The Culture is a weekly culture and society podcast brought to you by the publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
How to listen? Submit Website Submit

The Culture Podcast

When the Real Housewives first aired 16 years ago it was written off as “trashy”. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem even called it "a minstrel show for women".

Why Real Housewives is reality TV’s most interesting phenomenon



When the Real Housewives first aired 16 years ago it was written off as “trashy”. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem even called it "a minstrel show for women".

But the show has shrugged off those labels, and become bigger and bigger, exploring themes of consumerism, class, and race, all while being highly entertaining.

Now the franchise is at the centre of serious legal drama, providing both high stakes entertainment and a window into what happens when highly produced reality TV collides with actual reality.

To help explain why this franchise is both increasingly popular and important Real Housewives superfans comedian Gen Fricker and writer Katie Cunningham join The Culture.

 

Guest: Comedian Gen Fricker
Writer Katie Cunningham

 

Show Transcript

OSMAN:
Welcome to The Culture, a weekly show about the latest in the world of pop culture, arts and entertainment.

I’m Osman Faruqi, and this week we are talking about a TV series that is making headlines for all the wrong reasons: The Real Housewives.

The franchise first went to air in 2006, and it follows the social lives of wealthy women in different cities across the United States.

There are now 11 separate American series in the franchise, including The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Atlanta and New York City, and there are another 15 internationally including of course The Real Housewives of Melbourne.

In its early years the show was criticised for being trash TV. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem even called it "a minstrel show for women".

But the show has shrugged off those labels, becoming bigger and bigger - exploring themes of consumerism, class, and race, all while being highly entertaining.

Now one of the most popular series in the franchise is at the centre of serious legal drama, providing both high stakes entertainment and a window into what happens when highly produced reality TV collides with… actual reality.

To help explain why the franchise is both increasingly popular and important, I'm joined by Real Housewives superfans comedian Gen Fricker, and writer Katie Cunningham.

OSMAN:
Gen, thank you for joining the show.

GEN:
Thanks for having me. I'm so excited.

##OSMAN:
Katie, welcome to the culture.

KATIE:
Hi, good to be here.

OSMAN:
I'm going to be honest straight off. I have seen, like some of the show, I've seen sporadic bits of different seasons. Most of my knowledge probably comes from being in a group chat with Katie and some of our other friends who sporadically throw in, you know, gossip about the show. So I kind of have this awareness around it. I felt compelled to do this episode because both of you independently contacted me in the same couple of days and said, Os, why haven't you done something on Real Housewives yet? Everyone around my life seemingly is not just increasingly obsessed with the franchise as a whole, but also some of the drama that's been happening recently. So to me, this seems like a perfect time to delve into this series. But before we get to that drama, I want to ask each of you guys, when you first started watching Real Housewives and what sucked you into it, whether you were kind of gripped straight away or whether it took you a little while and maybe why you felt so drawn to it? Katie, might start with you. Tell me about your origin story with Real Housewives.

KATIE:
Yeah. Well, I originally started watching Real Housewives back in 2014, and I watched the very short lived Sydney series as well. But I didn't really get into Housewives as a franchise, probably until last year when I started watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in lockdown. And that sent me like turbo into Housewives world, and I was gripped straight away. 

Archival Tape -- KIM VS KYLE:

KATIE:
I think that it's tv that’s designed to be immediately gratifying, and it is immediately gratifying. So I was kind of hooked from the get go. 

OSMAN:
Gen, what about you? Tell me about your entrée into this world of rich women being housewives?

GEN:
I think I first was like aware of housewives kind of the same as yours, just from seeing people talking about it on social media. I generally love trash TV. And yet I got into it initially from The Real Housewives of Melbourne. Yeah, when that started a few years ago, I guess, because I find like the idea of Australian reality TV quite quaint still, like, I don't know, because it just seems like, like our country's still too small or something to be able to sustain it.

KATIE:
Like a dog walking on its hind legs.

GEN:
Exactly, exactly. It's like we’re play acting! And then same as Katie really got into Real Housewives of Beverly Hills during the pandemic. And I really like it because and reality TV in general, because there's just so many episodes, so you can just kind of spend like a whole day watching it. It is that initial like immediate gratification. But then also because of the volume of episodes, you get quite deep character development like you really get to know these people because you are literally spending 20 plus hours watching them over the course of one season, which I don't think you really get with a lot of other TV.

