Edith Wharton and the Real Housewives
THEY SAY you never forget your first.
I was seven years old, chatting on the phone with my best friend, when I heard the call of the powder horn from the TV in the next room and froze. Survivor was starting. I quickly ended the conversation and ran into the living room to watch the 2000 premiere of the reality show that is in its 41st season today. Every Thursday night at 8 p.m. Pacific Time my parents and I gathered to watch grimy men and women heaving with dehydration compete to see who could stand on a platform the longest, thereby winning the immunity idol. The show ended in one competitor voted off the island based on that week’s shifting alliances, grudges, and feuds—a satisfyingly explicit rendering of social circles’ usually unspoken evolution. Host Jeff Probst declared, “I’ll go tally the votes,” to which I inexplicably but religiously replied, “Tally-ho, Jeff.”
In the years following, my family and I dabbled in reality TV: Fear Factor (yikes), The Apprentice (hindsight yikes), The Swan (feminist yikes), and others. Despite the proliferation of reality TV in the late 2000s and 2010s, I largely steered clear. In 2013, I wrote what can only be described as a screed taking aim at (checks notes) Cupcake Wars and its viewers. I railed against the show for its “mindlessness,” going so far as to argue that perhaps Puritans had the right idea in appraising idleness a sin. As my fiancée astutely put it: “You sound like a capitalist shill.”
At the time, I was an English major whose pre-med peers incessantly joked about my presumed future of underemployment. It’s obvious to me now that I was deeply invested in being taken seriously, and that I saw enjoying reality TV as dangerous in that it could paint me as uneducated or frivolous. It took a pandemic-induced gossip drought for me to return to the gleaming shores of reality TV in the form of Real Housewives of Orange County (RHOC). I asked Twitter which Real Housewives iteration I should start with, then chose the one exactly zero people recommended because it was the first, and because it is set in my home state, which I haven’t set foot in since October 2019.
Bravo envisioned RHOC, which premiered in 2006, as a documentary about five Orange County families. In the 2013 “100th Episode Special,” stars past and present reflect on the “little ad in our community newspaper” seeking “Housewives.” The producers envisioned that this show depicting life in Coto de Caza would be “more entertaining than The O.C., Laguna Beach, and Desperate Housewives.” Despite the promise of portraying “real life,” the producers’ hunger for drama is palpable in their reference to these three shows. Over the course of its first four seasons, the show got more than it bargained for when these Housewives invested more deeply (and entertainingly) in their relationships with each other than in their familial relationships. In fact, the show is really only about their marriages insofar as they provide cannon fodder for the knockdown, drag-out brawls we hate to love today: allegations of infidelity, abuse, and run-of-the-mill crumbling marriages. Once the Housewives realized that viewers craved over-the-top messiness over sterile lifestyles of the rich and famous, they could “manage” the show’s storylines, placing themselves at the center of the action, thereby making themselves irreplaceable.
In Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country, unhinged queen of my heart Undine Spragg moves with her parents from Apex, a town in an undifferentiated Midwest, to New York City for the express purpose of launching herself into the upper echelons of New York society. Undine marries Ralph Marvell, an aspiring poet whose personality seems to have suffocated in the rarefied air of the Upper East Side. When Ralph proves insufficiently financially ambitious for Undine, she divorces him and marries a Frenchman in love with his family tapestries; when Raymond’s tapestry love supersedes his concern for Undine’s social status, she leaves him for Elmer Moffatt, a rich art collector she divorced long ago in Apex. If Undine were a housewife, her tagline would be this sentence from the novel: “If only everyone would do as I [she] wished I [she] would never be unreasonable.” Wharton writes of Undine, “Ralph was easier to manage than so many of her friends.” Undine’s easy discarding of husbands once their usefulness diminishes precedes the Housewives’ perfunctory use of their own married status for greater fame and, ideally, fortune. The title’s “Real” belies the performance-based nature of housewives figured in both our present moment and in the nineteenth century, when women were variously known as the “angel of the house,” the “republican mother,” and “true women.” Orange County trades republican motherhood (the Revolution-era idea that American mothers used the home to instill civic virtue in their families) for Republican motherhood.
