Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Real Housewives or Real Train Wrecks? Alcoholism Rears its Ugly Head on Reality TV

Take several bored rich ladies, give them a sense of entitlement, the glimmer of celebrity, and mix with alcohol. Pick a city. Repeat.
This, in all its trashy glory, essentially sums up Bravo’s hit reality franchise, the Real Housewives. Each series focuses on the “housewives” of Orange County, New York, D.C., Atlanta, Beverly Hills, and Miami. For many Americans, it’s a glance at the bizarre life of a former homecoming queen or quasi-socialite. Entertaining, trivial, and ridiculous, the series center around arguments fueled by alcohol, resentment, and jealousy.
Similar models for reality television have existed for decades. Before her tragic death by overdose in 2007, Anna Nicole Smith was just your quirky girl-next-door on the Anna Nicole Show, who obsessed over pickles and whined about her sex life (or lack thereof). MTV casted Jason Wahler as a womanizing bad boy, who played Lauren Conrad’s love interest on Laguna Beach and the Hills from 2005-2007. Seven stays in rehab and six alcohol-related arrests later, Wahler blames his bout with alcoholism on the pressures of being on reality television.
While watching reality television, it’s easy to forget that these are actual people. Often cast as eccentric, neurotic, or wild, many of these “stars” really suffer from mental illness. Although entertaining, reality television often seems to target, and subsequently exploits, those suffering or prone to addiction.
The Real Housewives franchise largely capitalizes off of women abusing alcohol and acting out while intoxicated. While some of the women can drink responsibly and don’t seem to have issues with alcoholism, I find it difficult to watch some of the women self-destruct for Bravo’s profit and the American public’s viewing pleasure.
Fans of the Real Housewives Beverly Hills were likely unsurprised to hear that Kim Richards checked into rehab this year. On the finale of the first season, Kim showed up to a party barely lucid, barely able to stand. She threw a tantrum in a limo, prompting her sister to scream, “You’re an alcoholic! That's right. Everyone knows now. I said it!” Tabloids report that she is currently taking methamphetamines.

Let's take a look at some other examples of Bravo's exploitation of substance abuse and/or mental illness on Housewives:

  • Sonja Morgan, of the Real Housewives of New York, appears under the influence of drugs or alcohol more often than not. She repeatedly flashes the camera, slurs her words, and starts drunken fights. The New York Post reported this summer that a crew member supplies her with prescription painkillers in exchange for sex. She was arrested in 2010 for drunk driving in the Hamptons.
  • Lynne Curtin, of Real Housewives of Orange County notoriety, was evicted from her home, as documented on the show. She continued to spend thousands of dollars on luxury vacations, dinners, and clothes, all while drinking in excess. One episode, she got stumbling drunk at a weekday luncheon, after which other cast members forbade her from driving home. Her pupils always seemed dilated during confessionals, and she allowed her teenage daughters to drink and party under her supervision, all on camera.
  • Kim Zolciak, of Real Housewives of Atlanta fame, is constantly shown chugging wine and puffing on cigarettes in the series. She has been known to bring a flask to early morning yard sales, drink glasses of wine while driving, and stop for a beer during a jog.

  • Kelly Bensimon, again of the New York series. Bravo aired one of Bensimon's frightening emotional breakdowns last year. Bensimon alleged that other housewives were plotting to kill her, which was clearly not the case. Bensimon was arrested in 2009 for assaulting a boyfriend.
  • Michaele Salahi, of the D.C. version of the series, is infamous for crashing the White House's 2009 state dinner. The crew filmed all the events leading up to the dinner, including her limo ride to the White House, and her delusions of grandeur relating to her and her husband's precarious finances.

Reality shows are meant to be reflect real people, and document how they live their daily lives, raw and unfiltered. Regular people have drinking and drug problems, so it’s inevitable that addiction will appear at least on some programs. However, at what point will networks, producers, and advertisers demand that cast members get help? Profiting off of mocking another person’s disease seems cruel and unethical. After a week in rehab, Kim Richards should not have been invited back to film the second season of the series. Sadly, moral decency does not seem to be a consideration for Bravo's programming decisions. Note, this list only scratches the surface of alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness on the Housewives. I completely left out Ramona Singer, who pretty clearly seems to be a raging alcoholic.

Fortunately, there are many reality television programs that center around fighting addiction. Intervention demonstrates that there is hope for addicts, even at rock-bottom. The show educates the public about addiction, and how to attain help for oneself or loved ones.

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