The reality of ‘Real Housewives’
The average episode of The Real Housewives of Melbourne is enough to harrow the blood and yet the pleasure this particular reality show gives can be especially relaxing; it can induce a deep tranquillity and can become a balm to any hurt mind that’s not feeling up to, I don’t know, The Bridge or The Handmaid’s Tale or whatever highbrow poison you go for, which has just a bit too much reality or art or what have you for the time when you just want to grovel in the blather and the banter, the soothing shenanigans of the everyday.
What comes to mind about the summit, the reunion so-called, in which the highlights of the latest season are rehearsed and revisited under the watchful and provoking eye of the master of ceremonies, the fashion designer Alex Perry?
Well, there were a couple of the new housewives. One of them, Venus, was a lawyer who has worked as an instructing solicitor to Gina Liano, barrister and Real Housewives bitch extraordinaire. She has had more than God’s plenty of work done – to something less than lustrous effect – and was inclined to come across as dumb. Her profession sat weirdly with her general air of uncomprehending bafflement, which was not exactly helped by the knowledge that she was married to a chap who had bought himself a title and used it to sound swank and posh, though this pretension seemed a bit boneheaded. At the reunion Venus kept saying she had nothing to prove about her socioeconomic status with a passion that tended to belie this.
At the other extreme there was Sally, a businesswoman of the homewares and fashion variety, short-haired and sensible-looking, who had the refreshing and disconcerting air of a refugee from the world of sanity. In one eloquent moment, anthologised in the round-up, she said of Gina, who was sitting there continuing to squawk and storm, “I’m not a gynaecologist but I know a cunt when I see one.” A censorious bleep left nothing in doubt and this passes for an extraordinary bon mot by Real Housewives of Melbourne standards, even if it sounds like a very rhetorical construct set down on paper. Sally delivered it naturally, rather than in the manner of the Molière character delighted to discover he’s speaking something as exotic as prose. She was a great asset to The Real Housewives because she was good at sounding like a human being without fuss or bother or hysteria.
Various events were characteristic and central to the past season. The housewives went to Mexico, and the land of Mayans and mescaline and drug cartels allowed Janet, blonde but not young, forever willing to wound but not especially quick on the strike, to fall over in her hotel bathroom and leave herself looking bruised and battered as well as exhibiting her usual combo of dimwitted malice.
Then there was the ever-provocative Gina, the rocket scientist of the crew, who is also capable of acting like something that’s crawled out from under a rock. Her major offence – two seasons ago now but still a source of pain and grievance – was to act as a celebrant at the wedding of fellow Housewives protagonist Gamble to her medical swain, Rick Wolfe, only to spurn the reception and hot-tail it to her hotel room to watch herself on Celebrity Apprentice.
Much rending of garments and breaking of hearts. The striking talking point about Gamble was the amount of weight she had lost, which other housewives were quick to underline as excessive and obsessive and a Bad Thing. It’s certainly true that Gamble had always looked girlish into blonde middle age and she did seem to be overdoing things a bit. But the whole logic of The Real Housewives of Melbourne – as with all its sister shows around the world – is to turn the fact of a personal remark into a collective pretext for scandal and uproar.
It would have to have been that barristerial agent provocateur Gina who said Gamble had to have married Rick for his money – “Do you think she was looking for a tradie?” – and the whole logic of the show is to maximise the bloodletting and brouhaha that ensues when this kind of tart remark is broadcast like the Agincourt speech. It’s all about the drama of rubbing people the wrong way and of highlighting the slings and arrows of the fortunes of ordinary – if well-off – people getting older and by necessity changing as well as staying the same.
Lydia Schiavello is one of those handsome women of fifty-something who was said by someone – was it that soft-spoken witch Janet? – to have not had the benefit of much general schooling. It’s true that there’s something deliciously malapropos about the fact that we get glimpses of Bill Henson on Lydia’s walls – one of the Paris Opera series, in fact, not to mention the naked boy and girl in the infernal garden, which is one of the most dramatic images from the painterly photographer devoted to Bernhard and Mahler.
In the recent season – and reverberantly addressed in the reunion episode – Lydia had waxed as Rubenesque as Gamble had shrunk lean. She remained attractive but she was singularly placed to have her fellow housewives point out that there was just a lot more of her than there used to be. None of which is War and Peace – or The Sorrow and the Pity, if you want to go doco.
In other moments, you may have found Jackie’s variety of Eastern European Australian accent especially grating. You may have borne with her as she marketed some variety of liquor with rock musician husband Ben. You may have wanted to scream when you discovered she was going to mount a show based on her psychic powers. And yet, it’s difficult not to find this sort of thing compelling if you just willingly abandon your mind to it.
The Real Housewives of Melbourne makes Donald Trump’s The Apprentice – ah, those innocent shows of yesteryear – look like the first season of the Spacey House of Cards. It makes Big Brother look like a downright intellectual investigation of collective life in the manner of the early Apted, but none of this stops it from tickling the fancy.
Is it simply a matter of taking women in possession of a certain amount of wherewithal but without great personal distinction and of then showing them like squabbling primary-schoolers? Well, not simply. Is it an exercise in intense histrionic narcissism in the absence of the kind of talent that might justify it by transfiguring it into art, or, at least, first-rate entertainment? A reductive enough perspective could say that of most things. What price politics in a fallen world? What price the presidency?
Catherine Lumby has always said that popular culture of the women’s magazine variety fulfils basic needs of a fundamental kind and that the trashiness of a Kardashian world is a bit easy to sneer at – that it’s wiser to realise we can be charmed by these things as much as anyone. Think of Trump’s affinity for Twitter. Think of yours, if not mine.
One of the peculiarities of The Real Housewives of Melbourne is that the reality TV format, for all its contrivance, for all its tendency to highlight the potential for scrapping and bitching and catcalling, is constantly falling into troughs of real feeling. It is an elaborate ballet in which the dance recurrently turns real because there’s nowhere else for it to go, not least because there’s no script and everyone ends up – for all the tendency to stylisation – as a version of their naked selves.
Oddly enough, the upshot can be poignant or funny or down to earth. The rules of the Housewives game are open-ended. You can start watching the show thinking it is nothing but a contrivance of massed inanities and actually end up a bit abashed by the fact of your own snobbery. The spectacle of more or less rich, more or less idle women reduced to something like schoolyard savageries and scene-stealing sounds simpler than it is. Every so often, as if at the push of some god or ghost, there is the fact of heartbreak, of grief, of some reality that does not quite fit the endless cavalcade, the great charade.
We can feel the affinity of these housewives with our hopes, our fears. It’s a mysterious business but there can be more reality in reality television than our political superiority ever wants to admit.
My hunch is that it’s sympathy, more than misogyny or an appetite for parody, that impels a lot of gay men, and not a few women, to get down and dirty with The Real Housewives of Melbourne. There should be no shame in admitting you feel the pull yourself.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "The real thing". Subscribe here.