For several decades, scholarship on the nineteenth century was bound up in the allegedly sharp boundary between the public and the private spheres, guided by the idea that men belonged to the public, market-oriented sphere while women were confined to the home and caring for the family. Notions of a neat divide between the home and the market obfuscate the reality that for nineteenth-century women, the home was its own market. The social has long been bound up in the financial, particularly within the institution of marriage, and no one knew this better than American women. In a comical understatement on Undine and nineteenth-century women broadly, New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino deadpans: “It’s not great for women to have to live in a culture that funnels money and power through men.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman put a finer point on the nineteenth-century stakes: “Wealth, power, social distinction, fame,—not only these, but home and happiness, reputation, ease and pleasure, her bread and butter,—all must come to her through a small gold ring.” Through her three gold rings, Undine gains exclusive access to the upper echelons of New York society, an ancestral home in France, and jaunts to Europe.
From Wharton and her nineteenth-century predecessors to the Real Housewives of Orange County, American women have married strategically to secure publicity and social ascendancy. The Real Housewives franchises generally ensure that the Housewives are, well, wives. The mansions, vacation houses, and gewgaws that comprise what viewers regrettably call “lifestyle porn” are inextricable from marriage in the show’s eyes. The Housewives regularly receive lavish anniversary gifts and even “push presents” (gifts after giving birth) that implicitly put a price value on women’s contributions to their marriage and family. Rolexes are particularly sought after—on her 40th birthday, Tamra Judge’s (now ex-) husband gives her a Rolex that, at $40,000, is more expensive than most cars. But when Vicki Gunvalson buys herself a Rolex in the Season 4 finale, aptly titled “Bling Bling,” the Housewives’ skepticism is palpable. Bravo.com’s cheeky episode recap states: “Let’s review: Tamra got a diamond bracelet (from her husband), Gretchen got a Harley (from her fiancé), Jeana got a new boyfriend (from Texas), Vicki got a Rolex (from herself) and then there was Lynne. She got to see Tamra’s bracelet, Gretchen’s Harley, Jeana’s boyfriend, and Vicki’s Rolex.” Despite Vicki’s claims that she felt uncomfortable showing off a gift she bought for herself (“I didn’t want to make Donn feel bad because he didn’t buy it for me and make it like … my husband can’t do it”), she proceeds to show off to three Housewives at the party. All three thinly veil their incredulity, emphasizing the nature of the gift: Lynne: “You did? Yourself?” Lauri Peterson: “You did? You did?” Jeana’s talking head: “She said, ‘I bought it for myself.’ It’s like, Vicki, why can’t you just say, ‘Donn and I got the Rolex?’ You know, why are you throwing Donn under the bus again?” The women clearly view Vicki’s actions as emasculating and distasteful. Vicki frames it as a reward for work: “I had a really good quarter. I earned it.” Earning her gift through her own work is, in fact, the problem.
Platinum blonde Housewife Gretchen Rossi balks at the prospect of marrying Slade Smiley (a name that sends shivers down the spine of every RHOC Season 1–8 viewer) throughout Season 7. She provocatively declares: “I don’t want to get married—I want a lease.” She argues that a lease would fend off the “complacency” that leads to waning sex drives, loosened waistbands, and infidelity. In other words, marriage would prove detrimental to both Gretchen’s finances and her social capital. Gretchen ultimately refuses to marry Slade because he has mountains of debt and unpaid child support that she does not want to become financially responsible for. Gretchen and Slade conclude Season 8 with a dazzling rooftop engagement in which Gretchen proposes; at the reunion, the other housewives (probably correctly) deem it a ploy to remain on the show by keeping their storyline interesting. Gretchen does not return for Season 9, and at time of writing, she and Slade have yet to marry.
Gretchen’s desire for a lease is shocking because it says the quiet part out loud: marriage is fundamentally a financial transaction. Undine would likely jump at the chance to treat marriage as a lease as a way to keep her husbands beholden to her whims. Ralph thinks to himself that weddings in his social set “ought all to have been transacted on the Stock Exchange.” Thinking of marriages as leases and selling on the stock exchange makes clear the financial consequences of romantic partnerships.