KATIE:
Yeah, fully, especially because, like Kate said, the Housewives have been on the show for over a decade. So obviously you just see them go through so much change and so much in their lives over that time and you get so invested in it. And you know, like there's like villainous characters in housewives and Housewives who you get to see have downfalls that are kind of delicious. But then you also see, you know, people redeem themselves and go through all this hardship. And I think more often than not, you kind of end up rooting for them and hope that they're OK.

So when Beverly Hills starts two of the Housewives on the show, Kim and Kyle Richards and they’re Paris Hilton's aunts, so immediately you kind of give a shit about them because you are already kind of aware of these people and it's an insight into that family. And then another housewife, Kelsey Grammer’s at the time wife. And so of course, you care about her as well. Yeah. So yeah, it's really easy to get into.

OSMAN:
Hearing you guys talk about it I definitely get it. And I'm obviously people who listen to the show know that I'm not someone who, you know, likes to think that they're above reality TV or have admitted to watching every episode of the Kardashians multiple multiple times. And I think it's interesting that both of you said you really fell into it during the pandemic and lockdowns. And yeah, like you, that's a moment in which you want to watch a lot of television because what else is there to do? But at the same time, you want TV that is kind of low stakes. It's stuff that you can have on and you can, you know, double screen and you can cook, you can clean and it's kind of always on there. And I get that as the appeal to it. But I also get the sense from talking to both of you, but also just the more, there’s discourse around Real Housewives, right? That's kind of meta conversations about what the show is actually about, what it means. And it seems to me that there is something a bit deeper about the show that makes it compelling or something about it that makes it different to a lot of other reality TV or even TV out there. I wonder whether or not you guys have thoughts on. Whether there's something beyond the kind of superficial engagement of just what these people are doing on screen, that adds some depth to the show makes it more compelling and watchable.

GEN:
Yeah, absolutely. I think what has stood out to me, especially in the first few seasons of Beverly Hills, is that there is entire storylines around the impacts of domestic violence, suicide, mental health, that kind of thing, which the way it's represented does feel very, it doesn't feel like they're trying to make a meal out of it, but it also feels very real to me and that people don't want to talk about these things and it does make it uncomfortable. And it does. And there's elements of drug addiction and things like that. 

Archival Tape -- KIM’S FIGHT AGAINST ALCOHOLISM:

GEN:
You're seeing these people in real time respond to these things in as an authentic way as you kind of can. You know, like it's the difference between the Kardashians, where in the later seasons you see Kim responding to Kanye West's breakdowns and things like that by saying, I don't want to talk about this, I don't want this on camera, that kind of thing where these shows kind of go there and laid into it for better or for worse. It does feel at times like too intimate and too much. But then I'm also like, you know, I'm not walking away being like, Wow, that was a really great lesson about that. But I also just feel like it feels in some way like way more humanising.

KATIE:
Yeah, fully, that domestic violence situation that's on Beverly Hills and one of the early seasons was the most kind of confronting and disturbing depiction that I've ever seen of intimate partner violence. And it really resonated in a way with me that I think a documentary or a scripted show just wouldn't. But I think like I think a lot of what some engaging is that you're seeing these women and the middle aged women as well who really never get to see on TV dealing with these issues that a lot of you know, middle age or older women face in their lives like their husbands, leaving them for a younger woman or their partner dying or, all this kind of intense stuff. And it's a way to kind of process it and talk about it with your friends. And yeah, but I feel like that's a big part of what makes it so, so engaging for me. 

OSMAN:
So tell me more about this storyline that you've both been discussing this the way that the show represented what you described Katie as one of the most visceral experiences of intimate partner violence you've seen on screen.

KATIE:
Yeah, so there's a housewife in the early seasons of Beverly Hills called Taylor, who is married to this man, Russell, and in season two of the show, it kind of gradually becomes apparent that he is abusing her. And there is a scene, there's a scene kind of towards the end of season two where you've probably seen the Lady Yelling at Cat Meme, which is, you know, that's the meme of a lady...

OSMAN:
It's a very iconic meme, yeah.

KATIE:
Very iconic meme. And so that's actually from Real Housewives. And the lady who's yelling at the cat is Taylor, who is the housewife who's in an abusive relationship. And that scene that that still image comes from is actually really upsetting scene. Because what's happening is she's yelling at another housemate who has just said on camera that Taylor's husband abuses her kind of for the first time. And Taylor is really very afraid and very distressed because she's like, You don't know what you've just done to me. Like, you just ruined my life because obviously her husband is going to see this on the show when it airs. And you know, it's going to be very unsafe for her. 

