In the early years of the twenty-first century, a very clever executive producer at Bravo had the multimillion-dollar idea of pairing the character clichés of Desperate Housewives with the consumerist content of MTV Cribs. In 2006, The Real Housewives of Orange County was born. Ratings soared over the late 2000s as The Great Recession ravaged the American economy in a plague of bankruptcy and unemployment. An additional eight US Real Housewives spin-off series were made over the next decade, along with another eight international iterations of the franchise, resulting in The Real Housewives of Sydney (RHOS), over twenty years after the brand’s first broadcast.
It is easy to dismiss the Real Housewives franchise as a petty escapist bromide for a cultural climate of financial instability, and while that may be part of the appeal, it does not explain the longevity or fecundity of the formula. Like all good expressions of class anxiety, Real Housewives is fundamentally conflicted and it is this contention that forms the central principle of the show: affluent ladies with no class. The irony that unifies Real Housewives the world over is a dramatic display of affect that is at odds with the audience’s expectations of behaviour appropriate to women of high socio-economic status. Each episode features millionaire matriarchs in designer dress screaming at vitriolic vixens in Louis Vuitton. Think Jerry Springer Show style beef, but everyone is bourgeois.
This idiosyncratic approach to class can only be reconciled with the Neoliberal dictate that rich people are rich because they deserve to be through a gendered lens, which is common across mainstream Western media. Sure, there is the typical example of the masculine megalomaniacal millionaire villain, but for every Mr Burns, there are five Mr Sheffields. Bad men are bad because they are evil; bad women are bad because they are nasty. At least the clichéd malevolent male billionaire wants to take over the world, all Cruella de Vil wanted was a fancy coat. Such fictional illustrations of the diverse utility of wealth for men versus women indicate the expected division of roles in the economy: men produce, women consume. And boy oh boy, do the Real Housewives consume!
Whether you have seen an episode or merely been involuntarily exposed to promotional material, it is made obvious to the viewer that the luxurious lifestyle of the leading ladies is the show’s unique selling point. This generic element of the Real Housewives formula is aptly exemplified in the RHOS edition. Arena, the show’s broadcasting channel, extols the globalised good life with a touch of local charm: ‘Slip on your favourite designer dress, pour another Cosmopolitan and Charter the Super Yacht! The Real Housewives of Sydney are ready to set sail and show Australia the extravagant and stylish lifestyle this beautiful harbour city has to offer’.1
The show follows Nicole (‘former Miss Australia’), Athena X (‘spiritual goddess’) Melissa (‘1990s pop diva’), Lisa (‘politician’s wife’), Krissy (‘property princess’), Victoria (‘Bondi’s First Lady’) and Matty (‘self-made millionaire’)2 as they bicker and slut/body shame each other over gourmet meals, during glamorous shopping sprees and at exclusive VIP parties, all while performing the sexist stereotypes of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.
RHOS is not just about resenting the rich, it is about channelling that resentment into profitable displays of humiliation that undermine the relationship between women and wealth through a derisive portrayal of gendered labour. While spending money is portrayed in an unambiguously positive light, the virtues of earning money are ambivalent and ad hominem. Krissy, a former real estate agent (there had to be one, you couldn’t localise class anxiety to the Sydney context without some reference to the property market) is a self-identified ‘trophy wife’, liberated from the need to work either in or outside the home. Krissy outsources the domestic drudgery associated with housewifery to focus on the labour of adhering to the dictates of the male gaze.
It is this postfeminist ‘yummy mummy’ (as per the text on Nicole’s apron), rather than the 1950s housewife of Betty Friedan’s oeuvre, that RHOS celebrates. In Episode Eight, Victoria berates Athena X for being a stay-at-home mum: ‘You don’t even work, you’re at home mopping. Get a cleaner and go to work’. I thought she had a job. Her painting practice is introduced in Episode One, though I guess when it comes to art, the burden of proof lies with the practicing individual to confirm the occupation of artist as having ‘real job’ status. The producers of RHOS have no incentive to allow Athena X such an opportunity; even her family is shown gawking at her paintings with scepticism.
