We’re all about women supporting women and female empowerment, right? Yet, women cat fighting and bitching to each other is among our TV of choice? Victoria Stokes asks why exactly we can’t get enough of shows like RHOBH and its ilk.
Last year, spurred on by an unrelenting boredom during the pandemic, I dared to go where — you might argue — no self-respecting feminist ought to: deep into The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills archives.
From there, an obsession grew and I found myself hooked, not only on the decadent lifestyles, lavish parties, and mind-blowing wealth of these perfectly manicured housewives in the hills, but on the toxic cats fights, ongoing feuds, and shifting social hierarchies on which they seemed to thrive.
Fortunately, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever run out of shows like these to fill the void. RHOBH is launching its 12th season, and The Real Housewives franchise continues to grow with shows in Atlanta, New York, New Jersey, and more.
The prevailing popularity of these programs — which would be pretty dull if it weren’t for all the catty drama — feels at odds with a society that encourages us to ‘be kind’ and empower other women. So what is it about toxic female rivalries that keep us tuning in? Why, when being bitchy has long gone out of style, do we simply love watching women fight on TV?
“It’s akin to watching a wildlife program featuring a rare, nearly extinct type of mammal,” says senior therapist Sally Baker.
“The conflict between the women is often so removed from the reality of ordinary women that female viewers don’t feel they’re compromising their own need to empower themselves and other women,” she believes.
“The curated and stage-managed arguments and fallouts feel like cartoon characters and not like watching women they know in real life.”
While Baker reckons these depictions are so far removed from our own reality that we can separate ourselves from them, I wonder if part of their appeal is that most of us know what it feels like to be the subject of nasty gossip or find ourselves ostracised from a group.
For Ciara, a self-confessed reality TV addict, The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills is a reminder of the toxic friendship dynamics she’s escaped. “It’s as if someone went back in time and used my old friendship group as inspiration for the show,” she laughs.
“So much of what I see on shows like The Real Housewives is reflective of the friendship group I had in my early twenties: the cattiness, the snide remarks, the falling out over petty stuff. That was my lived experience for a long time, and it’s funny in a way to see these women, with mansions and millions in the bank, treading similar territory with their so-called friends,” she muses.
“I guess it makes me feel like I have something in common with these women. They seem to have it all, but they lack any real support group. It reminds me how lucky I am to have kind, supportive friends now.”
Does Ciara believe shows like Real Housewives showcase unhelpful portrayals of women? “Maybe they do,” she muses, “but many women do have friendships like this so for me, it’s relatable more than anything else.”
Naomi, a long-time Real Housewives of New York fan, says she loves watching female rivalries play out on screen because it challenges the assumption that it’s somehow ‘unfeminist’ for women to not get along.
“I think we like to believe that we’ve evolved to this point where we aren’t in competition with other women, but women have been pitted against one another for centuries and I don’t believe that’s changed just yet.”
“Society is still set up in a way that marginalises women and we’ll always be pitted against each other until that changes,” she adds. “The empowering women thing is well-intentioned but I find a lot of the discussion around it to be really disingenuous, and it’s refreshing to see a show that is so unashamedly the opposite of that.”
I can’t quite put a finger on why RHOBH has me so hooked. Maybe it’s the sheer decadence of their lifestyles that reel us in and the unending drama that keeps us tuning in over and over again. Perhaps shows like these are simply an amplified version of what happens in some female friendship groups; a depiction of female rivalry that’s been exaggerated with careful direction and staging.
Maybe it’s nothing more than voyeurism. “These shows provide a safe way to explore and experience conflict without any skin in the game,” Baker points out.
“There’s something very satisfying about watching a conflict unfold in high definition from the comfort of your sofa without having to deal with the negative effects of real-life toxicity,” she adds.
All I really know is that, love them or hate them, the enduring popularity of these franchises shows no sign of abating. Pass me the popcorn.