Archival Tape -- Real Housewives:
TAYLOR’S BREAKDOWN

OSMAN:
It's so weird that meme really hits different now. Like, obviously, I didn't think that that came from a woman actually yelling at a cat, but the cat and the context, it's all stripped. I mean, this is how memes work. It's completely devoid of context. But knowing how visceral the context is is a little bit distressing. I don't think that meme will hit the same for me now in the future.

GEN:
Yeah, you, you do watch like characters, not characters, people, but you keep thinking of them as characters.

KATIE:
I keep saying characters.

GEN:
But you keep seeing these people, these women drinking a lot and then that becomes the storyline. Oh, this woman is drinking a lot or she's a bit of a liability at parties and stuff, which of course, is encouraged by the producers. But then you find out later that it's literally a coping mechanism for being in an abusive relationship. And it's that kind of stuff you're like, Oh, I don't know if I should be watching this, but I'm, of course, going to continue watching and that kind of makes you complicit, I guess, I don't know. It's, I don't feel good about it, but then I'm also like, I'm glad that I watched it because I do feel like that's probably one of the more realistic representations of an intimate partner violence situation that I've seen on TV. It's not melodramatic. It's what's not being said, which is why it's so chilling.

OSMAN:
I guess this always comes up with these kinds of shows. This question of like, Is it feminist to watch this show? Are you a bad feminist for watching this show? Gloria Steinem has written and talked publicly about how she thinks that this show is not feminist. Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, has rebutted that.

Archival Tape -- ROXANNE GAY ON REAL HOUSEWIVES:

OSMAN:
I would love to know how you guys feel about that kind of discussion on this. Maybe we'll start with you, Katie. How do you feel as a feminist watching this kind of show?

KATIE:
I think Real Housewives is very feminist, and I think that Gloria Steinem, I would question whether she's even watched the show or how much she's watched, if she has seen any of it, because I feel like I think she said all she didn't like that they'd had plastic surgery and that they fight with each other because she thought it was a depiction of women being hateful towards each other. I think that's a very shallow reading of the show. I think that part of what is so great about Real Housewives is that it's about these, these middle aged women who firstly, we never see on TV ever. And we're not seeing them as these kind of secondary characters to their children or to their husbands. They're the stars of the show. And what the show is about is their female friendships with each other, like the men are totally secondary here. And I think that's a really rare thing in television and a really special thing. And like, definitely for me, part of the appeal of watching it is just getting to see these women live their lives for better or worse.

GEN:
Yeah, I don't think it's a perfect feminist show, but also would I want to watch a perfect feminist I like. Probably not. Sometimes as a feminist, you want to take off your feminist hat at the end of the day and just watch something dumb. A thing I really value about the show, which I think picking up on what Katie said about like, it is really about these central female relationships, these friendships and stuff, is the conflict. I don't think we see conflict modelled as well, sometimes between women as we do on The Real Housewives, and again, that is because of the producing of it, produces it going out to them and saying, hey, you need to go and tell this woman how you feel about us, speak to her directly about it. 

Archival Tape -- Real Housewives:
LISA AND KYLE

GEN:
I don't think we see that kind of conflict modelled as women. Usually it's talking, it's gossip behind people's back in that kind of thing. I find it very refreshing to see women going up to other women and being like, Hey, I want to talk to you about this thing you said about me, or why did you say this on Twitter about me? That kind of thing. I think it's refreshing and obviously not the most positive model. But I don't think everything has to be a lesson. I don't think that every bit of culture has to be something that makes me a better person. At the end of the day, I just like seeing things that are reflected back to me that are interesting, I guess.

OSMAN:
Yeah, I think that's really interesting and the kind of conversation it feels a bit reductive and it reminds me of that tweet from a few years ago. You know, it's like, is MasterCard a good feminist ally or whatever?

GEN:
Exactly.

OSMAN:
It's, you know, clearly neither of you are like becoming less feminist by watching this show.

GEN:
I don't know, man. I really like, thought about a lot of Botox since watching the show, and I'm into it.

OSMAN:
There’s nothing not feminist about having Botox, right, either.

GEN:
Yeah, I guess, I don’t know. I just feel like not everything has to be a lesson I don't think we have to like. I don't think that everything we engage with has to then make us a better person at the end of it. I think sometimes we can just like, have smooth brains and watch things and enjoy them for what they are, which is like colourful, splashy and emotional.

