In 2021, Bravo had aired the 13th season of The Real Housewives of New York City (RHONY). The season was filmed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and featured a smaller cast of five women, including the first Black cast member, Eboni K. Williams. Without their usual packed schedule of fancy NYC events and luxury getaways, the housewives spent most of their time sitting in their penthouse apartments and arguing with each other. It made for bleak TV and led to low ratings, with Bravo making the decision to end the season without airing the usually hugely popular reunion episodes.
After the show aired, it was revealed that Williams had alleged that her fellow cast member Romona Singer had made racist comments to her while they were filming the season. The claims were investigated internally and Singer was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
In 2022, Bravo announced they would be rebooting the series with a brand new cast. "This is the most multicultural, diverse, and energetic and exciting city in America: We are searching for a multicultural group of friends who really best reflect the most exciting city in the country. We’re looking for a group of women who are real friends, and who are of diverse backgrounds, races and religions," executive producer Andy Cohen told Variety at the time.
In July, the network delivered on its promise, introducing fans to a diverse new cast during the Season 14 premiere. The new season follows the lives of fashion mogul Jenna Lyons, content creator Sai De Silva, model Ubah Hassan, real estate developer Erin Lichy, publicist Jessel Taank and communications professional Brynn Whitfield.
Right from the first episode, this season felt different. Not only did this group of women look different from who we've seen in the other franchises — four of the six housewives are women of colour, for instance — but their conversations were different too.
Lyons, who was in a long-term relationship with a woman at the time, spoke about coming out later in life. Taank, who is the franchise's first Indian housewife, opened up about going through IVF treatment to conceive her children and hiding that fact from her conservative South Asian parents. Hassan, a self-made model and businesswoman, spoke about her childhood in Somalia. De Silva claimed to have grown up with a mother who had an alcohol addiction. As the season progressed, the women continued to share their hardships and insecurities. Lyons explained that she covered herself from head to toe because she was diagnosed with Incontentia Pigmenti — a rare genetic disorder that impacts her skin, teeth, and hair — at a young age. Taank shared that she hadn't slept with her husband since their twins were born two years earlier because she was self conscious about her body
Now, don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean this season of RHONY hasn't delivered on the franchise's core promise — to bring a group of wealthy women together so we can watch them squabble over petty comments and minor differences with a backdrop of multi-million dollar mansions, high society parties and luxury holidays. We've still got that in spades. A large part of this season was dedicated to one housewife hiding another housewife's phone and then the second housewife hiding the other housewife's sunglasses in retaliation while they were all on a girls' trip to Cabo San Lucas. There were still plenty of cliques, heated confrontations and phone calls where one person would relay everything someone else just told them in confidence. There were accusations of betrayal and lying, and there was even some behaviour that appeared to border on high school bullying (can we all lay off Jessel for a minute?).
But, for the most part, this season felt fresh and like it belonged in 2023.
Then there's The Real Housewives of Sydney (RHOS). The second Australian instalment of the franchise first premiered in 2016 with cast members Athena X Levendi, Lisa Oldfield, Matty Samaei, Melissa Tkautz and Victoria Rees, Krissy Marsh and Nicole O'Neil. It was a season defined by screaming matches, bitter Instagram feuds, and stories splashed across the local tabloids. After just one season, Foxtel announced it was dropping the series, with the former Head of Television of Brian Walsh claiming to the Daily Telegraph, "A lot of the women in this show were nasty for nasty's sake".
"I particularly felt [some cast members] were driving their own agendas," he continued. "I've raised my concerns with the production team from this season. I felt the bad language and behaviour throughout the series did go too far."
Earlier this year, seven years after the first season premiered, Binge announced it was bringing back RHOS with an almost entirely new cast. Original RHOS cast members Krissy Marsh and Nicole O'Neil have been joined by newcomers Terry Biviano, Dr Kate Adams, Caroline Gaultier, Victoria Montano and Sally Obermeder. With a new season and a new cast, there was hope that RHOS would bring something new to the Australian reality TV landscape. And in a way, it has. Two of the seven housewives are women of colour (Nicole has Lebanese heritage and Sally has French and Egyptian heritage) and Kate, who turns 40 in the third episode, is unmarried and doesn’t have kids. But we’re three episodes in and some of the women’s outdated views are making the show feel out of step for 2023.
Filmed mostly in Sydney's eastern suburbs, the series follows the women at work, interacting with their children, and getting to know each other over 'Skinny Bitches' (a cocktail made of vodka, soda and lime). The major drama in the first episode was around whether Krissy had told Caroline she "looked like a porn star" when they first met. While there were possibly some insinuations about class and body type in this comment, it was never fully explored by the housewives and Caroline ended up laughing the whole thing off.
In the second episode, the women headed to Krissy's house for a traditional Lebanese dinner. While sitting around the dinner table, the women began discussing Australian Fashion Week and how great it was to see so much diversity on the catwalk. Krissy and Sally spoke about how there were women of all different shapes and sizes on the catwalk, older women, and even a pregnant model. Caroline, the woman who was treated like an outsider just the week before, announced to the table that if she wanted to "see the mix, [she'd] just got to Westfield," and that she's "all for diversity, but how far are we going to go with this?".
It was a strange conversation which, while it may have been subjected to editing before broadcast, definitely felt out of step for 2023, but also highlighted the stark difference between the two series. I can't imagine a conversation like that happening on the new season of RHONY.
While the RHONY cast is still overwhelmingly thin, young, and privileged, they seem to at least have an understanding that women come in all shapes and sizes, and have different life experiences. The series feels like it's a true reflection of New York — the city where people come from all over the world to follow their dreams — even if its only focused on the most wealthy and connected parts of that city. And most importantly, the cast — and their conversations — feel inclusive.
In episode 3 of RHOS, Kate confronted Krissy at her 40th birthday party about some comments she allegedly made about Kate being a ‘closet lesbian’ because she’s single and 40. “There were some comments made at Nicole’s around my sexuality — for example, there was an implication that I was potentially cracking onto you and that I could be closet gay,” she said, before adding, “It does play into this stereotype around single women being a closet lesbian and it’s a little bit, like, 1980s.” The group went silent for a few seconds before Victoria said “Well, you do have a cat," then Caroline pointed out that. “It’s an older generation thing, it’s not current.” Krissy then agreed that her jokes had landed badly, saying "And you know what, I can do that. I can rub people up the wrong way because I'm big and loud."
These kinds of stereotypes about single women feel like they belong in the early 2000s, where people like Bridget Jones were the object of pity. In 2023, we know that many women are choosing to stay single and not have children, and the idea of calling someone a “closet lesbian” or shaming them for being single feels grossly out of place. (For the record, we don’t actually know Kate’s sexuality, and frankly, it’s none of our business!)
Given the huge success of the new season of RHONY and the short-lived first iteration of RHOS, it makes me wonder whether Season 2 will feel fresh enough to go the distance. Does airing these conversations leave the show in 2017? Will the drama and the gossip (which is undeniably delicious) be enough to keep the audience hooked, or are we looking for more depth from our reality TV fix now?