The Validation and Catharsis of Women’s Emotions on Reality TV
What watching women on reality television really gives us.
In the now infamous episode of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York, author Candace Bushnell asks Housewife Dorinda Medley how she is doing, and Dorinda, tipsy from rosé and feisty as fuck, responds, “I’ll tell you how I’m doing. Not well, bitch!” The moment became so iconic among reality television fans and beyond that it turned into a kingdom of merchandising, with Dorinda’s blunt words printed across sweaters, candles, coffee mugs, and greeting cards. In that moment, we were all Dorinda, or secretly wanted to be, responding to a seemingly disingenuous question in a way that most of us could only ever dream of.
We watch The Real Housewives franchise as a form of multi-layered voyeurism: to feel, for a moment, what it might be like to own the big, tacky mansion; or have the seemingly easy life, with worries that extend not much further past whether we’ll make it to our personal trainer on time or not. But we also watch these shows for a kind of emotional affirmation—to see what it would feel like to let it all rip, emotionally speaking, without a care in the world, and no matter the consequence. I often think of this Jeffrey McDaniel poem that so brilliantly embodies that same desire:
AIR EMPATHY On the red-eye from Seattle, a two-year-old in the seat behind me screeches his miniature guts out. Instead of dreaming of stuffing a wad of duct tape into his mouth, I envy him, how he lets his pain spurt into the open. I wish I could drill a pipeline into the fields of ache, tap a howl. How long would I need to sob before the lady beside me dropped her fashion rag, dipped a palm into the puddle of me? How many whimpers before another passenger joined in? Soon the stewardess hunched over the drink cart, the pilot gushing into the controls, the entire plane: an arrow of grief quivering through the sky.
We are raised in polite society to be mindful of our feelings should they blurt out in any form of public unraveling. But as women, we are raised to see our feelings as not just something to temper but as something outright problematic. We’re warned from a young age not to come off too emotional or hysterical or crazy for feeling the way we do. We’re told we must remain aware of our “resting bitch face” (which is just a woman’s unsmiling face) and of shaking hands too firmly. Most of us could never dream of expressing an actual emotion out loud in a public setting, let alone flipping a fully loaded dinner table over onto our guests in a fit of untethered rage like a Real Housewife would.
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