The Real Housewives is sociological (I swear it is)

While in graduate school, I missed the boat on so many cultural touchstones.  There are new television shows, musicians, reality stars or movies with which I am only vaguely familiar.  For example, I know Mad Men is critically acclaimed but I know virtually nothing about the show.  I saw Jon Hamm for the first time in the movie Bridesmaids (and I saw that on DVD well after it was out of the theaters) and my husband had to tell me he was the lead player in Mad Men.  I am not even lying when I tell you that Gagnum Style (and the various parodies of the Psy music video) had been circulating for many months before the song reached my consciousness.

It’s hard to avoid some of the junk like Jersey Shore or the Kardashians.  I object to the former on the grounds that it’s an entirely inaccurate portrayal of my home state, while the latter is just a confusing mess of über pretty folks (I may never be able to distinguish one Kardashian from another).  I’m not sure that it’s worth getting up to speed on all of them, but some “cultural” touchstones (and I’m using this term loosely) have hung around all through graduate school.

Since our cable company changed our station numbering many months ago (and I thank them for it), I have also stopped watching most television because the only channel I know is Bravo.  And thus it was inevitable that I would somehow fall into the rabbit hole that is The Real Housewives of Orange County.

OC Housewives (

OC Housewives (

I know about the show and its various spinoffs (New York, Atlanta, Miami, New Jersey–NJ is especially objectionable) because Bravo promotes the pants off of the franchise.  I have always thought that the show was pretty shallow and contrived.  And I am fully aware that skilled editing can make a three-second spat into a three episode arc, so I am under no allusions that I’m watching anything other than a fantasy.  I would watch it for a little while if I caught it on my lunch hour, but I never actually watched the show when it aired.  I felt a little self-righteous about that–if I didn’t watch it when it aired, then I wasn’t an actual fan, right?

I am reticent to admit that this current season of The Real Housewives of OC, I have watched nearly every episode.  Intentionally.  I realized the other night that I was sneaking around to catch up.  I would wait until my husband went to bed to cue up the latest episode On Demand or slip in half an episode folding laundry while the kids napped.  When the retrospective aired a week ago, I was kind of excited to watch it.  It sucked me into its vortex.

Maybe it’s because I’m playing part-time housewife as I transition from grad school life to full-time professor this summer.  Maybe it’s because I love seeing their fancy lifestyle.  Really, though, I think the show is so sociological.  It’s a “real-life” example of the complexity of social class, and I can’t stop watching because I am intrigued by the relationship between social class and money for these women.  These women have money which affords them experiences and opportunities that regular folks simply do not have.  But their money does not translate into an understanding of the unwritten social norms around high society.

I haven’t always watched the show but my interest in this season piqued considerably because of one housewife in particular. Heather Dubrow.

Heather Dubrow (

Heather Dubrow (

Dubrow is an east-coast transplant in Orange County.  She lives in a palatial estate (there’s an elevator and don’t get me started on the view from the yard) and everything about her screams high society.  She embodies a “classical” definition of gentility, and in her interviews with producers, explains her frustrations with the other women who do not seem to inhabit the same class stratosphere.  Heather serves as a foil to her fellow housewives, many of whom have money but not the class to back it up.  Married to a prominent plastic surgeon, she is the ultimate cliché but she also walks the OC walk.  The other ladies recognize that she is “fancy pants”–a nickname befitting of a princess hailing from Chappaqua, New York.  These women accumulate wealth and status symbols, but Heather’s presence provides a clear distinction between the women on the show.

She disapproves of the ladies behaving badly, keeping out of the trash-talking, insult-heaving fray as best as possible.  In her interviews, she bemoans the ladies’ lack of finesse and tact in certain uncomfortable situations.  For instance, on a trip to Mexico in a recent episode to celebrate the pending nuptials of one housewife, she appears embarrassed that her fellow housewives seem ungrateful and nonplussed by the gourmet dinner she arranged for them.  While she dines happily on four-star fare, the other ladies gripe and complain that their surroundings are downright boring and the food was too fancy.  She grits her teeth through the meal, astounded that the other women are not quietly grateful and rolls her eyes every time there is a mention of hitting up a dive bar for a night-cap after their dinner.

Having watched every episode, I cannot believe that I’ve stuck it out for nearly the entire season.  I don’t think I will ever convince my husband that the show is anything but garbage.  He may be right.  Still, it’s the guilty pleasure I can’t deny right now.  I need something silly (and guilty) to balance the serious nature of the things I study.  Season’s end cannot come quickly enough.

