-reflexively, as time, and thus the show, changes. The first of the series, The Real Housewives of Orange County, debuted in 2006 and recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. (I mean, isn’t “housewife” itself somewhat anachronistic and arcane, an intentional misnomer for nearly every cast member on these shows, who aren’t anchored to the home but are more often successful entrepreneurs and business people?) The Apple iPhone debuted in 2007, shortly after the premiere of Orange County and before the premiere of New York. Situated in the middle, the iPhone itself, like a Housewife, was a modern version of an old thing, and the triad of those shows would also indicate a precarity about wealth and material on the precipice of a recession.

Leah and Eboni, being photographed.James Devaney/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

About halfway into the current season of The Real Housewives of New York, sophomore Leah McSweeney looks at herself as she’s on FaceTime with freshman cast member Eboni Williams. “Oh my god, it's weird looking at myself in this,” she frets, adjusting her hair as the show cuts to an over the shoulder shot, capturing Leah, Eboni, and, in the top right frame of her phone, another Leah. “I don’t like it because it looks like my hair is the same color as my face…” It’s not necessarily a unique scene — one of these affluent women, often white, contending with what it’s like to see themselves on some variation of a camera as another camera documents this uncanny confrontation with one’s image and self — in this franchise, especially after FaceTime was introduced by Apple for the iPhone in 2010 (going to market in the following season’s Housewives’ devices). A Housewife has looked in the mirror before, the most basic kind of household “technology,” but this digital version imbues in the show an added dimension to a series that is frequently interrogating (consciously and unconsciously) the facets of (mostly female) identity. It gestures towards asking, what if the version she sees on the screen (within the screen) doesn’t match the version of herself she wants to be seen? Artifice is never static.

One of the earliest examples of this on the series was on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, as Yolanda Hadid attempts to FaceTime with her daughter, Bella. Though relatively later in FaceTime’s lifespan, the scene, from a January 2015 episode, cuts between Yolanda’s apprehension and sheepishness at using the application and a screen that refuses to display the image of her daughter in real time correctly. She fiddles with her phone gracelessly and with little dexterity, putting on her glasses as if that will solve the issue at hand. “How do I get you not sideways?” she asks her daughter, the cameras cutting back to the phone screen, as she flips it this way and that. The scene is played for laughs, and, while we see a version of Yolanda’s reflection on this screen, the interaction is framed more as an unwieldy collision of the traditional and the modern.

“To watch a blogger or a housewife transform into an image in their bodies is educational.”

“[It’s about] the idea of watching them watch themselves. It's a reason we love beauty bloggers, because it's actually like a training video not just on how to do makeup, but on how to walk, look, hold your face on camera, to watch a blogger or a housewife transform into an image in their bodies is educational,” Ariel Sibert, a dramaturg and a member of the multimedia theatre collective Fake Friends, who did dramaturgy work on the Housewives-inspired theatre piece This American Wife told me. “Because we are all in the circulation of the production of ourselves as images now more than more than ever, and to watch a Housewife FaceTime is like a tutorial; the tutorial on how to appear on this technology specifically based on a long history of perfecting the skill of immutability. And we're all learning. We're learning from watching ourselves and watching others anyway.”

One could describe the scene with Yolanda and Bella, and the Housewives’ relationship to digital technology — broadly defined as things like the Internet, social media, and smartphones — more generally, as being one of the most crucial, if unexciting and prosaic, articulation of what the Housewives’ general goals are, aside from its spectacle. The log line for these shows is no longer just a peek behind the gates of an exclusive community or the chance to hobnob with quasi-socialites, but the way in which these people vacillate between human and caricature, person and archetype. Though much cursory discussion orients itself around arguments and bombast, the arc of a given housewife, and the decisions she makes, are taken as seriously as both any other character on TV but also that of an acquaintance. These desires to humanize someone/something that functions as both surface and depth is aided heavily by their relationship to evolving digital technology.

Because the structural premise of The Real Housewives is built upon how someone is known or not known: there is the version of the Housewife she tells other people, the version who is seen by other other people, the version that is captured in scenes on camera (a faux objective gaze, if you will), and the version she tells herself. (The confessionals can be a place for both the first and last versions.) And a majority of the arguments that function as plot, then, rest on which version of a Housewife we’re dealing with; the one who was going to ally themselves with Candaice Dillard or the one who remains “neutral,” effectively playing both sides, yet damning herself merely for her proximity to Monique Samuels. (I am talking about Grande Dame Karen Huger.)

