Take 5 or 6 women. Place them in glamorous social situations. Throw in a couple free trips to glitzy tropical locations. Toss in one or two sassy gay friends, a few rocky marriages, a betrayal, an abundance of lies, an adorable pet, a despicable attention seeker, a whirlwind reunion special and over-the-top fashion, and voila – you have America’s newest favorite past time, the Real Housewives franchise. With baited breath, millions across the United States find themselves indulging in the greatest national guilty pleasure of the last decade. The Real Housewives and each of their subsequent cities (in chronological order: Orange County, New York, Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and Miami) have proven themselves a cornerstone of the camp world. Whether it’s a drag re-enactment or as the stars of the pop video of year, the Real Housewives have cemented themselves as an important cornerstone to discussions on all things queer. I want to make the case that the Real Housewives, on its significantly large platform as a prominent facet of popular culture, is wholly queer with its unique representation of queer characters, large queer key demographic, and gay production leadership.
Inspired by the massive success of ABC’s Desperate Housewives, Bravo introduced the first incarnation of the franchise, the Real Housewives of Orange County in March 2006. Bravo as a network was consistently known as the place of gay/lesbian skewing shows with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy consistently heralded as their prime money maker. The first Real Housewives of all time included Kimberly Bryant, Jo De La Rosa, Vicki Gunvalson, Jeana Keough, and Lauri Waring.
From the get-go, RHOC (as it is colloquially known) played with over-sexualized tropes and blurring of gender norms. In the pilot of it’s first season, viewers were introduced to sparring couple Jo and Slade. Jo was young and full of life, craving intense sexual experiences and the freedom to do as she pleased within the domestic space her partner often relegated her to. For all of his conditioning towards keeping Jo in a domestic space where she would care for him and his son (one she always seemed to rebel against), reinforcing his perceived version of “masculinity”, Slade represented iconically “gay” tendencies and was introduced as the paradigm for the burgeoning “metrosexual” identity. In the pilot of the first season, we saw Slade naked multiple times emerging from the shower, engaging in various skin care routines, and discussing his bygone modeling days. It is interesting to note, seeing as Bravo’s key demographic at the time was affluent gay men, the juxtaposition between Slade’s archaic ideals of masculinity and his “metrosexual” identity and the unnecessary justification he provides for their coexistence. In addition, Slade’s role in the first season played with gender roles in a parenting sense, as a large focus was on his caring and nurturing for his children as Jo went out to clubs and partied with her girlfriends. This reversal of stereotypically maternal characteristics can be identified as queering of the gender norms.
With RHOC, Bravo hinted at subtle queer realities in a tongue-in-cheek way, allowing queer audiences to interpret as they chose. But queerness was taken to an entirely new level with the introduction of the franchise’s next incarnation, the Real Housewives of New York City. While there are several representations of characters in the series whose actions/behavior could be read as queer (Bethenny Frankel’s embodiment of characteristically “lesbian”/masculine tendencies, Ramona Singer’s manipulation of linear narratives of time and space), season 3 addition Sonja Morgan can continuously be identified as the entire franchise’s most queer-skewing character. Judith Halberstam presents the argument that “queerness…has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space,” indicating the queer individuals exist in spaces that run perpendicular to “normative” standards.
Sonja, ex-wife of JP Morgan heir Harry Morgan, rebels against any linear timeline/structure of behavior. Engaging in near-hedonistic levels of sex, the series continuously presents her as a character confident and proud of her sexuality. Her ability to prolong a sense of adolescence and remain in a period of sexual liberation, freedom, and exploration far beyond what is societally acceptable characterizes her as queer to a certain extent. Her relationship with best friend Ramona Singer is often playful, yet hyper-sexualized. The show finds the two of them often fondling each other, announcing their sexual attraction, watching each other in various states of undress, and engaging in sexually liberated activities. Many of the other housewives criticize Sonja’s behavior as being immature or problematic but her large-scale embrace of this sexualized behavior is queer behavior at its most prominent.
