“The Real Housewives Of Atlanta” Shows How Impossible The American Dream Is
More than just a meme generator, the hit reality series reflects the bourgeois panic triggered by the 2008 recession.
Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta is a spectacle of Dirty South glamour, quick weaves, and even faster reads, as if aliens with barcode scanners for brains crash-landed in Buckhead. It’s what many people playing Taboo would guess if you used the words “bankruptcy,” “glamsquad,” “shady contractor,” “Decatur,” “married African prince,” and “bundles” as clues. It’s about winning, or appearing to win, at every turn, or twirl.
RHOA is also, like other reality shows in this vein, a Survivor-esque competition for screentime and public perception. But the clamor for the best hair and outfits only matters so much. Financial one-upmanship and having it all are the real prizes. Fiscal flexing has been central to RHOA’s paradigm since it began in 2008, right as the global financial crisis started in earnest. In the premiere episode, Kim Zolciak’s married boyfriend/sugar daddy Lee “Big Poppa” Najjar gave her $68,000, on the spot, to buy a new cream-colored Escalade; for his birthday, NeNe Leakes’s husband Gregg gave their 10-year-old son a $1,000 check as a symbolic first investment; Housewives Shereé Whitfield and DeShawn Snow showed off their homes and listed their extensive household staffs; and if it wasn’t totally clear from those other ostentatious shows of luxury, in her introductory confessional, Whitfield said, “I consider myself amongst Atlanta’s wealthy elite,” which is basically what they all say.
Now in its 11th season, which premiered in November, The Real Housewives of Atlanta still inspires delusions of grandeur among its cast members, new/no money radar, and lifestyle scrutiny in its viewers. Ever since Leakes, the show’s breakout star, screamed “I am very rich, bitch!” at Whitfield in Season 4, trying to prove who has the most money has figured prominently in the show’s storylines, moving from subtext to explicit plot point with the same escalating trajectory as many a huffing, puffing Housewife up the steep pathway from Kenya Moore’s manor to the main road. (Leakes’s setup line, “While you were running your mouth...I was running to the bank, sweetie, and depositing a Trump check! Donald Trump,” has not aged as well.) Viewers have become accustomed to judging not only the women’s lavish spending and status symbols, but also their financial acumen, and their ability to land and keep a man.
But much like regularly televised shade — its major export — The Real Housewives of Atlanta is more nuanced and subtle than some give it credit for. Far from being just a reliable catchphrase and meme dispenser, RHOA has become a many-character study in the dark side of American dreams and ambition. It’s about how some ne’er-do-wells and well-off schemers regard fraud as essential to a financial come-up, and how all of that’s tied to bourgeoisie psychology, male fragility, and American late capitalism. And it illustrates the links between reality TV, conspicuous consumption, and the 2008 financial crisis. Moore famously said she was “Gone With the Wind fabulous,” and RHOA is Gone With the Wind fab too, if that means its main characters are like Scarlett O’Hara: somewhat delusional about their own fates, or the fact that their bubble has already burst.
The Real Housewives of Atlanta — more than any other reality show not explicitly about home improvement — is acutely about housing anxiety. To be clear, this is not the housing anxiety millions of people face daily, whether they’re refugees, migrants, or people who are homeless. This is bourgeoisie housing anxiety, ingrained in the brains of social climbers who have jumped from class to class, televising their lives for TV residuals and clout. RHOA may even be more about those fears than most of those shows, because the homeowners or prospective buyers of the HGTV and TLC stable of home renovation and real estate programs mostly focus on the process of purchasing a home or making one attractive enough to flip. RHOA dwells on the protracted anxiety of owning one, and the lifestyle the house represents.
Financial one-upmanship and having it all are the real prizes.
When RHOA premiered in October 2008, the global financial crisis was only a month old, although its symptoms had been around for far longer. Prompted by the subprime mortgage fiasco — in which banks gave bad loans to people they knew couldn’t afford them — the global financial crisis led to the Great Recession, the worst economic downturn in America since the Great Depression. As Louis Staples noted in the Guardian, “Reality stars from the wealth-worshipping Real Housewives franchise, which premiered shortly before the crisis, were also affected. Cast members were served eviction notices on camera and others declared bankruptcy. On making the crisis a storyline, executive producer Andy Cohen said: ‘Viewers actually related even more seeing what was really going on.’”
In Atlanta, housing prices plummeted by 40% or more, according to one expert, in a city that has a history of segregated housing. (The late civil rights leader Hosea Williams, whose granddaughter Porsha Williams has been an RHOA star since Season 5, led a march against housing discrimination in traditionally white Forsyth County back in 1988.)