KATIE:
Yeah

GEN:
It centralises the experiences of women. So therefore it's like more probably more feminist than most things that we are watching. Yes. Yeah. And you're watching women at a certain age go through experiences that are specific to women being left for younger women. Depictions of intimate partner violence, raising children. Whether or not you want to have children, are you too old to have children? That kind of thing starting their own businesses, things like that, which I don't think are really depicted outside of reality TV.

OSMAN:
A lot of people I know are in specific group chats about this show. So you watch the show and this show like raises issues, and then what it's interesting to do is then talk to your friends about what came up. And it seems like half of that is about sharing gossip. And then half of that is about processing some of the heavy stuff that was on the show. Do you guys have your own experiences of that kind of way of watching the show?

KATIE:
I mean, I think that Brodie Lancaster, the writer, has a line which he said no one housewives alone like. It's a very social viewing experience. You've got to have your Housewives group chat to talk about it with your friends. And I think that's probably part of why it's been so big. I think for people in lockdown as well as it's kind of his way to connect with people when we're not having that much social connection.

GEN:
Yeah, it feels like it's like one of the few last collective experiences because it is so immediate, because some of it is so outlandish that you will see people's immediate reactions to it on social media. I kind of feel like it is in a similar way that people talk about sport.

KATIE:
Yeah!

GEN:
...We’ve all got our favourite players...and we and you know, the way that a football season or something has set in like semi-finals, that kind of thing. Like we have the girls trip and the reunion specials at the end, like, you know, these moments are coming through the season. And so you're all kind of gathering around and like watching the stats and comparing to the previous seasons and that kind of thing.

KATIE:
Yeah, absolutely.

GEN:
And then, yeah, and then saying the characters responding to how they're being spoken about, I don't know. Yeah, for me that kind of made me feel like I was kind of part of a community.

KATIE:
Yeah, definitely.

OSMAN:
We’ll be right back

[ AD BREAK ] 

OSMAN:
Hearing you guys talk about it, it's making me think why I haven't kind of fallen into this world quite as much. And it feels very overwhelming, like there's so many different franchises like I probably can’t list them all, but just off the top, my head. Beverly Hills. There's New York, there's Potomac, there's DC, there’s Salt Lake City, there's Johannesburg, there's Auckland, there's Melbourne. There was Sydney, there's Atlanta. There's a lot of these shows and a lot of them have a lot of seasons. And even, you know, when I remember when I started watching RuPaul's Drag Race, there's all these weird orders. People say you should watch them in. You know, it's like, don't start with season one, start with season four and then go to season seven and then go back and do one two three. It's like, Oh, I just want to watch TV. I don't want to solve this complicated riddle. Do you guys have favourite franchises?

KATIE:
I think my favourite ultimately is New York, but I think Beverly Hills is a great introduction to a lot of housewives, and it's kind of where I recommend people start with it because I just think it's so immediately engaging because of that celebrity element. And it's kind of, you know, It's got the glitz and glamour and the absurd wealth and everything. That is another part of what makes housewives fun.

GEN:
Yeah, for sure. I feel like if you want the glitz and glamour, you go to Beverly Hills, it's also you got, I think, the most seasons. So there is like a lot, if you...it's a lot to start with. I have such a soft spot for Melbourne because there's a bit of like mongrel in the woman.

KATIE:
Yeah, they’re feral, they’re feral.

Archival Tape -- Real Housewives of Melbourne:

GEN:
They’re feral! And also, there's just something so funny about being a rich person in Melbourne. Like when you compare it to the rich people in Beverly Hills, you know, it'd be like, it's just like people who are legends in their own lunch boxes living out of a narcissistic dream that you know what it means to be the richest woman in Toorak versus the richest woman in America. Like, it's just it's kind of amazing. And I do like that. I always point people to Beverly Hills, so I just think it is the gold standard. I think it's the platonic ideal of the franchise.

OSMAN:
Beverly Hills is one of the most popular franchises in the whole series. The 11th season is coming to an end. I've seen so much conversation about like these reunions that are happening. There is controversy. There's like there's drama on Real Housewives that's spilling over into the real world, though. I mean, I guess that's a strange way of putting it because the show is about the real world. But I guess I've seen, quote unquote serious news outlets, talk about some of the legal problems that are being had on the show right now. And it seems to me that what we're seeing in that season of Housewives is a perfect kind of encapsulation of what you guys are talking about, where the show can be light and fun and silly, but also raise these really serious questions about society and where these women sort of fit into it. It seems so complicated. I don't really know how much we can get into it in this podcast, but I'd love you. Maybe, maybe, Gen, do you want to kick off by just kind of giving us a bit of a run through about some of the players involved in this season of Beverly Hills and how we got to this point of, of this legal nightmare?