Sonja’s sexual identity is markedly heterosexual and references are made constantly to her sexual desire of men, but as Judith Butler mentions, her gender practices still seem to thematize “the natural” in parodic contexts that bring into relief the performative construction of gender itself. In an anti-aging treatment in which she sits with Ramona (clad only in underwear), she boldly exclaims “Stop it! You’re making me horny!” In another example, on a trip to St. Bart’s, Sonja brings home a man significantly younger than her and indicates certain sexual practices (BDSM among a few others) that are definitely far from the normative heterosexual practices. One of the cornerstones of her time on the series are her noted burlesque cabaret performances, categorized by their complete over-the-top campiness and explicitly sexual content. Oftentimes, she performs this behavior for a sense of comic relief, mocking the very constructs that she feels force her to behave a certain way because she’s a heterosexual woman, and provides the show with a reprieve from the cattiness and toxic drama that sometimes envelops it.
With a voracious and healthy sexual appetite and a proclivity towards younger men, Sonja embodies certain stereotypically male tendencies and is careless in her embrace of these facets. Recently, in the show’s sixth season, Sonja rejects the idea of monogamy, dating several men at the same time, unapologetic for her sexual relations with each of them; a concept that many would argue is intrinsically queer. One of her largest story lines this season is her relationship with 23 year old real estate developer, almost twenty years younger than her. Her consistent rejection of patriarchal normative standards has her consistently heralded among viewers of the show as a “gay icon.” It is rare, in a series with such wide reach and scope, to see a character that so explicitly “dramatizes the incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire” (Jagose, 3).
Speaking of Jagose’s theory about the nature of queerness, it is integral to discuss the third and most popular incarnation of the franchise, the Real Housewives of Atlanta. There are arguments to be made about the innate queerness of some of the characters (Nene Leakes’s manipulation of gender roles, her refusal to cooperate with “image appropriate” fashion standards, etc.) but most interesting in this series, is the representation and visiblity of its gay characters. Gay culture in Atlanta, or at least the Housewives’ Atlanta, is uniquely different from most places. Here, it seems gay men (referred to as Judy(s) by the woman of Atlanta) serve as a sounding board and beautician for their female friends, to give them sassy words of advice, or to gently assist in stirring the pot of the story line. If we are to extoll the franchise for their portrayal of Sonja’s boldly queer character in RHONY, it’s important to criticize the reductive representation of gay/trans* people in RHOA’s world. In a startling example, self-proclaimed gay icon, Nene Leakes used the word “queen” to derogatorily refer to a fellow cast mate’s gay friend after a fight broke out at one of her parties in a recent episode. In the world of RHOA, gay men serve only to applaud the tactics of the women on the show and are completely one-dimensional characters with no story arcs of their own.
Perhaps most problematic however is the representation of Atlanta’s resident queer character, Miss Lawrence. Miss Lawrence is a gender-ambiguous character, who is often referred to as a man, but prefers to be addressed as a woman (something the other women on the show often fail to recognize, or mock in doing so). Miss Lawrence’s only purpose is comic relief and to throw in a couple sassy head nods and “bitch, PLEASEs”. The show offers no other dimensional representations of the character, relegating him to just that – a character. As a result of the audience’s favorable reception to Miss Lawrence, Bravo awarded her a Fashion Police-esque show entitled Fashion Queens. Still however, the network makes no attempt to dispel the stereotype surrounding these “queens”.
Despite a lot of the progressive work of the series in its representation of gay/queer characters, a lot of work remains to be done. Lesbian and bisexual representation has been weak or not nuanced enough (although the most recent season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills made significant strides in its representation of queer characters Carlton Gebbia and Brandi Glanville and Real Housewives of New Jersey recently gave a beautiful and complex story to lesbian sister Rosie). In addition, several of the characters on the other series often have anti-gay/anti-queer sentiments by way of ignorance (RHONJ’s Joe Giudice’s several comments and problematic language). But in the end, the franchise can be deemed slightly progressive for it birthed the first openly gay late night talk show host and its representation of diversity and a vast variety of different sexualities. Certain aspects of the Housewives franchise are irrevocably queer, whether by interpretation or by actuality.
Butler, Judith. “Preface.” Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. N. pag. Print.
Jagose, AnnaMarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 2010. Print.