‘The Real Housewives’ taught a generation of queer people how to perform identity
The latest RHOC spinoff, Ultimate Girls Trip, is a fascinating documentation of modern fame, particularly as it relates to gender.
The Housewives are fighting again. That’s no surprise; that’s the promise of the show. But on The Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip, who they’re fighting with is a murkier, more playfully uncertain question. Season two of the spinoff, Ultimate Girls Trip Ex-Wives Club, premiering on Peacock this week, will include ghosts of Housewives past: former cast members returning to face the cameras at the Berkshires mansion of The Real Housewives of New York perennial Dorinda Medley. If this season is anything like the first, the women will again be faced with how “real” they are and challenge viewers to interrogate their own sense of self.
More than any other show in Bravo’s reality TV dynasty, Ultimate Girls Trip forces cast members to confront the artifice of their identities. We see it from the opening scene of season one: On the plane to their tropical destination, Triton Luxury Villa in Turks and Caicos, the women — assembled from Housewives franchises across the U.S. — toggle back and forth between their on-screen personas and some approximation of their off-camera selves. As the walls between what’s real and what isn’t collapse, the show ends up arguing that in most aspects of our lives, particularly queer people, we’re constantly shifting between the versions of ourselves that we’ve crafted for various audiences, be it friends, kin, or a larger, indeterminate gaze.
Ultimate Girls Trip stands out, both for its gimmicky premise and for shattering the unspoken promise reality TV makes with its cast, crew, and viewers. On most reality shows, the cast pretends a camera isn’t documenting their every move, creating the illusion of objectivity. On Girls Trip, Bravo’s well-known wink — the editing tricks that let viewers know the crew is in on the joke — goes further by making the Housewives collide in a whirl. The show must then become aware of itself, which to me, is a queer thing. To comment on the fact that you’re commenting on something is like Todd Haynes making a neo-melodrama in Far From Heaven and smirking at the audience.
This kind of self-reflexivity finds a comfortable home in queer pop culture. The conversion therapy romcom But I’m a Cheerleader satirizes gender norms while also playing with the same tropes. RuPaul’s Drag Race started as a parody of reality competition shows while also acknowledging the ridiculousness and excess of drag itself as a vehicle to explore, well, the ridiculousness and excess of gender.
On The Real Housewives proper, the fourth wall is only ever broken to intensify drama or indicate that the crew must intervene. (Think: Monique and Candiace’s fight on Potomac, or when the FBI comes to arrest Jen on Salt Lake City). By necessity of the premise, Ultimate Girls Trip breaks the facade of no one knowing or admitting to why they’re all there. While on their respective shows, the cast can pretend to be friends for the job; here, all bets are off. You’re watching the women negotiate around each other’s personas based largely on caricatures. Throughout Season 1, several of the women confess to having searched Google or Twitter to uncover another cast member’s backstory, relying not on their real-world interactions but on how that person’s identity has been diffused through television.
It makes Ultimate Girls Trip a fascinating documentation of modern fame, particularly as it relates to gender. While much has been made about how Real Housewives perpetuates regressive stereotypes about women, the franchise also chronicles how gender performance exists within the context of reality TV by way of interpersonal relationships, familial units, race, class, and consumerism. It all sounds high falutin, but viewers already, if unwittingly, talk about Housewives in those terms, discussing everything from how the women display their wealth to how they parent their children, navigate race, and exhibit femininity. Moreover, viewers discuss how genuine it comes across on screen. Did a cast member over-perform for the camera to manufacture drama? Or are they being sincere? These conversations happen reflexively, and those questions of performance are inextricable from how we perform and express gender every day. How much of how we convey our sense of self is organic versus socialized?
This inquiry turns Ultimate Girls Trip into a splintered fun house mirror of women exposing how they want to be seen, even playing with the existing language they’ve used to express their identity. Ramona and Kenya’s interactions are telling. The former refuses to engage with Kenya as a person, instead engaging with the vague idea of Kenya. Ramona is known for her duplicitousness and her ability to justify her actions. Kenya has an opposing temperament: assertive, stubborn, unapologetic, and indulgent. But, of course, these are their television personalities, quasi-fictional and magnified in high-def.
Our patterns of behavior mark, in different social contexts, what our gender is as it aligns with an evolving vocabulary. Not only what clothes we wear or makeup we put on, but how we do it, how we speak, how we move, etc. Queer people often have an even more subtle grasp on these ideas because how we deviate from those normative illustrations of identity: queer people can toggle back and forth, code switch, and modulate those learned and repeated behaviors to either blend in or subvert the social context.
On Ultimate Girls Trip, a compelling feedback loop develops: as Ramona and Kenya continue to butt heads, they both fall back on the catchphrases they've made part of their brands. As the cameras observe their clash, we see a reliance on learned behaviors, both the kind that were assembled off camera and the ones that have been undoubtedly magnified by their constant surveillance. Ramona gives the kind of body language that conveys who she is and where she exists in a matrix of race, class, and gender. Kenya, with a cocktail in hand, has an expressiveness and a boldness that exhibits itself in a luxuriated wingspan, daring to take up space when faced with a situation that wants to make her smaller. Other women remark on how watching this fight happen unearths the version of the women they had previously heard about but not yet seen.
Queer people make up a substantial chunk of Bravo’s viewership. Gay and gender performance, to borrow from scholar Judith Butler, is about how our bodily movements become acts to signal who we are on a personal level but also the social and subcultural space we belong to. The way that I, a homosexual, will order a drink — bent knee, cocked hip, arched arm — to signify who I am is not so different from how Countess Luann flirts with the concierge at the villa they’re staying at — sly grin drawn across her face, the wave of her hair, the tilt of her head. They both convey who they are in respect to where we occupy certain social and personal spaces.
I learned how to order a drink from my gay friends in Provincetown, the first time I found myself in a landscape where it was assumed you were queer. I learned that you can order differently depending on the kind of bar, the kind of bartender, the time of day, etcetera. Luann undoubtedly learned how to flirt from friends or family. Through observation, audition, and practice, we become who we are, and as queer people, we’re constantly in a state of awareness of our performances, how we are adjusting them to make sure we’re indicating exactly what and who we need to be. None of this is false, but it is something that’s fluid and in flux enough that there’s a malleability to it. On Ultimate Girls Trip, such acts — an apology, a drink thrown — are deconstructed, interrogated, and made a burlesque of. By pulverizing the fourth wall, the show reveals a fabulous infinity mirror. One where we all get to see ourselves, too.