Weathering a Recession with The Real Housewives

Curator's Note

The various editions of The Real Housewives each have their own unique elements, but one consistent thread running through all of them has been the emphasis on wealth and conspicuous consumption. The women generally live in million-dollar homes in exclusive suburban communities, and individual episodes have featured housewives taking luxurious vacations, hosting extravagant parties, and buying cars, boats, and jewelry. But when the financial collapse of 2008 brought on an era of bankruptcies, unemployment, and foreclosures, the Real Housewives were not immune. During the fifth season of the Orange County edition, episodes focused on Tamra and her husband selling their dream home to avoid losing everything; Lynn’s family downsizing to save money and then getting evicted after falling behind on rent; and Jeana selling off possessions to pay bills and eventually leaving the show to rebuild her faltering real estate business.

New Jersey housewife Teresa Giudice’s financial problems made headlines long before appearing within the narrative of her show. In June 2010, tabloids and gossip blogs began reporting that Giudice and her husband had declared bankruptcy as a result of more than eleven million dollars’ worth of debt. In an episode that premiered a couple weeks after the bankruptcy story, Teresa was shown throwing a lavish party complete with a red carpet, theatrical lighting, professional dancers, and fire eaters.  The exaggerated display of wealth provided a stark contrast to the bankruptcy stories circulated by news and gossip outlets. Eventually, Teresa made a series of talk show appearances to discuss the issue and landed on the cover of celebrity magazine In Touch Weekly next to the headline “How I Blew $11 Million.”

Unlike the Orange County housewives, whose financial struggles played out primarily within their series, Teresa’s off-camera problems provided a parallel and contrasting story that coexisted with the narrative of the series itself. Both cases demonstrate that while the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy suburban elite may be enviable, they are also vulnerable, and even a wrought iron gate cannot protect people from financial collapse. Although some viewers dealing with their own financial problems may have taken some comfort in seeing that the wealthy were also struggling, I suspect that many viewers (and talk show hosts, as this clip suggests) took pleasure in watching the spectacular collapse of the women’s extravagant lifestyles. 



Very rich post, David! I don't watch The View regularly so I'm curious about the impact of two male guest hosts and the presumed additional gravity brought to the discussion of bankruptcy, finances, and consumption. Though Joy Behar really brings down the hammer on Teresa, it seems like her financial failures are judged extra harshly. Her lavish lifestylelis apparent lack of knowledge about her own finances come across as transgressing the conservative womanhood The View promotes. I also kept thinking about Lauren Greenfield's amazing doc, The Queem of Versailles. Jackie Siegel manages to come across as sympathetic despite being a shopaholic and a crap mom. Is it the form of documentary that allows for more character dimension than reality tv? I could be romanticizing.

Kimberly - The comparison to Jackie Siegel is an excellent one. There are certainly a lot of parallels, and you're right, Jackie is portrayed with much more sympathy. I wonder if this has to do with Teresa's overall placement as the "villain" on RHONJ. After the departure of Danielle Staub, Teresa became the series' main antagonist, always in conflict with one or more of the other housewives. Judging her harshly for her financial failures might be an extension of that positioning. In The Queen of Versailles, Jackie is made to seem somewhat sympathetic in part by way of a comparison to her even less sympathetic husband.

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