Leakes infamously expressed her bougie housing anxiety in the fourth episode of Season 6, when she visited fellow Housewife Moore at an extended-stay hotel Moore had been living in. Leakes speed-walks to the hotel, tsk-tsking the words that have now become one of her catchphrases: “Whew chile, the ghetto.” This fixation on upscale digs is a recurring feature of the show even when the women aren’t in Atlanta. During vacation episodes, when the cast is on location in Miami, Barcelona, Jamaica, and “glamping” in the woods, they make a big deal about their room assignments. Their quibbles consistently exacerbate interpersonal tensions and clarify all of the women’s alliances. As another Housewife, Porsha Williams, explains in Season 11, “There’s always some type of drama around the room. That’s where you see their egos.”
The apotheosis of the show’s focus on housing anxiety and debt is Season 9. Williams moved back in with her mother (like many millennials), and then bought a new $1.4 million house. Cynthia Bailey left her townhouse after her ex-husband stipulated she sell the property during the divorce settlement, and then purchased a lakefront home. And, of course, there’s the whole Kenya Moore vs. Shereé Whitfield saga, a competition between the two women over whose McMansion, Moore Manor or Chateau Shereé, is more fabulous. When the feud began, both women had spent years building and renovating their residences, and the construction time was starting to take a toll on their pockets, resolve, and emotional health. The war between Whitfield and Moore started with a shouting match between the two in the Season 8 premiere, escalated at Moore’s housewarming in Season 9’s premiere, and continued until that season’s finale, when the housewives toured Chateau Shereé. The women went over each other’s quarters like certified home inspectors, joking about the other one’s baseboards, trim, and unfinished basements.
A particularly cringeworthy theme that recurs is the women’s argument over square footage (Moore’s 7,200 vs. Whitfield’s 10,000). If that squabble sounds like a dick size contest, that’s because it probably is. For most of their time on the show, neither has consistent, decent men. Like some of the products in Kandi Burruss’s “Bedroom Kandi” adult toy line, the homes fill a void.
The somewhat irrational focus on housing unintentionally gets at what it means to be a Housewife. It’s been pointed out before, in many digs over the years, that some of the women aren’t married and don’t have kids. It’s an observation made about other women on other franchises, particularly Bethenny Frankel of The Real Housewives of New York City, and the girlfriends and baby mamas on Basketball Wives. On RHOA, it’s Moore who bears the brunt of the commentary. Whitfield, who’s divorced, takes some of it too, as she is never actually married during her tenure on the show. Whitfield is spared some scrutiny because at least she was a wife once, thus earning her place on the show. Most of the other Housewives, especially Moore, have made fun of Whitfield, laughing at her lack of recognition outside of RHOA; her biggest claim to fame from the show being her iconic Season 2 quip, “Who gon’ check me, boo?” and a line of T-shirts bearing the quote. Whitfield’s foray into fashion, a line of T-shirts and lifestyle gear called She by Shereé is notable for its delayed rollout (it was announced in 2008 but didn’t get a proper launch until 2018) and its infamous Season 1 fashion show, where no clothes were on display.
The somewhat irrational focus on housing unintentionally gets at what it means to be a Housewife.
It’s not surprising that the fiercest, pettiest fight on RHOA is between these two women, who have both been maligned, more than any of their castmates, for failing at domestic bliss and professional success. Whitfield was evicted from the house she shared with Bob, the home he brought other women to, as she revealed in a Season 9 dinner with him. Through tears, Whitfield explained to her ex why the house means so much, saying, “Even with building the chateau, it’s something I have to do for myself, and for my kids, because I don’t ever want to depend on a man. Because the man I was supposed to be able to trust, you, left, Bob. And you didn’t give a fuck.” During the time of her feud with Whitfield, Moore, who long strived for and failed to attain the perfect nuclear family, might not have had a man or kids, or a relationship with her mother, but she made sure she had a fierce house. (Moore has since married and had a child, but the marriage happened offscreen, her hubby made only a limited appearance in Season 10, and she had her baby after she left the show.)
On one level, Moore and Whitfield’s intense love for their homes reflects their materialism. On another, it recalls the supremely silly, i.e., the bizarre, real-life story of an English woman who married her house so she wouldn’t get evicted. But the ways in which love and property are intertwined on the show are pretty telling. When Bailey and Peter Thomas are divorcing in Season 9, his one ostensible request is that Bailey sell the house so that his ex couldn’t create new memories there with another man.