The housewives’ jobs rarely feature on the show and when they do it is often as ironic displays of the their ineptitude and feminine vanity. In Episode One, Athena X assists her husband Panos at the jewellery store he owns, but she opines that the diamonds look better on her than on the shelf. Melissa’s work in show business is depicted as frivolous frippery, producing mediocre dance tracks under grievously ill-advised music management and staring in C grade Aussie Horror trash movies.
Nicole is an events planner and plans two events in the series, a welcome home party for herself and a philanthropic food truck fund. Nicole is often used to celebrate female labour that is traditionally unacknowledged as labour and therefore unburdened by financial remuneration. Firstly, through repeated reference to charity as an acknowledgement of ‘how lucky we are’, as if the mere admission of being on the winning end of profound inequalities was sufficient to absolve her from all blame. Secondly, through domestic labour: yet even housework is not immune to ridicule from the show’s ironic framing, which consistently pairs a professed goal of the housewives with its deficiency. In Episode Two, Nicole states ‘to me, manners are everything, and they are a reflection of your upbringing and your education. It’s very important that my girls are well mannered at all times’. Cut to the next scene. As Nicole presents the cupcakes they have baked together as a family, her eldest daughter exclaims ‘did you just fart Neve? You did, didn’t you? Neve, it really stinks!’
There are some exceptions to the Rich-
Women-Are-Failures-In-Everything-They-Try-To-Do-That-Doesn’t-Involve-Buying-Things rule. Victoria and Matty are depicted as adroit businesswomen, who profit from the social pressure on women to remain eternally youthful. For Victoria, this is made manifest in her Wrinkles Schminkles medical silicone entrepreneurial venture, and for Matty in her successful business as a cosmetic nurse. In Episode Two, Matty says ‘I find it to be quite an empowering business, I’m about making women feel and look good’, supporting the neoliberal assumptions of the show that parting with massive amounts of cash is a legitimate source of female empowerment.
Then we have Lisa, who is identified in the show’s first teaser as a ‘Politician’s Wife’, but works outside of the patriarchal union in IT mergers and acquisitions. Lisa fits the career woman stereotype and pays the postfeminist price to the detriment of her relationship with her husband and children. ‘Sorry I have been home late every night this week’, she says regretfully. Her husband, ex-One Nation deputy leader David Oldfield replies, ‘we haven’t missed you’. If the dangers of attempting to balance motherhood and career aren’t obvious enough, Nicole summarises these in Episode Four: ‘I think Lisa has changed over the years, she’s been pulled in two directions with her work and her children and, yeah, she seems broken’. However, the authenticity of this subplot has been called into question. Victoria and Krissy explicitly challenge Lisa’s credibility in the Reunion Episode, which concludes the season.
Only the most incredulous television viewer would take the ‘Real’ in RHOS as referring to anything more than genre. The localisation of the global franchise functions in some part to reveal the show’s artifice. For example, in Episode One, Victoria throws Athena X’s netted cape ‘into the water’ from the second floor of Cruise Bar, despite the fact that you would need to be an Olympic shot-putter to get it past the generous walkway outside the ground floor. This insight would be obvious to anyone who has ever been to that particular area of Circular Quay, revealing both the perks of localisation and the show for what it is: theatre.
But knowledge of the show as a dubious construct doesn’t seem to prevent us from blaming the women themselves, rather than the invisible hands of the producers, for their class and gender treachery. It seems to be a lot easier to gasp at how a particular housewife could be so vain or fake or catty, than to ask why that portrayal is so profitable. To maintain suspension of disbelief, we must accept that it is the generic sexist foibles of the individual woman, not the systemic commodification of negative female stereotypes that is to blame for the shudders of shame that audience members experience periodically throughout the first season.
