thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Ramona’s Tears and the Emotional Labor of the RHONY

In Real Housewives on August 12, 2011 at 1:08 am

Chelsea Bullock

I’ve been watching The Real Housewives of New York City for the past few seasons and I love it. However, every season, without fail, the finale reunion episode(s) make me question why*.

Watch this clip and come back.

See what I mean?

These women, as evidenced by the screaming, fit-throwing, and blatant contempt for one another are not–by the strictest of definitions–nice. I’ve tried to find some redeeming value in that not-niceness but have yet to come up with any convincing points. It seems more likely that there’s something else at work that makes these women sympathetic.

As seen in the clip and in these photographs, they perfectly embody a glossy, privileged, I-never-learned-how-to-blow-dry-my-own-hair lifestyle. As with most of the Real Housewives shows, these women’s New York is unlikely to be recognized by 98.9% of New Yorkers.

Three of the seven are married (another is in a serious dating relationship), all seven have at least one child, and all seven are involved in multiple business ventures. Nailing down what those ventures are and exactly what their personal involvement entails is impossible, but the performance and spectacle is what matters here.

But I’m getting distracted.

How does the show work to generate affect(ion) for a bunch of wholly unlikeable women?

I think the answer lies somewhere in between the pleasure that can be found in excess–melodramatic, emotional, material, etc.–and appreciation for their interpersonal struggles and triumphs. While these “housewives” aren’t taking on the burden of performing traditional domestic roles, they are still constantly and painfully negotiating relationships with one another, their spouses or romantic interests, their children, and their employees. It is important that the show is making this emotional labor visible and valued.

It is also important to be clear: These relational negotiations aren’t necessarily anything like real life nor are they meant to be.

(a still from one of the reunion episodes: Ramona, Sonja, and Alex)

But the emotion these women seem to always be struggling with–how to communicate their feelings, how to maintain composure, how to tell when paranoia is valid, how to stay out of a fight, how to be a good friend, how to be angry without coming to blows or getting bleeped–is real.

Because these are actual living humans rather than fictional characters (though Lily Bart could give them all a real run for their money), it is fair for viewers to assume that these women have emotions. I am not making a claim that Ramona Singer’s tears at around 2:20 in this clip are any more real or authentic than Lily Bart’s final letter, i.e. that there is some kind of inherent truthiness to their emotions. What I am claiming is that Ramona Singer is a human and the affect of her actual being is impossible to deny. Just because Ramona’s tears cannot be assumed as an honest representation of sadness doesn’t mean they are without value. Instead, the tears can be seen as richer for their multivalent possibilities. Ramona could be crying because she’s frustrated with how she performed in her scenes that night, she’s feeling insecure about her outfit, her head hurts and she’s hungry, or for no reason at all other than she knew how very excerpt-able that moment would be for commercials and is excited by the possibility of maximizing her air time. Ramona’s “real” motivation is blessedly oblique. Her authenticity is unimportant. What matters is that there is a very real woman and she is crying.

I’m still not sure how to more deeply suss out this claim. For example: how is this different than saying that a filmic adaptation of a play is less affective and less authentic than the stage performance of the play? I’ve been thinking over it for days and this is still where I’m stuck. One of things that keeps returning to me is this consideration of a living, breathing, crying body. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels have been one of the great delights of my summer and yet I feel waaaaay less attached to the mostly likeable (novel-version) Sookie than I do to these women. I don’t think it is a matter of successful or unsuccessful character development (Sookie) as much as it is a conflation of character and actual sharing-the-same-atmosphere-as-me celebrity (Ramona). Theoretically, Ramona is accessible to me in the same ways she is accessible to her fellow cast-members, the underlings at her jewelry parties, her stylist, or the camera person for the day. Theoretically, she is always Ramona.

*I’m throwing out a lot of wobbly, nebulous ideas here–mostly to force myself to articulate some of the impulses and flutters living in my brain right now–and am 100% open to being totally, totally, completely wrong. Ask me questions. Tell me what you think.

  1. LOVE IT!

    The tag on truthy-ness got me thinking about how useful Harry Frankfurt’s ‘On Bullshit’ might be for you on two levels. First, I think that what the Real Housewives does for us is make crystal clear that the search for ‘authenticity’ in late/(post) modernism is like an intellectual snipe hunt. Why? Because authenticity was an 18th century concept used to validate power and sell people stuff. Which leads me to the second level. Frankfurt quote: “Rather, bullshit is used to conceal, to impress or to coerce. Unlike liars, bullshitters have no use for the truth. All that matters to them is hiding their ignorance or bringing about their own benefit.” I wonder if, in terms of character likability, we’re not being emotionally coerced into liking Ramona (and to what ends would that serve)?

  2. I am adding that to my Amazon wishlist right. Now. Sounds great. Thanks, Bryce! And your final question is a good one. I don’t have an answer yet, but I’ll get back to you.

  3. […] But we don’t tune into this show to watch mean girls duke it out. That’s why we have Real Housewives and Bad Girls Club. We watch The Bachelor to see a romance unfold. Yet while we hope for […]

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