News & Politics

Real Housewives and Washington Traditions

What happens when reality television collides with Washington social culture?

In 1973, when Nora Ephron wanted to describe the restrictiveness of Washington’s social scene for women, she wrote that the town “combined the worst qualities of the South and small-town life. Washington is a city of locker-room boys, and all the old, out-moded notions apply; men and women are ushered to separate rooms after dinner, sex is dirty, and they are still serving onion-soup dip.” Fortunately, some of those conventions have shifted in the last 37 years. The city’s social leaders are more interested in food, or at least they pretend to be. Repeated scandals have made sex dramas routine and, as a result, less titillating. Women play a much greater role in the capital’s life. But as a dustup between Carol Joynt and the cable channel Bravo makes clear, the city’s social institutions are still intact and influential—and they could have a real impact on what kind of show the Real Housewives of DC turns out to be.

What happens is as follows: Joynt is hosting an edition of her lunchtime Q&A Cafe at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton on June 17 with Michaele and Tareq Salahi. Obviously, the Salahis became famous for their state-dinner-crashing stunt, but the only reason an aura of interest has continued to linger around them is the possibility that Bravo would make them more famous, if and when The Real Housewives of DC airs. Understandably, the Hill newspaper chose to play up that angle of the lunch when the paper ran a preview item on Joynt’s event. But Bravo, also understandably, objected to the inaccurate phrasing of the item, which claimed Joynt would “premiere the Real Housewives of Washington.” The network contacted Joynt asking her to change it, she said she didn’t have control over it, and the conversation played out in a series of testy e-mails Joynt then posted on her blog.

The reason the brouhaha is significant is that in any other city where the Real Housewives franchise operates, it’s hard to imagine the cast members participating in anything like Joynt’s salons, if such alternatives even existed.

New York City is big enough that if society establishment doesn’t welcome the Housewives in, it’s easy for them to stage alternate events with alternate guest lists for themselves. And some of that city’s elites are interested enough in media and popular culture to treat the cast’s involvement with Bravo as a pedigree rather than a taint. The Atlanta Housewives are self-created alternative suburban elites in the first place, the wives and ex-wifes of NFL players, former and wannabe entertainers (one of them even has a Grammy). Scarlett O’Hara may have delighted in flipping off stalwarts of Atlanta morals and norms, but her descendants aren’t even engaged with the contemporary iterations of those bastions of good behavior. The New Jersey installment of the franchise mostly ignores wider society in its core narrative by setting up a close-knit extended family and watching a disruptive outsider attempt to join their social circle. And the show that started it all, The Real Housewives of Orange County, began in a gated community, skipping implication and saying outright that the social world outside didn’t matter.

It’s going to be a lot harder for The Real Housewives of DC to isolate themselves and create significant viable alternatives to the city’s biggest social events—the Salahis knew that when they crashed the White House state dinner. There are events like that, or the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, that on the weekend they happen are the place to be, without comparable, competitive alternatives. DC is too small a town to accommodate large elite social scenes, but it’s big enough that there are social leaders who matter, and who care about the turf they control. And setting the Housewives up as outsiders would end up denying viewers glimpses of DC’s low-watt celebrities through a decidedly new lens, transferring them from C-SPAN to a very different kind of reality TV.

If Bravo framed the series to suggest that the cast members are part of the Washington mix, rather than setting them up as part of a closed community within the region’s social life, the Housewives would have to find a way to be in the mix. And because it’s unlikely that all cast members come equipped with the same nerve as the Salahis when it comes to just showing up places, and because hosts and hostesses will be alert for those tactics, they’re going to have to find routes other than crashing.

And to do that, they’re going to have to deal with Washington institutions such as Carol Joynt to continue building their connections and profiles. The secret to my favorite edition of the Real Housewives franchise—New York City—is that while the women on the show behave dramatically, they’re also at least somewhat legitimate. That way, when one of them has a breakdown in the Caribbean or holds a wildly out-of-proportion grudge, her behavior is genuinely shocking—a contrast with the way we know they’re capable of conducting themselves. But it also means they’re credible socialites, with access and cachet. Setting up someone like Mary Amons, for example, would neither be accurate nor dramatically interesting. If the Housewives can behave well enough to get asked to White House Correspondents parties—and badly enough in dissecting the aftermath—the show could be a smash, both inside and outside the Beltway.


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