Tolentino’s assessment of Undine’s worldview—“sorted into three categories of people: assets, impediments, and those who, being neither, effectively do not exist”—maps easily onto the evolution of the Housewives’ relationships. Housewives don’t actually know whether they will be featured as a “cast member” or a “friend of” until after the season wraps; this uncertainty results in desperate lunges for relevance up to the reunion at the season’s conclusion. Better to self-destruct for three seasons straight than be a dud destined to become a one-season wonder. Attempts to become assets or impediments—or in the language of the show, the voice of reason or the villain—can backfire spectacularly. A woman can be an impediment to the other Housewives in order to be an asset to the show, but this is a delicate balance to strike. If the confrontation seems too unhinged or nonsensical, viewers and the other Housewives can easily sniff out an “inauthentic” attempt to return for another season. To be a “friend of the Housewives” is as good as not existing.
What’s remarkable about these women—both the Housewives and Undine Spragg—is that they spin unlikability into fame and, by extension, capital, in a world that claims to despise unlikeable women. We hear over and over from viewers and the women alike that the Housewives are crazy, out of control, and crass. What makes the Housewives repulsive is what makes them compulsively watchable, and they damn well know it. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to befriend these women, their ambitions and strategies merit attention—both critical and what my 2013 shill alter ego would have called “mindless.” While Tolentino argues that Undine’s skill at manipulating men to her advantage is unconscious, Undine’s machinations on the marriage market are calculated, premeditated, and skillful. Wharton continuously shrinks the gap between Fifth Avenue and Wall Street:
She [Undine] had done this incredible thing, and she had done it from a motive that seemed, at the time, as clear, as logical, as free from the distorting mists of sentimentality, as any of her father’s financial enterprises. It had been a bold move, but it had been as carefully calculated as the happiest Wall Street ‘stroke.’
Few institutions rely on norms of conduct and gender more than the institution of marriage. Because marriage was not rigorously regulated by the state in the nineteenth century, community opinion and the threat of social censure largely filled this supervisory role. While the federal government focused its attention on securing the new country’s relationship with European powers and expanding its control over land, community opinion policed social behavior. Community opinion thus simultaneously shaped and regulated gender roles within and outside marriage.
The Housewives fight that launched one thousand franchises is equally rooted in a community intervention to police individual women’s care duties. In Season 4 of RHOC, new Housewife Gretchen is widely lampooned as a gold-digger; she is engaged to Jeff, a man twenty years her senior who is dying of leukemia. At a lunch with all five housewives, Gretchen mentions that Jeff is in the hospital and that she vacationed at Bass Lake for the weekend. The ever-bold Tamra Judge ventures an aside—“I wouldn’t be at Bass Lake”—casting judgment on Gretchen. The other housewives’ bug-eyed shock (and glee) underscores the industrious nature of Tamra’s call-out. Gretchen incredulously asks, “What’d you say?” and after a beat, Tamra looks directly at Gretchen, points a finger at her while leaning forward, and loudly asks, “Did you go to Bass Lake?”
Tamra’s split-second calculation makes this scene remarkable. She has already calmly stated that she wouldn’t be at Bass Lake if her husband were in the hospital; it’s clear that everyone at the table has heard and registered her slight. Still, she confronts Gretchen even more directly and provocatively—with a slightly unhinged glint in her eye. Wharton may as well have been describing Tamra’s motive when she wrote: “She [Undine] felt a violent longing to brush away the cobwebs and assert herself as the dominant figure of the scene.” In a show that defies conservative notions of housewives as homebound, subservient, and obedient, Tamra sends shockwaves through castmates and viewers alike by accusing Gretchen of failing in her wifely (or pseudo-wifely) care duties. Despite Tamra’s ugly accusation and gleeful delivery, she upholds the role of a housewife who should be perennially and selflessly at the bedside of a dying loved one. By reifying this expectation, she positions Gretchen squarely outside the bounds of acceptability and appoints herself domesticity’s standard-bearer. She uses her proximity to ideal domesticity to gain power and control.