This was the erroneous response to RHOS that I saw repeated through some of my social media networks, instigated by a viral video. As the clip was loosely related to the Sydney art scene, it was doing the rounds on Facebook and a number of people shared the post, originally a Gogglebox clip, of Athena X from RHOS approaching gallerist Tim Olsen for an exhibition, interspersed with wry commentary from the Gogglebox regulars. The voiceover explains ‘This week, the housewives take a break from bickering as Athena X tries to progress her career as an artist’, while we see Athena X carrying a pair of paintings into Olsen Irwin. Goggleboxer Di exclaims, ‘Oh, she’s not going into Olsen Irwin is she?! Its one of the most prominent galleries in Sydney!’ As Athena reveals her paintings, Goggleboxer Patrick Delpetchitra says, ‘what’s this [censored expletive]?’ Introducing RHOS in this way resulted in a bizarre reality TV/ socially mediated Chinese Box structure of sequential removal from the actual real life Athena Xenakis Levendi, firstly through RHOS, then through Gogglebox, and finally through Facebook. It seems that you don’t need to be a regular watcher of the show to get the joke that is going on at Athena X’s expense, as if it was Athena’s hubris, not Olsen’s savvy marketing, that was the vignette’s raison d’être. I was taken aback by what I saw as a guileless faith in Foxtel’s verisimilitude, which evidently led some people to mistake the Real Housewives for Real Housewives.
What is the appropriate level of scepticism one should maintain when watching reality TV? Specifically, how does one best interpret Athena X and her art? Is she solely a painter? Or is she really a performance artist? Is she an Arena Marina Abromović?
RHOS portrays Athena X utilising all the unimaginative tropes of female artists, undermining her claim to sincerity. Athena X describes her painting practice as ‘allowing the universal intelligence called God to filter through my thoughts and my hand’. Art museum’s may be the new churches, but contemporary art is a decidedly secular business, and Athena X’s unconventional spiritual beliefs are used to undermine the legitimacy of her art.
The Gogglebox video is popular because it provides explicit verbal commentary to RHOS’s ironic framing devices. Athena X claims she is ‘born to be an artist’. Keith, watching from North Melbourne retorts: ‘bullshit artist’. No shit, Keith. Portraying a white, female painter of the leisure class as inarticulate, irrational, overly emotional, pretentious, jejune, ‘Jatz Crackers’ isn’t exactly challenging audience expectations. Of course, reputable art-specific cultural commentary doesn’t dwell on this cliché, but when I step out of my specialisation, I am made aware of its currency and often feel pressured to position my practice against this pre-existing assumption.
Maybe I would find the joke funnier if it wasn’t so familiar. You can hardy blame the producers for utilising an obvious and commercially advantageous character crutch; good ethics doesn’t equal good economics in the world of reality TV. While many of my colleagues believed the tired less-than-serious female artist typecast was true in Athena X’s case, I couldn’t afford to take any of it on face value. I know what it’s like to be cast in the crazy female artist box, and I don’t even have the consolation of being rich.
My curiosity was further piqued by Athena X’s paradoxical self-identifications on Instagram. On 10 May, Athena wrote ‘YES I PLAYED A PART IN THE DRAMA… but I don’t identify my True Self with this Roll’. On 14 May, she posted ‘HAPPY That I Am ME Honest REAL … Sensitive ! NOT FAKE … Like it or leave it THIS IS ME!’ How could I reconcile these seemingly opposite proclamations? How realistic is the show’s presentation of her art practice? To what extent does this presentation of practice become part of the practice? I assume the vexed continuum between practitioner and personality is not unfamiliar to anyone who peruses contemporary art publications.
In April, I asked Athena X to partake in a public discussion with me, originally as part of NAS Nights at the National Art School. We have stayed in email contact since then, and I have readdressed some of the talking points from that night to hear Athena X’s perspective on the issues I have raised.
I was also interested in seeing my character evolve and believe in the melodrama of what was happening while the cameras were rolling. Ultimately, it’s role-playing with real women and a storyline that we had to follow. I feel that makes for good TV as most people think it’s real, well the reactions are real anyway! Seeing people fail seems to make normal folks feel better about their life. I found the entire experience fascinating too.
Giselle Stanborough is an artist and writer based in Sydney. Her work often addresses the overlaps between the popular, personal and public cultural spheres.
These bracketed bylines featured on Foxtel’s first RHOS commercial to introduce the new series. >Foxtel, *The *Real Housewives of Sydney**, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bx1hPhauAKc, accessed 20 June 2017. ↩