thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Mrs. and Manners: Social Policing in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

In Real Housewives on November 5, 2011 at 6:36 am

Sarah Todd

On The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, there are no heroes. Kyle, Kim, Camille, Taylor, Lisa, and Adrienne each have their individual strong points: Kim is hilarious on the phone, Lisa endearingly forces her punk-rock son to help her with hair extensions, Adrienne hosts excellent spa day parties (so many frozen yogurt toppings)! But they have all been rude, conceited, greedy, or flat-out mean too many times to count. Yet despite—or rather, because of—the cast’s constant breaches of etiquette, RHOBH is a show about manners.

At a certain kind of party, people will be judged on what they wear, how they speak, who their friends are, who they date, where they shop, where they live, what their job is, and where they went to school. These kinds of judgments are easily avoided by throwing wine at snobby people—then they’re so distracted by the wine that they forget to figure out how much money you make. Also, staying home works too.

But because the entire lives of the RHOBH cast are based on going to stressful parties, they are always judging others and being judged themselves. And because manners remain the best signals of class and social status in a society that has historically tried really hard to pretend that class doesn’t exist, most of the housewives’ conflicts come down to disputes about social protocols.

In RHOBH, every social interaction is scrutinized, commented upon in confessionals, and regulated by the cast as well as the show’s own editing and camerawork. Last season, the big dramatic arc of the series came down to a she said/she said conflict between Camille, the then-wife of Kelsey Grammar, and Kyle, a former child actress. Camille said that Kyle had implied that she wouldn’t get invited to a Hawaiian retreat unless Kelsey was accompanying her; Kyle said she had only asked if Kelsey was coming on vacation too. The conversation that originated the season-long dispute happened off-camera, but the general thrust of later arguments was whether Kyle had violated the rules of appropriate social conduct by making a rude comment or if Camille was being insecure and overly attuned to criticism. Neither woman could drop the argument, because both were invested in maintaining their images of themselves—Kyle as a girl’s girl who would never make such a hurtful comment, Camille as an independent woman who wouldn’t project her own self-doubts onto the words of others.

This season, the ladies of Beverly Hills continue to fight about appropriate behavior as they struggle to solidify their reputations. Currently, Kyle is ostracizing the new girl, Brandi, by way of attacks on her manners. When Brandi’s toddler pees on Adrienne’s lawn during a party, Kyle accuses Brandi of committing a social faux pas by not apologizing to the hostess (bad manners accusation #1). Brandi bridles at Kyle’s accusation, taking it as a criticism of her parenting (bad manners accusation #2). Later, Kyle berates Brandi for suggesting that her sister, Kim, was on crystal meth at a game night party (#3). Brandi defends herself by saying that Kim offended her first by saying that she didn’t want to be on the same team (#4). Brandi also says, completely fairly, that she felt ganged up on at game night and that none of the other women were willing to rise to her defense (#5).

For whatever reason, Kyle has taken a dislike to Brandi. However, to get Brandi properly excommunicated from her social circle, she needs to sully Brandi’s reputation by way of her manners, labeling her déclassé in the eyes of the other women. That’s the reason a toddler peeing on a lawn matters to Kyle at all, which it actually doesn’t. (Her mission to rid herself of Brandi is doomed to fail, though, because the producers brought Brandi on in order to up the drama quotient. She’ll be around ever after like Bethenny.) Kyle’s own bad manners in her treatment of Brandi are overlooked by her fellow castmates—she’s an alpha, and nobody wants to get on her bad side.

But the show isn’t just about women criticizing one another’s manners, it’s also about making the audience squirm at various examples of awkwardness and poor etiquette. In this week’s episode, “Otherwise Engaged,” Lisa and Taylor have a terrible, weird conversation at Lisa’s daughter’s Moroccan-themed engagement party. After a cursory how-are-you exchange, they nod at each other for an uncomfortably long period of time. Eons pass. An ice age comes and goes. If you are me, you sink very low into the couch. Lisa looks as if she would rather be hanging out with the party camel. Finally, the painful exchange comes to an abrupt end: out of nowhere, Lisa announces “okay” and turns away.  It’s a strange ending to a strange social encounter, because if saying “okay” and walking away were socially acceptable, everyone would be walking away from each other all the time. Whether or not the awkwardness was manufactured, the scene shows how RHOBH milks drama from every social interaction, prompting viewers to look for winners and losers.

Yet the winners and losers of the manners game are often indistinguishable. At the engagement party, a dark-haired woman tells Kyle, Taylor, Adrienne, and Camille that she calls her husband “Daddy.” They freeze and wrinkle their noses, openly grossed out. “Awkward,” Kyle mutters. “This woman is an appropriate party guest?” Taylor wonders in a confessional. Clearly, the housewives feel (or pretend to feel) this admission marks the woman as embarrassing and uncouth, and they leap to demonstrate that they are ladies of greater taste and reserve. But the distinction kind of falls apart a few minutes later when Kyle is elbowing away professional dancers to dance on the tabletops at the engagement party. Lisa, in turn, makes a droll remark that testifies to her social black belt, balancing airy criticism with a joke: “Why would I want to get up on the table at my daughter’s engagement party?” she asks. After a pause, she adds: “I’m saving it for the wedding.” As these reactions show, almost every interaction at the party involves women policing each other’s adherence to the social conventions of what it means to be classy and elegant, then bending or breaking those conventions themselves.

The drama of manners in RHOBH comes from the conflict between two sets of rules: the rules of Beverly Hills society, and the rules of reality television. Each set is largely at odds with the other. In general, it seems likely that the Beverly Hills elite prefer to deal with disagreements behind closed doors, whereas reality television requires that you take your fights into the open, preferably at a gala. Well-behaved women, the saying goes, rarely make history, and they also rarely make for high Nielson ratings—yet well-behaved women are the bread and butter of upper-crust society. The women of RHOBH are constantly trying to balance these two sets of rules. No wonder they’re prone to outbursts and nervous breakdowns: the friction created by warring sets of cultural expectations has driven plenty of people mad before them.

In the opening credits of the show, Lisa declares, “Life in Beverly Hills is a game, and I make the rules.” But she’s not really making the rules; she’s just playing the game better than most. To stay in the game, you have to play by the rules that have already been set. You attend fundraisers. You get blowouts and facials and terrifying-looking mini-facelifts that make you look like an elderly baby. You throw parties where you pick out the women who are not following the rules well enough, and by your selectivity you edge a little further up the social ladder. And, if you are featured in a reality television show, after the party you confess to the cameras, although the thoughts you’re confessing may not be yours.

This isn’t to say you can’t make your own rules. You can. But if you do it for real, you won’t be in the game for very long. You probably won’t live in an expensive house and buy designer clothes and $2000 cakes, because our late capitalist society does not typically reward true iconoclasts (unless you count Gonzos of the Muppet and journalist varieties). Throw expectations of what constitutes good breeding out the window, and you probably won’t be at the top of many exclusive invite lists either. And you won’t be on television anymore, because what are the chances that the rules you have made for yourself will coincide with the rules by which your network would like you to abide? You’ll be giving up a lot of things, good and bad, and trading them in for who knows what. It’s no wonder that so few people ever manage to do it. Make your own rules, and you’re on your own.

  1. Astute assessment of one of the most absurd cacophonies around!

  2. […] 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 a happy […]

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