GEN:
I guess I would love to read you through it Os, because there's so much going on. All right. So I would say the central controversy in this season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is centred around a woman called Erika Jayne. That's her pop star name Erika Girardi. And she, I think, has been on the show for about four or five seasons at this point. Her whole thing is that she's a brassy former cocktail waitress who married like a 70 year old man and in her 40s decided to rebrand as a pop star, largely backed by her very, very rich husband. And she's always through the show, been very unapologetic about how wealthy she is. She has said previously, like, I spent about $40,000 a month on glam hair and makeup, clothes, that kind of thing. Flies her like glam squad everywhere with her private jets, that kind of thing.

OSMAN:
So far, so good. I love this. Get that bag...marry that rich guy and pivot to being a pop star.

KATIE:
Hold that thought.

GEN:
Yeah. And then halfway through the season, she kind of surprises everyone by saying she's getting a divorce from her husband, who through the show has largely been represented as endlessly doting and very, very supportive. And then about it feels like a minute later, both of them are embroiled in allegations of embezzling money from the families of victims of plane crashes.

OSMAN:
I take back what I said, don't, don't get that bag.

GEN:
Mm yeah. Mm hmm. So it's funny because then you're watching these housewives. Read this L.A. Times article basically detailing this huge fraud that their friend has, like, allegedly perpetrated.

##Archival Tape -- ERIKA JAYNE SCANDAL:

GEN:
Yeah. And so then they're all kind of questioning, Do we actually know this person, who is this person? And I guess as an audience, we're also doing the same. We've just spent four or five seasons watching her, believing that she's who she's representing herself to be. And then immediately undercutting it. If it was being written, if it was fiction you, it would be too flimsy. Like, you can't just make a character like evil in one fell swoop like that. People wouldn't go with it. But because it is, you're reading the same L.A. Times articles. You're saying the same Instagram post that they're all reacting to. So it just feels very the stakes have never been higher.

Archival Tape -- ERIKA JAYNE SCANDAL:

KATIE:
And I think it's that it's this thing that is part of what makes Housewives great is that you do get this pay off with characters. So yeah, we've had Erika on the show for a few years now, and it's mostly just been like fun with her. She hasn't really had any drama in her life. And now all of a sudden, we get to have this front row seat to her life, spectacularly imploding. And it's like, yes, like I put in the hours for this. Yes.

GEN:
It's like, I kind of compare it to the final season of The Sopranos. Like, I also started watching The Sopranos during pandemic, and it was one of those things where I never knew. I never really wanted to watch it because I guess how people talked about it, I was like, Oh, it just seems like too much, too dense. But by the end of the year, never point to a specific season of The Sopranos and go, you've got to watch this one because so much The Sopranos is about character development. It's about relationships. It's about getting to know like how their lives ebb and flow. And this feels like the final season of The Sopranos, where you're like, Wait a second, this person might have been evil all along. Like, This is crazy.

OSMAN:
I love that. Last week on the show, we did Succession, and I spent a long time talking about how it was like The Sopranos, so I like making this. A constant theme of this show is that it's like, how much is this show we're talking about like The Sopranos?

GEN:
The Sopranos element, yeah, it's just you, you really can't write it, and that's why I think it's so compelling. And also, you know, Erika Jane's life as it is being represented does seem like it's derailing, but it's also like it's still cushioned by a large amount of wealth. Like she's literally sitting at a dinner table being like, I have nothing. I'm like, my life is going down the drain, and she's wearing like a thousand dollar shirt from Kenzo or something, you know what I mean? Like, there's still this cushion that allows you to enjoy it as much as maybe that's not a good thing spiritually, but for entertainment purposes is very good

Archival Tape -- ERIKA JAYNE SCANDAL:

OSMAN:
If you are involved in some kind of embezzlement scandal. It seems very high risk to be on a TV show called The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and kind of show off your wealth and these extravagant displays of it. And it's really interesting, cause it feels like these universes are collapsing like both on this show and in the Kardashians. I think this thing that is becoming more and more the case as the seasons go on is we watch this stuff happen in the real world. We read these stories and then immediately it's like, Oh my God, I can't wait to see this reflected in the show in a couple of months time and then pick apart, you know, what's going on and see their reactions to it. Where are we up to in that kind of timeline, Katie? Like, How is the show capturing in real time? Like these consequences for Erika? Are there consequences for Erika? Like, how is this going to play out do you think?