“The name of the game on Housewives, in terms of strategy and tactics, is demanding consistency of character.”

“The name of the game on Housewives, in terms of strategy and tactics, is demanding consistency of character, which is [an] Aristotelian principle; that character must be consistent in order for it to be a character,” said Michael Breslin, a dramaturg and writer, and the co-creator of This American Wife. “The idea of contradiction within a person, or multiple selves, or multiple contradictions, is a more recent concept of modernity and postmodernity, that people are not stable selves.”

The proliferation and advent of social media has added another version of the Housewife, one that amplifies the image of the Housewife told to others on a more massive scope. Now there’s the version of the Housewife who is prim, perfect, selling her wares; but there’s also the version of the Housewife who sics her fans and family onto another cast mate (like what Kameron Westcott did to Tiffany Moon on the now “paused” Dallas and the poisonous date rape rumor concocted by Phaedra Parks, spread by Porsha Williams, about Kandi Burress on Atlanta); and the version who’s more selfish and tone deaf than she claims (a la Jennifer Aydin’s complaints about not being able to find a housekeeper in a pandemic on New Jersey); the version who tries to quell allegations of racism by posting a bunch of Black friends on her Instagram (Ramona on New York); and the version whose daughter stirs up a storm on Facebook by creating an antagonistic page (per Jaqueline Laurita’s daughter Ashley’s “I Hate Danielle Staub” escapades), and on and on. It’s contradiction in, ironically, its purest form.

In a way, these various personae, and the work we see that goes into maintaining or challenging them, arguably makes the Housewives more human, as their traversing the waters of mediated identity(/identities) and life grounds them in a respect that few other activities the Housewives engage in or actions they take do. One (probably) can’t really identify with, say, how Vicki Gunvalson’s ex-boyfriend Brooks Ayers faked having cancer or how newbie Salt Lake City’s Jen Shah has been running a telemarketing scam (I wish!). But it’s not hard to identify with someone antagonizing you on the internet and questioning your character, as you ferociously try to save face.

Conversely, journalist, self-proclaimed president of the Real Housewives Institute, and author of The Housewives: The Real Story Behind The Real Housewives, Brian Moylan, argues that there is a lack of control over aspects of their public personae that normal people still have. “Even if Lisa Vanderpump is on her social media [implicitly saying], ‘Look at my fabulous life!’ and then on the show, you see a rat in the kitchen, all the women [can react] like, ‘She's full of shit’,” Moylan explains. “What's different on the show that's different from [regular] people [on] social media, is that they have no control over it.” Though these women are famous, their level of autonomy of how they get to manage that image, however, has its limits. “They can't really get away with [things that someone like] Beyoncé can; where [she can say], ‘I am going to do a cover shoot for Vogue, but I'm not answering any questions,’ the Housewives don't have that luxury,” Moylan continues. “It's like a different level of fame, we[‘re] see[ing] those celebrities stripping the power away from the media, and away from other people telling their narratives that they can tell their narrative themselves. But that is not a level of fame that has been afforded to the Housewives, because they still have to do this performance of the real and run a platform that they cannot control.”

The cocktail of emerging digital tabloid platforms and the Housewives’ social media performances can be what propels an entire season’s plot, as was the case for season four of Potomac, with the assault charges against Ashley Darby’s husband, Michael. One of the most fascinating seasons of television that’s ever aired, its confluence of how interpersonal relationships (impacted by gender, race, class, and colorism) and its sculpting into must see TV offers a complex look at what we are drawn to on these shows and how much that has to do with the gendered and racialized nature of digital/hyper-textual storytelling and the consumption of those stories. But this is heavily aided by the way in which the Housewives communicate with one another, passing these headlines along whether through text, DM, or FaceTime, as if convening together to discuss a friend, a co-worker, and a character from whom they have distance. And while writer and novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge posits that part of The Real Housewives’ thrill is its “very keen anthropological eye” and its ability to delineate between “former society women” on New York, “the wealth and power of Black entertainment” in Atlanta, and “Black bougie moms” on Potomac, she told me in an email that their relationship to digital technology is basically the same. “I think [being] all affluent women obsessed with appearance, they all fundamentally use social media in similar ways,” Greenidge tells me over email.

