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Why We Can't Stop Watching "The Real Housewives"

Why We're Fascinated by the Drama & Decadence of Reality Television

I've always felt secretly guilty about watching Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” and occasionally, its 20-something spinoff “Vanderpump Rules.” Would the superficial shenanigans of these privileged, Botoxed divas kill brain neurons or lead me to be ostracized by my Ph.D. peers? Therefore, I was surprised (and secretly, delighted) to find out that I’m not alone among my intellectual counterparts in watching this pink, frilly eye candy. A survey of over 200 people by my Psychology Today colleague Steven Reiss, found that people with intellectual interests were equally as likely to watch reality TV as those without an intellectual bent. “Well, who woulda known?” Of course, we psychologists can always use the excuse that we’re watching the Housewives merely to practice our skills at diagnosing mental health problems. [We’re not really allowed to diagnose real people we’ve never met, but if we see these women as Bravo-created characters, they may be fair game]. Today's post suggests some (humorous) reasons why we so fascinated by the Housewives' status-seeking escapades?

(1) Voyeurism & Envy

We get a peek through “The Magic Window” into the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for Being Famous. Though we know from research that money doesn’t lead to happiness beyond the level at which basic needs are met, we all love to get a peek inside the palace walls, so to speak. From the sparkling, huge infinity pool and panoramic view from Lisa Vanderpump’s garden, to the Arabian tiled halls of Mohamed Hadid’s 48,000 square foot, 58 million dollar Crescent Palace, the Housewives and their posse live amid an extravaganza of magnificence. Lisa’s gigantic, designer shoe-filled, meticulously organized walk in closet is the size of most people’s houses – leading us to feel the whole range of emotions, from envy to disgust. Being a part of this privileged altered universe is much more fun than our daily routine of bills and laundry.

(2) Six Degrees of Separation from Celebrities

Los Angeles is a city built on celebrity and the movie industry. It’s the ultimate “It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who Your Agent Lunches With” type of town. Watching The Real Housewives feels like we’re on the inside – part of the “Cool Crowd,” – thus making up for that 8th grade angst of being the class nerd or last to be picked for the volleyball team. The Beverly Hills Housewives are just a heartbeat or two away from legendary Hollywood royalty. Kyle’s good friend Marissa Zanuck, is the cool daughter in law of the legendary Richard Zanuck, producer of “Jaws.” whose father, Daryl Zanuck built 20th Century Fox studio. And Kyle and Kim Richards’ other sister just happens to be Kathy Hilton, husband of Rick, the owner of the Hilton hotel chain, and mom of the infamous Paris Hilton – known for her blonde hair, long legs, sex tape, and ‘blinged out” miniature dogs. New Housewife Yolanda Foster’s ex-husband is Mohammed Hadid, designer of the splendiferous Ritz Carlton hotel chain. And her husband David Foster is a Grammy-winning songwriter and record producer for celebrities of the ilk of Barbra Streisand and Madonna. Kyle’s new store designer is the scary Faye Resnick – outspoken friend of Nicole Brown Simpson who was tragically murdered by O.J. Simpson who lived on Rockingham Drive in the 1990s. Watching Real Housewives allows you to catch up with virtual “old friends” (or people we love to hate!).

(3) Sex & Scandal

Watching The Real Housewives is like reading the tabloids – the really juicy, sordid magazines we’re too embarrassed to buy at the supermarket checkout stand. Each season audience members vicariously enjoy the shock and thrill of outrageous social boundary violation. This season, bathroom sex seems to be in vogue – whether it’s Brandi Glanville’s bathroom sex romp with movie star Gerard Butler at Kyle Richards’ pristine White Party or Vanderpump Rules’s Jax Taylor’s lusty bathroom sex with ex-meth addict Laura Lee at SUR (Sexy Urban Restaurant) owned by Lisa Vanderpump. How many of us could afford to risk our jobs and dignity – or would wish to – by doing the dirty in the germ-filled bathroom at work. “Eeeeugh!” we can say in self-righteous disgust as we unwrap another chocolate while fast forwarding through the tiresome commercials to get to the next juicy tidbit!

(4) Over the Top Indulgence

What would our worlds be like without limits – if we had endless supplies of money, assistants, good taste, and time – and a posse of glamorous girlfriends to share it with? We could strive for perfection in body, mind, and spirit – not to mention in house, clothing, and organization, youth, beauty, and career, marriage, motherhood, and entertaining (if you’re into that kind of stuff). While the reality of maintaining such a perfect image – and having cameras rolling on every moment of your life - would probably be pretty miserable, it’s fascinating and rather tragic, to watch the Housewives spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery, cellulite removal, party planners, travelling zoos for kids’ parties, designer shoes, Hermes Birkin bags, and so on. On the other hand, considering the army of personal assistants, nannies, therapists, psychics, energy healers, feng shui practitioners, hair and makeup artists, designers, and the like, these women sure are doing their patriotic share to stimulate the national economy!

(5) Social Hierarchy Shifts

Like many other mammals, we humans are genetically wired to form social hierarchies – with the alpha males and females at the top getting access to the prime cuts while the rest of us fight over the crumbs. The fascinating thing about hierarchies – whether in Beverly Hills or the animal kingdom, is that they keep changing. There are always those plotting to overthrow the King (or Queen Bee) and to recruit other characters into secret or not so secret alliances. There is always someone younger, more beautiful, rich, talented, or socially shrewd waiting to step on stage.

(6) Revenge & Redemption

Part of the fascination of Real Housewives is watching the heavy punishment meted out for disloyalty. “Things have changed,” Queen Bee” Lisa Vanderpump mouths to the cameras, as she continues to give Kyle Richards the cool treatment for not defending her against Adrienne Maloof and Camille Grammer’s attacks. There’s a benevolent aspect to the fluidity as well – heretofore enemies can become firm friends as they discover they share similar struggles. Witness the now sober and newly spiritual Kim Richards bonding with arch-enemy Brandi Glanville over single-mom struggles. The continual opportunity for redemption is another uplifting theme. We humans love nothing better than welcoming a reformed sinner back into the fold – be it Kim Richards in recovery or Brandi Glanville apologizing for yet another uncensored, offensive outburst.

Final Thoughts

There’s much more to say and psychoanalyze about The Housewives, which is why it’s become a multi-million dollar franchise – with new series, new Housewives, and new cities being continually rolled out to the delight of eager fans. There’s the narcissism of conspicuous consumption and wanting to be in the spotlight. And there’s the fact that what you see is a manufactured reality, carefully edited and spliced together around themes scripted by the producers. And what about the transformation of the term “Housewife” from it’s mid-19th century focus on domesticity and running the household, to a term synonymous with “girlfriend” or “posse member?” Whether married or single, a mother or childless, rich or poor, working mom or stay at home spouse, friend or enemy, all the women are known as “Housewives.” And there’s something refreshingly unifying, and transformational about that!

About The Author Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a licensed Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Media, Celebrity,and Relationships. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, life, weight loss, or career coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples in her Mill Valley office and, on a limited basis, via distance technologies. Visit her website: Follow her on twitter @drmelanieg Like her on Facebook Read her Psychology Today blog & personal blog

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