Reddit user HJthirdofhisname astutely observes that Tamra’s reverberating finger-point takes place in 2008, after the Great Recession begins to cramp even Orange County’s style. Many families were forced to downsize to more reasonable mansions or “short-sell” their homes, thereby minimizing the “lifestyle porn” viewers tuned in for. In one of the series’ darkest moments, Housewife Lynne Curtin’s children open the door to an eviction notice on camera. Andy Cohen, the show’s executive producer, voiced his concern about the recession’s impact: “Here was a show about luxury and opulence. We thought when the bubble burst, who would want to watch that?” As if in penance for the housewives’ crumbling finances, Tamra proffers an olive branch: Enjoy the catharsis of watching five grown-ass women behave in a way you never would (or could). Viewers across the country gladly accepted, spurring the development of nine additional regional installments and even an “all-stars” series, which is currently filming in Turks and Caicos. Comically, none of the flagship RHOC housewives were invited. Undine Spragg would never have stood for such treatment.
The Marvell family and the Housewives share a deep-seated terror of being mistaken for plebeians. Multiple Housewives insist that their marriage will not become “a statistic” by succumbing to divorce. At the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Housewife Shannon Beador bewails the possibility that she will die of coronavirus and “become a statistic.” Ralph Marvell’s family disdains the nouveau riche, referring to themselves as the “natives” battling the city’s “upstarts.” Although 100 years separate these texts, the rich consistently dread the possibility of melding with the masses, of losing their perceived individuality by behaving—or dying!—like “them.”
Much like the Marvell family, you can find the Housewives screaming “Divorce is not an option!” two to three (TV or New York social) seasons before their divorce. The vow renewal, an alleged recommittal to the contract of marriage, has become a franchise-wide gag: vow renewals are the kiss of death for Housewives’ marriages. The tighter the women grip the ladder’s rungs, the more likely they are to slip off, overpowered by the stink of divorce (despite the oft-cited 70 percent Orange County divorce rate, compared to a nationwide 50 percent). Undine’s strategic marriages launch her into the glorified air of Elmer Moffatt’s art collections and spiderweb-like influence: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Once she finds that her divorcée status forecloses Moffatt’s ambassadorship, she discovers that an ambassadorship is the only thing that can make her happy.
Housewives who prove themselves worthy of fan adulation for their zingers and youthful beauty stand to gain tremendous financial benefit: payment for appearances on the show, lucrative branding deals, podcasts, jewelry and clothing lines, and even spin-off shows like Vanderpump Rules. While most Housewives are paid by the season, Real Housewives of New York’s Countess (yes, really) Luann de Lesseps commands $20,000 per scene. In Season 14, the women of Orange County wore leggings with their own faces on them. Etsy user CreativeByAleneToo sells merch (laptop stickers, shirts, tote bags, mugs) plastered with Did you go to Bass Lake? along with other quotes from Housewife fights. The Housewives’ audacity is lucrative, not only for themselves, but for fans who spin their words into even more material goods.
While Tamra likely doesn’t see a dime from these tchotchkes, their existence bolsters her continued relevance, financial power, and integral relationship to the RHOC universe. Tamra is so good at remaining relevant that she sparks a fight in RHOC Season 15, a season she doesn’t physically feature in. In many ways, Tamra is the Housewife blueprint. As the kids say, she understood the assignment. In a 2017 promotional blitz, Bravo marketed Peggy Sulahian as the “100th Housewife” to join a cast, which quickly fizzled when she chose to play peacemaker rather than shit-stirrer. Despite her “dud” status, Peggy still lists “100th Housewife on Bravo’s RHOC #housewife100” in her Instagram bio. Even a failed Housewife maintains some level of marketability, or desperately tries to, by riding the show’s coattails.
A lot has changed since 2000. I won’t list the litany of ways, but if you’ve lived these intervening two decades, you’re familiar. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular has reordered my values and set me more firmly at odds with my formerly Puritan-adoring days (though now I live in Massachusetts, so maybe I should feel some geographical kinship). In many ways, my PhD program has actually made me less concerned with the appearance of being highly educated, because I have met many people with PhDs who lack the values I admire—kindness, a sense of humor, supportiveness—and because I’ve been humbled by how much I will never know about literature, history, and the world. Meanwhile, I hear the powder horn of reality television calling me home once again—”next up on Real Housewives of New York City…”