The women of ‘Beverly Hills’ photographing themselves after watching cast mate Erika Jayne star in an art form specifically for live consumption.Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images

While these texts and tweets are intangible, there are times when these Housewives take matters into their own hands, bringing with them printouts of text messages, emails, posts, sometimes in just a few pages, sometimes in larger binders, like Monique in season 5’s reunion. Most of these Housewives have iPhones (though, never forget Sonja Morgan’s BlackBerry), and in the wake of iMessage’s ubiquity (another iOS feature launched in 2011), texts are no longer ephemeral means of contact. Though texts will intermittently appear on screen like a flashback, their availability to be archived and printed out contours this digital artifact as being reminiscent of something more analog. They bring it like evidence (in a way they couldn’t in earlier seasons) as if the tangible documents will prove something that is still, in essence, intangible: character, integrity, loyalty. Like if you brought a telegram to Andy Cohen saying Luann de Lesseps said you had Herman Munster shoes.

“If they have to scroll through their phone back six months or scroll through screenshots; visually, as an audience member, that's boring. I’m not gonna watch that on screen,” Prof. Rachel E. Silverman, author of The Fantasy of Reality: Critical Essays on The Real Housewives and Assistant Professor of Communications in the Department of Humanities and Communication at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University told me. “But if I watch a reunion and this 100 page document comes out? That is pleasure.” Breslin adds, “I'm very fascinated with the legal framework that is often put around the show. It's like, argument, counter argument, with evidence presented. It's just about being litigious.”

Sonja Morgan’s Blackberry, post-toilet.Bravo

The incalculable growth of the Internet and the platforms that extended (or immolated) ways of expression, and monitoring, has reconfigured what these shows fundamentally are. These Housewives’ brands acquire engagement, their identities and aesthetics preened, their affects immortalized, whether through their self-produced videos or endless looping GIFs. Even in their illusions (such as the sustained avoidance and chaos on Erika Jayne’s social feeds) is a form of confession. The Housewives are not just only themselves, as public figures of this genre; they are assemblages of the multiple gazes and tools through which we come to understand them.

On reunion episodes, Cohen, the executive producer on the series since its inception in 2006, sits back like it’s all in a day’s work, his eyebrow arched, armed with viewer questions on note cards, questions submitted digitally from social media, email, comments sections and, if gossip is to be believed, the producers. Another contradiction of time and tool. And whatever crass and intrusive thing he asks whomever is sitting on the couches surrounding him, they do look their best, almost algorithmically so. But we have something to compare that to: paparazzi photos that show up on Instagram, clips that autoplay on Twitter, Instagram stories the women post themselves, what happens on camera during scenes, and what happens in confessionals. The gendered terms of this maintenance of the melange of personae is at the core of the series, only amplified by how the world changes and the tools we have to both maintain our own persona or surveil others’. But while some may make the accusation that this makes the women faker, the show more artificial, the endeavor more wrought with authenticity, the opposite is true.

It’s these very contradictions of human identity, the way in which technology (digital or otherwise) amplifies and exacerbates them, which makes them more human and more, ahem, real. In Sibert’s dramaturgy notes for This American Wife, conceived and written by Breslin and Patrick Foley, she writes, “The body of a Real Housewife is an apparatus, an assembly of parts — hair, lips, dress, falsies, mic pack, cell phone, wine stem, camera, restaurant, brand, identity.” And, discussing The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin on the podcast You’re Wrong About, writer Sarah Marshall states, “Women are a technology. Housewives are the best technology.”

“Women are a technology. Housewives are the best technology.”

“It's a tool for the reproduction of culture. It's not just a tool for production. It's a tool for cultural reproduction,” Sibert says. “Your life is the performance, it's truly to take that Andy Warhol 15 minutes and bring it life by continually reinventing yourself and relinquishing control of the idea of self. Because if you keep on rebranding every 15 minutes, you can have that 15 minutes.” And with such democratized ways of trying to snatch those 15 minutes with a white knuckled grip, anyone can do it.

Beyond the merch they hock, the images they curate, the resources they provide for their families and friends, the Housewives are generative, a locus of paradoxes, contradictions, and topographies about ideology, power, privilege, and performance. They are allegory and blunt prose. As we assay their worth based on which version we most align with or feel most in opposition with, whose legacies are branded into our consciousnesses they are in an act of creation, a technology in and of themselves.

The Real Housewives are a technology, an apparatus, a refraction. They are heightened and intensified and extended by their use of digital technology, thereby creating digital versions of themselves. They really are real, just like us.