RHOBH Paints A Complicated Picture Of Modern Womanhood

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo.
When Teddi Mellencamp joined the Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills for season 8 it was clear what the reality show’s producers wanted from the Bravo newbie: a dash of true celebrity spark. As the daughter of folksy rock icon John Cougar Mellencamp, Teddi can add a dose of star power that goes beyond soap operas and childhood fame. But, as Tuesday night’s “Bad Guys” proved, there’s more to Teddi than her A-list lineage and her near “addiction” to riding horses. Once you dig deeper than the equestrian’s last name, you realize Teddi has a complex story of her own. It’s a story — along with a few that belong to her other RHOBH cast mates — that shows a deeply tangled look at life as a modern woman.
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When we first meet Teddi in premiere “Stronger Than Ever,” it’s immediately striking how comfortable she is talking about her sexual past. In a franchise rife with slut shaming, that’s a rarity, especially for women just getting the lay of the ever-shifting Beverly Hills land. And yet, in one of her first confessionals, Teddi says of meeting husband Edwin Arroyave, “I could try to sugarcoat it a little, but, it was a one-night stand … I woke up next to some guy, I thought his name was Edward!”
Now that is the kind of eyes-wide-open sexual liberation I’m looking for in a Housewife. Teddi’s admission is light years ahead of the sexual outlook of a woman like RHOBH grande dame Lisa Vanderpump, who loves a wry sex joke and owns swans named “Hanky” and “Panky” but still waves the slut shaming Pantygate flag whenever she gets a chance.
But, Teddi is a fully formed person and not my millennial feminist dream of a Bravolebrity, so things get complicated in this week’s “Bad Guys.” During a couples-only dinner with costar Dorit and her husband Paul “PK” Kemsley, the subject of cooking comes up. Teddi says of a back-in-the-day Edwin, “He was like, ‘Would you start cooking if I proposed?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’” The statement is offered up as a joke, yet, most humor comes from a place of honesty. It’s more than likely even a woman like Teddi, who has had one-night stands and isn’t ashamed of them, fell prey to retro gender roles. No, the celebrity daughter isn’t heading into the kitchen for any random guy. But, she might figure out her way around a spatula for an engagement ring.
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This similar vein of what a woman “should” be arises during Teddi’s emotional confession about her struggles with IVF. While her trademark frankness adds a sympathetic anchor to a series mostly known for sparkling rosé-fueled soirees and dramatic vacations, one of the sources for Teddi’s past pregnancy anxiety shows just how much pressure she puts on herself as a woman.
“One of your biggest jobs is to make babies,” she says of being a woman. “And, when you can’t, you feel sad because you’re not able to make your baby. And you also feel sad because you feel like you’re failing.” It’s hard not to want to reach through the screen and assure Teddi having a baby — including the son Edwin intensely stresses he so desired — is no one’s “job.” There’s no rule that everyone with a uterus has to create life. If that’s what you want for your body, that’s your choice and no one else’s, since reality hasn’t morphed in The Handmaid’s Tale just yet. Therefore fertility problems aren’t a “failure” for any woman out there.
Despite this fact, we continue to see a teary Teddi force more shame upon herself as someone of her gender. The Housewife explains her youngest child Cruz, who was conceived by IVF and selected for his sex over other embryos, has a heart condition. While this is obviously not Teddi’s fault, she says in a talking head interview, “I’m his mother. My job is to protect him … I chose for him to be a boy and you, know, God didn’t choose for me. It’ll always make me feel a little bit guilty.”
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Teddi might add a much-needed shot of youthful thinking to an aging series, but even she can find herself trapped by conservative ideas of femininity.
If you look closely, the RHOBH newbie’s new friend Dorit has found herself in a similar situation. The confusingly-accented Bravo star is rightly billed as a career woman who began as a top dog in the swimwear industry before meeting her spouse PK. Now, Dorit oversees her spouse’s management agency, Nixxi Entertainment. Clearly, the resort wear mogul is a boss in her own right.
Yet, Dorit oftentimes finds herself playing into the passé trope of “ditzy housewife hiding expensive purchases from her husband.” At the top of “Bad Guys” we see her tell PK, “Oh no! I was kind of hoping you weren’t coming in as I was arranging my sunglasses.” Why? Because PK thinks his wife owns too many accessories and she didn’t want him to see the full extent of her haul. Later, Dorit is unpacking the roughly $19,000 china set she ordered from Hermes. “My husband’s throughly going to kill me,” she sighs to assistant Mollie. When PK enters the room, likely due to a producer’s prompting, Dorit lies and claims the Kemsleys have long owned the dinnerware. For extra effect, she looks into the camera during her “white lie” like she’s Jim from The Office.
No woman needs to mug like this for audiences or her husband, especially not when she has a very publicized business to run.
While we can hope Housewives stars like Teddi and Dorit will evolve past their respective blankets of self-imposed shame and dated artifice, that’s likely what makes them so relatable to fans. How many women have blamed themselves for infertility issues? How many women have feigned a “Silly me!” attitude to make their partners feel more like the man of the house?
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It might be 2018, but the answers are still, “A lot.”
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