KATIE:
So basically, what's happening in real life now is they're preparing the court case against her husband. So we're kind of waiting to see what is going to happen when he gets his day in court. Will he be found guilty? Will he not? And so Erika is in this kind of weird situation of anything she says on the show, like can and will be used against her in her time in court. 

Archival Tape -- ERIKA JAYNE SCANDAL:

##KATIE:
So she's kind of having to choose her words very carefully, but then also having the housewives, you know, kind of push her on details and kind of maybe tripping her up a bit on inconsistencies in her story. 

Archival Tape -- ERIKA JAYNE SCANDAL:

KATIE:
And that's like really thrilling. And then there's also all this talk right now of footage from the show and unaired footage industry being subpoenaed for the court case as well. So this drama is not just going to be this season like it's going to keep playing out probably for years to come on the show.

OSMAN:
I feel really bad for her lawyer. I don't know if you guys have ever been involved in any kind of legal trouble without going into details just in general terms. Any time you get caught up in anything like that, lawyers just like, don't say anything to anyone. The opposite of that is going on a reality TV show and talking about it multiple times.

KATIE:
Yeah. Well, the thing with Erika as well is that so Tom has declared bankruptcy and she's split from him. And so she's kind of saying, like, I don't have any money. So basically, you know and that is relative as Gen saying, for most of us, she was so heavy, but she is kind of relying on this salary from Housewives now, like, that's really all she has. So she's in this weird position of, like potentially incriminating herself by being on the show, but also needed in salary, but also wanting to use the show as the way to kind of try and prove her innocence and come off as the jilted wife who had no idea that all this was going on. So she's got a lot of balls in the air right now.

GEN:
I just think it's so compelling because again, it's kind of like why we like True Crime podcasts, because all the evidence now is out there. We can go back through the seasons and rewatch, like her interactions with Tom, the way she talks about money, how like, she doesn't really ever address any of this stuff in the moment, but now is kind of rewriting the history of it. Plus, we are seeing these Instagram posts where she is just flaunting her wealth. But then on the show being like, I've got to do it because I have to keep my head up, you know, I think it also just says something about where American society is at the moment. And maybe that's also why it's not as jarring to watch is that because Americans are so obsessed with wealth and perception and that kind of thing, you really are. It feels like you're watching them rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship. You know what I mean? Like, who cares what you look like if you're about to, like, get thrown into a court case where you potentially might have embezzled money from the victims of like plane crashes? But it is that kind of thing where it's amazing to watch these people just persist in these representations of themselves, and they have as much control of it as they want. You know what I mean? They are self producing as they go, and they'll kind of use this idea that Andy Cohen, who’s like the producer of all these Bravo shows and like the creator of the franchise, as if he's going to give them a good or bad edit. But ultimately, it's their participation in it like it's a real established machine at this point. And yeah, it's just, I love it. It's really keeping me going.

OSMAN:
The show has been around for a decade, over a decade now, and as you're saying, Gen, America has gone through a lot of change in that time, and I'm really interested in your perspectives on how like a show airing and we talk about us with Gossip Girl as well, like the original Gossip Girl when it aired in 2007, aired in a time I kind of before the global financial crisis, when we were all a little bit more willing to just indulge rich people doing silly things on television and Real Housewives, you know, it was sort of similar around that. I wonder whether or not you guys think that has changed and is there more? Is it trickier now? Is it more complicated to watch these people or live lives that are extravagantly wealthy and or is it? That's not really the point of the show. It's like cool. I don't like rich people, but that's not going to stop me from looking at their lives and seeing what's going on in that world.

KATIE:
I think that when the show started, because I think it started in 2006 so like Gossip Girl kind of just before the GFC. It kind of was this way to look at like the spectacle of wealth and be like, Look at these people, you know, spending $40,000 on it for your birthday party, whatever. And I think over time, the show has kind of evolved at like, obviously the people on there are still absurdly wealthy, but that's kind of not the point of it anymore. It's about the relationships between these women and their lives, and the fact that they're rich is kind of just like the background setting to it. If that makes sense?

GEN:
Yeah, there's something nice about seeing that people can be unhappy at any tax bracket.