About rglw

Sociologist mom writes for work and for pleasure.
This entry was posted in culture, guilty pleasures, media, personal, procrastinating, television, women. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Real Housewives is sociological (I swear it is)

  1. her30s says:

    I just watched Dance Moms… Just as bad, just as embarrassing. My excuse was that I was on vacation. Enjoy!

  2. RITA S GALE says:

    I can’t stand these shows, the sight of women fighting on such trivial things remind me of why I don’t watch TV…but oh they have such lovely luscious hair……

  3. Blech.

    The fact that something is sociological is not enough reason to support it, and by watching it, you support it and help to perpetuate it. If you are interested in the way that money and social class interact, read The Rise of Silas Lapham. Or The Great Gatsby. Or Memoirs of a Geisha. Or Nickled and Dimed.

    Since I know what books YOU’RE NOT READING, you should have plenty of time for one of these. 🙂

    The Real Housewives? Seriously?

    And have you read anything on the production of reality TV? Read what former producers of reality television have to say about it. Much of it is scripted. Much of it is re-shot for greater effect. Much of it is predetermined. Much of it is presented in the way the producers think is best, even when it doesn’t portray the reality of the people or the moment.

    It’s only sociological if you’re wondering about the sociological views of the producers.

    I shouldn’t judge, since I’ve never seen the show, but sometimes a pig is a pig. You don’t need to look too closely to tell.

    This was harsh. But some things cannot be allowed to stand without vocal opposition.

    Tell me David isn’t watching…

    • rglw says:

      Pretty harsh, buddy. Did you read the part where I said I was sneaking around to watch? I was implying a little shamefulness. Also, did I say I thought it was real? I use quotation marks in a few places to signal my understanding of the genre. When I teach about things like social and cultural capital to my students, I find myself challenged to get them to understand things like unwritten rules or social networks without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. The Housewives show provides this cast of “characters” who contrast one another in terms of social class and social mobility. Sure, it’s garbage, but I didn’t say I watch every show Bravo airs.

      Husband is not watching, sir. Jeez.

  4. I find reality TV fascinating. FASCINATING! I gravitate toward the ones where ppl come into a situation and solve other people’s problems. At first it reminded me of consulting, and now I think it’s also a bit like coaching. And so no wonder. I’m training to be a coach now, and have worked in consulting, too. I want my own TV show one day! haha! How fun would that be? Clearly, some shows are worse than others… but that just means some are better than most! Yay silly/sociological TV!

  5. kei-chan says:


    as a fellow Jersey girl who cannot stand Jersey Shore and all things Kardashian, and also as someone who has lived in a cultural vacuum for ten years of my life, i am proud to say that i have never watched a single episode of the Real Housewives franchise. i spent eight years living in a monastery with no TV, and prior to that i lived out of the country, so there’s that. and you are only the second-to-last person to find out what Gangnam Style is. (i thought it had something to do with Thai food until i Googled it last year.)

    BUT! i have been secretly hatewatching every single episode of Pretty Wicked Moms on Lifetime (I KNOW!), and i am SO EMBARRASSED AND ASHAMED. all of my friends who are moms tell me it’s okay, and that no matter how lofty your cultural standards may have been once upon a time, pregnancy/motherhood changes everything. my brightest friends all reported a marked drop in their standards re: tasteful media consumption when their huge pregnant asses were stuck on that couch during those final months, and i am certainly no exception. the quality of programming viewed postpartum is just as dire, as we need something cheap and fluffy to hold our attention during 3am feedings and/or pumping sessions.

    still, my head hangs low with indignity, and you are the only person IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE that i am confessing my secret to, although i do believe that intelligent people whose lives are otherwise stocked with heavy fare are entitled to a “Get Out of Judgement Free” coupon for occasional guilty pleasures.

    that said, PLEASE DO NOT EVER watch Pretty Wicked Moms, because doing so will make you want to stab your eyeballs out and bleach your brain afterwards. it is sociological in all the ways you describe RHoOC, but i just can’t bring myself to use that as an excuse, probably because i’m not an academic.

    anyway, thank you for making me feel less alone in my occasional consumption of toxic television. i don’t really feel vindicated, but more like i have a companion with whom i can share my prison cell of guilt and ignominy.

    perhaps ironically, i also watch Dance Moms, and feel NO SHAME WHATSOEVER. mostly because i used to be a Dance Daughter, and had a teacher who looked/acted a lot like Miss Abby, so that shit takes me BACK, y’all.

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