Camille Paglia: Why I Love the Real Housewives
Exclusive: the author and critic writes that the franchise isn't just entertainment—it's a lifestyle.
With The Real Housewives Awards in full swing, we've asked celebrities, super fans, and pop culture icons to share why they love our hit franchise. Today, Camille Paglia—the revered professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, critic, and author of six books, including 2012's Glittering Images—writes about her obsession with Bravo's modern-day soap opera.
My nomination for scrappiest street-fighter goes to Tamra Barney Judge of Real Housewives of Orange County. Tamra lunges for the jugular at lightning speed! Her classic moment: enraged by the bizarre accusation of that smug, surly Smurf, Brooks Ayers, that she was giving Vicki Gunvalson "the evil eye," Tamra leapt like a tigress at him across a restaurant table and was restrained only by its awkwardly wide breadth.
As Brooks blanched and quivered and stubbornly hunkered down, Vicki swooped in like a Valkyrie to stand by her man. But to counter the petite Tamra’s fiery Amazonian force, the much taller Vicki had to screech like a banshee. It was not a human voice: it was the piercing, atavistic war rattle of our fur-matted hominid ancestors in the primeval jungle!
I view Tamra, my favorite Real Housewife, as a contemporary updating of the great Donna Mills on Knots Landing, another California soap saga of battling blondes. Donna as the coolly cut-throat Abby Cunningham Ewing created an authentically American diva style, a historical advance on the campily flamboyant British theatricality of Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington Colby in Dynasty. (Joan’s direct heir is Lisa Vanderpump of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, who has permanently inserted “Bloody hell!” into American discourse.)
Donna was oblique and understated, a whispery shimmer of magnetic elegance. But Tamra runs hot! She has the cackling mischief and rowdy spunk of a brassy cheerleader. As a fitness guru with her own gym, she’s a whirling dervish of physical activity. She represents the gung-ho athleticism of a new generation of American women.
I’m sure Tamra’s far-flung fan base is as delighted as I am that she has found happiness at last with the buff and warmly charming Eddie Judge—what a mensch! Nevertheless, I’m still grousing that Tamra gave such a hard time to that intriguing Brazilian, Fernanda Rocha. Hey, what was the big whoop with letting THAT little flirtation go on a bit longer? Tamra didn't have to put out—just let those vibes hum to the max, as in all those European art films usually starring Catherine Deneuve. The bodacious Fernanda got a raw deal.
The Real Housewives franchise isn’t entertainment to me—it’s a lifestyle. I watch virtually nothing else on TV now, except for occasional documentaries and Turner Classic Movies. I can see the same Real Housewives episode multiple times with equal enjoyment. I love the frank display of emotion, the intricate interrelationships, and the sharp-elbows jockeying for power and visibility. I appreciate every snippet—the rapid scene set-ups, dynamic camera work, and crisp editing, with its enchanting glimpses of fine houses and restaurants and its glowing appreciation of beautiful objects, from flowers and tableware to jewelry and couture. And I applaud the Real Housewives master theme of the infectious hilarity and truth-telling delirium induced by copious alcohol, that ancient Dionysian elixir! (Get off those boring, flattening anti-depressants, America!)
When Donna Mills left Knots Landing in 1989, it was the end of a glorious soap era. I went into deep mourning. Soaps had fallen very far indeed from their sizzling heyday, marked by the dramatic January 1976 TIME magazine cover showing an anguished, posturing, bosom-baring Susan Seaforth Hayes backed by her pleading husband Bill Hayes, the stars of Days of Our Lives, with the blazing headline, "SOAP OPERAS: SEX AND SUFFERING IN THE AFTERNOON"!
But over the decades, daytime writers got uppity and began to disdain their own genre. They strained for "importance" and lost their soap soul. In a two-part interview with Michael Logan for TV Guide in 1994, I complained about the upsetting decline and accused soaps of abandoning the great female "trash-and-sleaze"
style of old Hollywood. I said that, with her magical ability to produce "one perfect tear," Melody Thomas Scott as Nikki Newman on The Young and the Restless was among the last explorers of profound emotion in the grand old mode. My protest evidently struck a chord: I was told that Tony Geary, the famous heart-throb Luke Spencer of General Hospital, marched into a network producer’s office, slammed that article on the desk, and demanded better scripts.
As TV soaps diluted themselves to the vanishing point, I had to get my soap fix from the vintage movies that started it all: Stella Dallas, The Women, Dark Victory, Mildred Pierce, All About Eve, Imitation of Life, A Star Is Born, Written on the Wind, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, The Best of Everything, Valley of the Dolls, and Mommie Dearest. The Group, Julia, Rich and Famous, and Black Widow also give good soap, with their intense, competitive, woman-on-woman psychodramas. Nearly all those movies had become cult classics among gay men, who were also often connoisseurs of grand opera. Gay men understand the burden of secrets and the ecstasy of the extreme gesture.
Haggard and bereft, I felt like John the Baptist—a voice crying in the wilderness. But then with a thunderclap out of St. Louis came the Soap Messiah—Andy Cohen! (Jesus was Jewish. What’s the problem?) In his autobiography, Most Talkative, Cohen describes his early passionate devotion to Susan Lucci, who for 41 years as Erica Kane on All My Children defined the archetype of the charismatic bitch-goddess for daytime TV. Cohen has always understood the complex emotional core of soaps, a misty, mercurial realm that is beyond words. The torment and tears on Real Housewives are real—from Jacqueline Laurita's pained hope for her autistic son in New Jersey to Kandi Burruss's struggle for freedom against her mother in Atlanta.
Cohen has so altered and redeemed the pop culture landscape—which had been suffering for years from snide snark and pseudo-hip cynicism—that he should be acknowledged as a genuine auteur, like maverick film directors. His tastes, instincts, and sensibility now suffuse a staggering number of highly successful TV projects. Not since the radical gay German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder revived and recast Douglas Sirk’s "women’s pictures" during the 1970s has a single individual so boldly rescued a waning genre and given it such splendid new life. Bravo, Andy!