KATIE:
Absolutely, absolutely!

GEN:
Yeah, I do feel like the show has changed in recent years where maybe there is a kind of complicit understanding that this wealth does come at a cost. And I feel like the way that they've tried to address that is by bringing in, you know, the first African American housewife, the first Asian housewife on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills to try and bring a conversation about race into it. And depending on how you see it, it's either backfired or gone spectacularly.

OSMAN:
What do you mean by that in the sense that it's like it's really terrible and awkward, but it's great television?

GEN:
Yeah, it definitely feels like someone at a network somewhere has been like, Oh, Black Lives Matter is a thing. We should bring in someone who can talk about it because we're going to lose our relevance if we don't. But then also, these women have never really been confronted by their own privilege, and you're seeing some of these conversations play out. There's a conversation between Crystal Kung Minkoff and Sutton, where basically Sutton Stracke, a white woman, says, I don't really see race. I don't really see colour to an Asian American woman.

Archival Tape -- CRYSTAL AND SUTTON ON RACE:

GEN:
And I don't think it's ever occurred to Sutton that maybe that it was like quite a diminishing thing to say. I am sure, like a lot of white people who have probably said that to people of colour, they don't mean it as a minimising thing. They mean it as a positive thing. But watching women at that stage in their lives, like middle aged women, women at that level of privilege have to grapple with that, that maybe they are complicit in something that they haven't seen. You know, if there's a lot of other housewives being like, I have black friends, I have Asian and it's just like a bit of a car crash. I was talking to a friend of mine who another woman of colour was saying, like, it's interesting to watch women at this level of privilege have those conversations with white women because every woman of colour has had to have that conversation with a white woman. And that conversation doesn't change again at whatever tax bracket you're at. But what I like about the show is that they're not trying to learn anything out of it. Then it's more just about the awkwardness of that conversation, rather than them all walking away better people.

OSMAN:
That's actually really interesting, because again, to go back to Gossip Girl, you know, the reboot of the show seemed like it was trying so hard to engage in this, you know, post Black Lives Matter world by introducing characters of colour and discussions around race and identity. And I mean, to be honest, I thought that was an appalling decision. Like, if I want to watch a show about that, I'll watch a show about that. The point of a show like Gossip Girl is just rich. People from the Upper East Side live their weird lives, and you don't need to shoehorn that into it. And in some ways I'm glad that this movement kick started these conversations in America because it certainly didn't really happen in Australia. But at the same time, I do sort of feel a bit like, Wow, so George Floyd gets killed by the police. There's these huge protests about why we need to abolish the police and rebuild society in a way that's much more equal and less discriminatory. And then the end outcome of that conversation is now there's a black Real Housewife on Beverly Hills.

GEN:
Yeah, exactly! But I think again, it's like the franchise isn't trying to say like, Oh, and from having these conversations will make America a better place. They’re just saying, Oh yeah, maybe there's always been a darkness at the heart of wealth and this kind of wealth that revitalised. And here we're going to set up situations where these women are going to trip over themselves.

KATIE:
Yeah, I just think Bravo’s in this kind of funny position where they make reality shows that are really primarily kind of silly escapism, but they're still reality. So they have to acknowledge these giant things happening in the country and in the lives of these people. And so they're kind of trying to tread this line of not pretending that Black Lives Matter hasn't happened, but also not making the show too heavy. And yeah, like it's a difficult balance to strike. And I don't know if they've done it that well yet, but it is interesting to watch.

OSMAN:
We’ll be right back.

[ AD BREAK ]

OSMAN:
Both of you mentioned before that the kind of local versions of these franchises, Melbourne and Sydney, I'm really surprised that Sydney didn't succeed because when I think about the concept of this show and I think about the class of people who would be amazing to follow around, I think of like, you know, Sydney's eastern suburbs or North Shore, it just seems so ripe for something like this. Why do you think Sydney didn't work and do you think there's a way that it could and are there any people that you would love to see on a Sydney version of Real Housewives?

GEN:
Obviously, Katie and I should be on the Real Housewives.

KATIE:
Genuinely my life goals you're getting on that show. I mean, I think like the not deep answer to this question is just that the casting wasn't that good for Sydney. And this is because, as I said, the show is really about these women and their lives and their relationships with each other. The goodness of the show really hinges on the casting being strong, and if it's just a bit off, it doesn't really work. And I feel like that was what happened with Sydney.

