Sunday Times E-Edition

‘REAL HOUSEWIVES’ really caught on in SA

● What is it about a room full of flashy, trashy women throwing shade at each other that captivates a nation?

The baffling success of the Real Housewives global phenomenon has not escaped South Africa, which has produced six iterations of the series — the most shows in a country outside the US, where it originated.

The Real Housewives of Johannesburg debuted in 2018, followed by renditions in Durban, Pretoria, Cape Town and even the Winelands. By far the most popular has been The Real Housewives of Durban.

There are varying opinions about the show’s effect and significance. Entertainment commentator Phil Mphela says it offers “an escape from real life, giving us an element of voyeurism into what our neighbours are up to”.

“Everybody loves watching these women fight and bicker. At the end of the day, they’re characters playing a role.”

But independent critic Thinus Ferreira argues that while it may be entertaining, reality TV lacks lasting effect. He questions whether these shows provide educational value, likening them to “bubblegum TV” that will not be remembered in years to come. He also raises concerns about the portrayal of toxic womanhood, questioning the lack of shows that highlight women supporting one another. Terja Beney, the senior manager for reality TV at Kyknet, which airs Die Real Housewives van Pretoria and Die Real Housewives van die Wynlande, describes the show as a cultural phenomenon. She says viewers are drawn to the drama, conflict and aspirational elements, seeking an escape from the challenges of daily life.

Alexia Smit, a television studies lecturer at the University of Cape Town, delves deeper into the fascination with watching women fight. She believes that conflict is encouraged by producers and the toxic dynamics on reality TV create a space for viewers to grapple with their conflicting feelings about wealth and entitlement. She highlights the role of controversy in generating discussions and building a culture about the show. “I think these shows are fundamentally about conflict. I do believe that conflict is encouraged by the producer. So there is a sense in which we’re being sold ‘women fighting with each other’ ... These rich women become the space where we get to battle with our conflicted feelings about our desire for wealth and our sense of the injustice of it, so they’re a good scapegoat. And that’s very entertaining,” Smit said.

The first show in the franchise was The Real Housewives of Orange County in 2006. It was inspired by the popular US series Desperate Housewives. Eleven different series and 26 spinoffs have been produced in the US, with a further 21 international adaptations.

US feminist Gloria Steinem has criticised the franchise for showcasing women as “rich, pampered, dependent and hateful towards each other”. In 2019, The New York Times ran an article criticising how the casts of the different Real Housewives series appeared “segregated” by skin colour.

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