'The Real Housewives' Aren't Housewives

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Nearly 10 years after the Real Housewives franchise debuted on Bravo, it’s pretty safe to say that the “housewives” are not housewives. These ladies work.

Brandi Glanville is a New York Times best-selling author. Vicki Gunvalson is the founder and president of Coto Insurance & Financial Services. Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Kandi Burruss owns a sex toy company. Lisa Vanderpump co-owns two successful restaurants in Los Angeles. And Bethenny Frankel is expanding her SkinnyGirl empire to include legal pot.

Obviously, anyone who has succumbed to a marathon (or 10) knows the series relies heavily on traditional narratives of marriage and motherhood: Themes of marital struggle, welcoming children and grandchildren, finding (and/or marrying) a partner, bouncing back from divorce, “having it all,” and empty-nest syndrome weave through every season.

But while the franchise’s overt appeal is in wedding proposals and catty feuds, the show has proven to be a powerful cornerstone in establishing professional brands. The ladies may lure you in with adorable (or dysfunctional) family dynamics and aspirational living, but they are really plugging and selling. And hoping that you, devoted fan, will buy, buy, buy.

Kyle Richards may be on the outs with her sister, but watch her rehash the argument in her Beverly Hills boutique, Kyle by Alene Too. And since appearing on the show in 2008, Ramona Singer has successfully turned her predilection for pinot grigio (and drunken antics) into nothing short of commercials for Ramona Pinot Grigio.

Lean in (get it?) to peer behind the table-flipping drama and what you really have is The Real Entrepreneurs of Orange County and The Real Business Ladies of New York City.

While money mistakes and career ambition aren’t necessarily new to the series, financial autonomy and professional goals have taken an even more pronounced role recently.

In this season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Brandi — a former model — has spoken frankly about seeking financial security for herself and her children since her ex-husband walked out. The 42-year-old purchased her first car without her father co-signing (a real financial milestone!). She tells viewers that she “never want[s] to be financially dependent on a man ever again.”

Another segment features Brandi and her manager trying to optimize her podcast by securing “family-friendly” advertisers. She concedes to swearing less in the podcast in an effort to reach a wider audience, and therefore get more profits. Because money!

Similarly, on season seven of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Kandi’s new husband, Todd, is concerned about her “team” not working hard enough for her and failing to ensure that her career advances. This is the cause of marital strife — his wife’s career not excelling enough.

With plot lines like these, I wonder why you even need the manufactured back-stabbing and betrayals. As I fall in and out of marathons, I’m perfectly aware that I’m watching a 45-minute commercial for Lisa Vanderpump’s new restaurant or Carole Radziwill’s new book — and I’m totally engaged. I want to watch NeNe Leakes take meetings with HSN about her fashion line and talk through acting opportunities with her manager. I want to see Phaedra Parks consider going into the funeral-home business even though she’s already an established attorney. (In fact, it’s when they start arguing that I look for something else to watch.)

All that leads me to ask: Why do stories of women’s ambition and financial independence need to be couched in throwback “housewife” narratives? Why do cast members’ business ventures need to be framed within more palatable stories of marriage and motherhood?

Why aren’t we watching The Real Business Ladies of New York City?

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