I used to be in a relationship with a man who criticised my cultural tastes for being too lowbrow.
‘I don’t understand why you watch that trash,’ he would say, as I curled up on the sofa in front of an episode of The Real Housewives. Then he’d skulk off in a huff, presumably to read Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek. It was the first sign that our romantic liaison was doomed.
If you have never watched The Real Housewives, you might not know that this televisual behemoth, which started in 2006 as a fairly conventional fly-on-the-wall documentary following the lives of a group of privileged, rich women living in a gated community in Orange County, California, has spawned several spin-offs around the world. My favourite is New York (mouthy), followed by Beverly Hills (glamorous) and Atlanta (hilarious). The UK has The Real Housewives of Cheshire, which has just entered its ninth season.
You probably labour under the misapprehension that the programme consists of silicone-enhanced women screeching at each other over kale salads. You will possibly believe that the storylines are bogus and you might feel the need to criticise both the conspicuous consumption on display and the retrograde concept of calling a woman a ‘housewife’ in the #MeToo era. And, look, I realise that my borderline obsessive adoration of The Real Housewives franchise is not necessarily something to list on my CV. I’m aware that the hours I spend watching it could be more profitably ploughed into going to the theatre or finally learning how to salsa.
But the reason I enjoy it is because it is rare to see women over 45 depicted on screen in all their multifaceted glory. On The Real Housewives of Cheshire there is a storyline devoted to one of the cast members dealing with the menopause. When I was going through IVF, I took comfort from watching Meghan King Edmonds (Orange County) undergoing the same process, and allowing herself to be filmed administering injections and having scans.
The Housewives have dealt with dating, alcoholism, depression, ageing, family estrangement and messy divorces. They might be wealthy and privileged but they face the same ups and downs as the rest of us. Seeing them cope with the fallout from each life crisis gives me something I can learn from. And even if they have more of a flair for the dramatic than I do, it is obvious when the emotions are real. I don’t think I have ever seen relationships between women so accurately portrayed.
Women like this are not represented with any frequency on primetime drama. The Housewives have a hinterland of experience which makes them interesting to watch. These broads have been knocked around a bit and they are unafraid to speak their minds. Plus, they’re often very, very funny. Mostly, they’re not even housewives but run their own highly profitable businesses. Bethenny Frankel (New York) sold her low-fat cocktails company for a reported $100 million in 2011 and graced the cover of Forbes magazine.
The other thing that makes The Real Housewives special is that the women in it are defined by their friendships with other women, rather than being depicted solely in terms of their romantic interests. The men in their lives make walk-on appearances, but are always seen in supporting roles.
As a novelist, I’m thrilled to have access to such an array of interesting, powerful female voices to inspire me to create convincing fictional characters. And that’s what I tell anyone who criticises my Real Housewives addiction: ‘It’s research, darling.’
This week I’m…
My face with Perricone MD’s Chlorophyll Detox Mask, which feels as though it’s making my skin firmer and look brighter.
Granola from Panzer’s deli in North London. For years I have searched for the perfect breakfast muesli, and now – lo! – I’ve found it.
To the Longform podcast: interviews with feature writers about how they tackle their subjects. More interesting than I’ve just made it sound.