Reality TV and the Internalised Misogyny of the Guilty Pleasure

Bethenny Frankel

What was the last thing you referred to as a “guilty pleasure”? Was it the latest pop hit? Was it a reality show? Was it a romantic comedy? Was it ‘chick lit’?

Chances are, it was something marketed toward women and gay men, right? I’ve had it with the sexist concept of the “guilty pleasure”. 

Have you ever noticed that things marketed primarily to hetero men are very rarely labelled a guilty pleasure?

Take action movies, for example. I am not generally interested in watching men smash things up, but whatever. It’s not for me, so I stay in my lane and let people enjoy the things they enjoy. When a man obsesses over his favourite sports team, that’s just guys being guys, right? 

Women, unfortunately, don’t seem to be afforded the pleasure of being able to openly love the things they love, though. I constantly hear women undercut the things they like, the things they get enjoyment out of, by prefacing their thoughts with “I know it’s trash, but…” or “it’s such a guilty pleasure of mine but I love…”, the impact of years of hearing that entertainment created for or primarily featuring women is bad.

Here’s the thing, though.

Until very recently, complex women characters in scripted television were few and far between. On reality TV, however, there is an abundance of women who fit into different “characters”. Women who are complex and dealing with generational trauma. Women who are difficult to understand but challenge how I see them from season to season. There are women I fear, women I fear for, and women I love who are exciting and compelling and fascinating.

“Why would you watch that trash?” is a question I used to hear a lot. “Those women are all so awful!”

Well, here is a list of prestige characters who are also awful people, but are lauded as complex antiheroes rather than terrible trash monsters:

Walter White from Breaking Bad, Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, Logan Roy from Succession (TBH, everyone on Succession is deliciously awful though).

Where are MY complex antiheroes?

Well, they’re Bethenny Frankel, a funny-but-mean New York housewife who can be straight up cruel to people, who also tends to feel everything deeply.

While some of the things she’s said have made me gasp and cringe and wince, I also have immense compassion for her as a person who has been in a longstanding, excruciating custody battle with her ex-husband Jason Hoppy, as a person who grew up in an abusive childhood home, as a person who desperately wants people close to her but can’t seem to maintain her relationships.

Her lines aren’t being scripted for her, though. As she lives out loud, her character development comes from mistakes made in the public eye, lessons learned through life experiences.

In a pop culture realm where anyone over the age of 35 is usually cast in a motherly role, reality television also gives us a space where we can see women in their 50s being rude, drunk and disheveled.

As someone who has been dealing with a chronic pain condition for the past nine years, I sometimes feel as though I lost the second half of my 20s to my illnesses.

For a long time, I thought that meant those days of being messy and free and partying with my friends were over. I still have chronic pain now, but the Housewives showed me that life doesn’t have to end with marriage and kids and retiring politely into the night.

It showed me that if the day comes where my choices are no longer controlled by chronic pain, I too can run off to Mexico with my friends, get so drunk I fall in a bush, or stab my own hand while trying to make a point. To be clear, I’m not holding these up as aspirational goals, but it’s nice to know I have the option, should I want to.

All of this is to say: in a world where women are given one Shiv Roy on Succession for every Logan, Kendall, Connor and Roman Roy, women shouldn’t have to spend their time justifying why they want to see complex, flawed women on reality television.

They shouldn’t have to undercut themselves or their taste because scripted television or broader pop culture is not giving us what we deserve.

Also, you should get into Real Housewives, honestly it’s so good.