Real Housework: Branding Emotional Labor in The Real Housewives of New York City

Curator's Note

*/ After news of her non-renewed contract with The Real Housewives of New York City, Jill Zarin sat down with executive producer Andy Cohen to discuss her departure from the show and the demise of her friendship with fellow "Housewife" Bethenny Frankel. During the interview, Jill explains that she intentionally engineered the dramatic conflict in order to “make great television” and upsurge ratings for the show. By jeopardizing her “real” friendship for higher ratings, Jill underscores the significance of affective excess and melodramatic narratives to the franchise. In fact, The Real Housewives format depends upon the spectacle of feminine emotions to effectively brand the series and build a constituency of loyal viewers.

As antagonisms persisted, the Housewives used the increased exposure to promote their brands: Bethenny left the series to star in a popular spinoff show, write three best-selling books, and market her Skinnygirl cocktail brand, while Jill publicized her fabric company and branded a new line of women’s shapeware. Despite these twin efforts, Jill accused Bethenny of extending the rift and treating their friendship as a "business relationship." This phrase is telling; successful self-branding requires that emotional bonds are reframed into modes of capital accumulation. For the Housewives, then, the strategic management of emotions requires endless labor through quotidian processes that bind gendered emotional practices—such as intimacy, care, conflict, jealousy, and desperation—to entrepreneurial success.

Blurring the boundaries between affective ties and capitalist exchange, the Housewives bring into focus the tensions between irrational emotional behavior and rational entrepreneurial practices. Can the Housewives effectively brand themselves as prudent businesswomen while publicly engaging in superficial disputes? The popularity of the Housewives' brands signals their success in parlaying reality television fame into commodity capital, however their failing relationships suggest the contingent and unpredictable effects of administered emotional labor. In this way, the Housewives offer us a compelling glimpse into the commercial use of women's feelings and the cultural technologies that capture and deploy emotions in a profit-driven economy.


As you point out, the practice of self branding is something that many of the housewives put a great deal of energy into. In this clip, Jill makes it clear that she had various plans and ideas about how certain scenarios would unfold, but also accuses Bravo and "the producers" of getting in the way of her plans. For example, she talks about them taking Bethenny's side (in order to promote her show) and staging the pedicure firing squad. In this way, Jill's attempts at self branding are derailed by the producers' alleged desire to cast her as the villain. Whether or not her accusations are accurate, it does raise a question about control. Regardless of the brand that an individual housewife may want to create for herself, she has to be aligned with the producers/Bravo/Andy, who have the ability to either reinforce or negate the image that she attempts to create for herself. Beyond the bounds of the show, housewives frequently take to their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, other talk shows, and magazine interviews to build their own brands, but it seems that the most successful are those whose efforts extend the brand created within their original show rather than trying to alter or change that brand.

Thank you for the comment, David. It seems especially relevant in the context of this clip to address the role that Bravo, the “producers", and Andy Cohen play in either supporting or detracting from the Housewives’ brands. Bravo and the Housewives franchise have their own branding strategy that seems to ask the Housewives to walk a fine line between overly dramatic and likable. The casting overhaul in season 5 of RHONY (only 2 housewives made the cut) suggests that the Housewives occupy an extremely tenuous position. As the Housewives navigate these conflicting pressures, they appear to adapt their branding strategies from season to season. I think your observation is accurate—the Housewives that brand themselves within the narrow parameters of the franchise appear more successful—but I also think there are moments where the producers accept and adjust to the new modes of branding constructed by the Housewives. There is a lot to unpack here, thank you for raising the issue of industry control and network branding.

I've always been fascinated by how the housewives feuds are part of the the show's affective landscape, and I appreciate how you link the emotional labor to their branding efforts. I do wonder, though, how "irrational" those feuds are when they contribute so markedly to the housewives fame work? I know Bethenny disavowed the feuding after selling Skinnygirl, but I can't help think that her willingness to partake in it also helped to launch her solo stint and media empire. Thanks for such a provocative offering!

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