GEN:
Like I was saying earlier, I think there's something still very quaint about Australian reality TV shows, and I think I find them quite hard to watch because, conflict, it so easily gets represented as like really dark and picking up on what Katie was saying with the casting for Sydney included like Lisa Oldfield, David Oldfield’s wife. And so when you're watching these women, it's not. I don't know the way that they have conflict with each other, which is such a central theme of these shows. It just feels darker. I don't know why, but it just feels like it hits a lot harder. 

KATIE:
I do remember hearing that Sydney didn't get exported overseas because they thought it was too feral for international audiences.

GEN:
Yeah, it just felt like it just felt like bullying. It just felt really dark.

OSMAN:
I mean it feels very Sydney in a very Australian way for the wife of the co-founder of One Nation to be on this TV show.

GEN:
Yes, exactly. And again, I think it's just for us. There's not enough of a cushion of wealth or something to want to indulge people like that because I think we're all still living through the very real impacts of what these people do, you know?

OSMAN:
Yeah, it's so it's the thing with Australia, it's so insular. So it's not even like, Wow, how do these people live? It's like, we know these people, they're around too much and I don't want to see them more. I think there's this other thing with Australian reality TV in general, and it was really brought home for me when Queer Eye did that, did that episode in Australia. Australians suck at talking and emoting and just conversing, and you watch that show. You watch any American reality show Americans, probably because they've been consuming reality TV for decades. Are so good at being able to talk and relate and converse and create conflict and navigate conflict. And then when you watch that Australian version of Queer Eye, which is such a beautiful and emotional show, it's like this dad and the son just staring at each other, grunting and then and the hosts are like, Can you guys talk? And it's like, Thanks, dad. Yeah, no worries, son. This is bad television.

GEN:
It's like Americans are born media trained like because of sort of like such an individualist culture. They're all aspiring to be millionaires. Like, they all truly believe that like, they are going to be a millionaire if they simply just do the right thing or like, you know, x y z, right? Whereas Australians, I think we just well, yeah, like in it, put it in a basic way. I think our tall poppy syndrome kicks in and we don't want to make a big deal about ourselves. And then when you see people making a big deal about themselves in Australia, you're like, Oh, well, what are you? Who cares? But you know what I mean? Like, we instantly get that our backs up about it, and it just feels dark and weird.

KATIE:
I think Australians are too self-conscious to be that shameless, shameful, shameful. Yeah, we are a shameful people.

OSMAN:
The last thing I wanted to ask you guys and it's about where someone like me or anyone listening to the show who now feels compelled to watch because I certainly do should start. And I kind of feel like your answers are like you just got to watch it all. And it does seem like you do get these payoffs for being invested in these characters for a very long time. But yeah, like me, I'm pretty overwhelmed. I don't know whether I want to watch, but I don't know what the hell where Potomac is. I don't know whether I want to watch it or I want to watch Salt Lake City or Beverly Hills. Start with Melbourne maybe like, do you guys have thoughts on where is a nice place for a newbie to kick off the show?

KATIE:
Yeah, I think Beverly Hills is a great starting point. Just because, it's the first couple of seasons of that show was so good, so much happens and it's got that celebrity element in it. So you, you come in caring about these people straight away in a way that maybe wouldn't as much with the other franchises.

GEN:
Yeah, I'm the same. I think Beverly Hills, it's like flashy. It's loud, come in early as well. You've also do have those kind of darker storylines going on that do kind of emotionally grip you a bit more. I would say even start season four and then go into season five of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills because season five of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is one of the best seasons of television I've ever seen in my entire life.

KATIE:
That Amsterdam episode, my god.

GEN:
The Amsterdam episode, there's nothing better. And once you see the Amsterdam episode of season five of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, you'll start seeing it in everything else. It's kind of like The Matrix, like, once you know about it, you start seeing it being reflected in wider culture.

OSMAN:
That's a great way to wrap up, because now I really want to watch the season and this episode. Katie and Gen, thanks so much. What a wonderful, fascinating conversation.

GEN:
Thanks Os.

KATIE:
Thanks for having me.

OSMAN:
The Culture is a weekly show from Schwartz Media.

It's produced by Bez Zewdie and Atticus Bastow. Our editor-in-chief is Erik Jensen, and our theme music is by Hermitude.

I’m Osman Faruqi, see ya next week.

 

Host

Osman Faruqi is a journalist and the editor of 7am, Schwartz Media’s daily news podcast.

Guest

Gen Fricker Comedian