You can add the seasons-long drama Moore and Whitfield invest in their houses to the canon of media representations of domestic instability, particularly those that deal with architecture’s effect on women’s mental and emotional health. For Moore, who has called herself a “black Barbie,” the construction of her dream home seems ripped out of a kid’s house-play fantasy. For a spell, her ex-boyfriend Matt Jordan’s violence coupled with the manor’s delayed construction turned Moore’s dream dwelling dysfunctional, into something that more closely resembled a Todd Solondz dollhouse or Beloved’s spiteful abode. In the Season 8 premiere, Moore’s insults about Chateau Shereé inspire Whitfield to say, repeatedly, “the bitch got me fucked up” with such high-pitched intensity you believe it’s the chateau, not Moore, that’s doing the damage. You wonder if the home’s five-year-long construction, like the yellow wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s eponymous story, drove Whitfield into a downward spiral.
The threat of losing housing has always been an undercurrent on the show. Take for example, Whitfield’s storyline in the first season. She’s newly divorced from Bob and restarting her life. There are many shots of their gigantic McMansion, languishing from the lack of romantic love inside, and, we’re soon to learn, financial mismanagement. Whitfield’s narrative contrasts with that of Lisa Wu, who is a real estate agent. Snow’s storyline is much like that of a ghostly wife in a Victorian novel; she floats around her massive property, not making much of an embodied impression on those in her home, yet driving her husband and attendants up the wall. (Snow left the show after the first season because, she claims, the producers told her she was too normal. Others have said she was too boring.) At the beginning of Season 2, we find out Bob stopped paying the mortgage, and the home goes into foreclosure. Shereé and the two children she shares with Bob are evicted from the property and move into a townhouse. Whitfield’s foreclosure reasserts all of her recurring storylines moving forward, as well as the show’s main themes.
The need to keep up appearances, with housing and otherwise, creates tensions between the Housewives and their partners and is even the catalyst for crimes. In January 2014, Apollo Nida, Phaedra Parks’s husband, was charged with bank fraud and identity theft related to a series of schemes. He’d opened up fake debt collection agencies and car dealerships to access people’s data and used the shell companies to open up bank accounts and apply for auto loans, scamming more than 50 people out of $2 million. In his courtroom defense, he claimed the pressure to keep up with his wife’s $600,000 Bravo salary and her high-end lifestyle led him to embark on the criminal plans. In July 2014, Nida was sentenced to eight years in prison.
In a post-reunion extra, the men of Season 6 (Todd Tucker, Peter Thomas, Apollo Nida, and Gregg Leakes) gather to talk about assorted topics with a goofy club scene as a backdrop. They wax poetic about their membership in a different club: that of a husband to an RHOA cast member, and the financial concerns associated with that. When Tucker admits he feels uncomfortable wearing a $20,000 watch Burruss gave him for Christmas because of the various pressures that come with wearing such a costly item, Nida explains that his wife’s rejection of a car he bought her “hurt [his] heart.” “How insatiable can you be?” he asks. It’s easy to extend that question of insatiability to the men of RHOA, a few of whom have engaged in criminal activity to fulfill their own desires and ideals of how to play husband to wives who maybe don’t need their money anymore, if they ever did.
The need to keep up appearances, with housing is even the catalyst for crimes.
Kim Zolciak-Biermann’s ex Big Poppa was arrested in 2012 for failing to appear in court in connection to a lawsuit brought on by a tenant. In 2013, Shereé Whitfield’s new beau Tyrone Gilliams (who appeared in Season 4) was convicted for his role in multiple fraudulent enterprises, including a $5 million investment fraud scheme, and is serving a 10-year prison sentence. Bob Whitfield, who for years owed his ex more than $38,000 in child support, filed for bankruptcy in 2011. He also made light of his past physical abuse of Shereé, joking about choking his ex-wife and sending her through a windshield in a Season 9 episode. In one scene before he went off to prison, Nida barrels through his house threatening Parks. (In a Season 7 reunion episode, Parks refused to answer whether or not Nida ever hit her.) Season 6’s infamous “pillow talk” melee, which involved all of the men except Gregg Leakes, is the show’s quintessential exhibition of out-of-control male posturing, accented with an argument about whether or not it’s right for Nida to spend $5,000 a night at the strip club when his family could use the money. Nida, Gilliams, Whitfield, and Najjar illustrate the ways that, on this show, toxic masculinity, money, status, and criminal activity are all entwined.
Into this fray came Matt Jordan, Kenya Moore’s boyfriend throughout seasons 8 and 9. After increasing tension between the couple, including Jordan slapping a rideshare driver who interrupted his attempts to get at Moore in the backseat, and trashing Moore’s hotel room after she posted a picture of her and Jay-Z on her Instagram page, the couple split. On several occasions, he broke the windows in her garage and spray-painted her security cameras. It seems notable that instead of physically assaulting her, Jordan damaged her house.
Everything that comes in the wake of Moore and Whitfield’s duel seems like the beginning of the end for the franchise, mainly because the central tensions between the cast, and the narrative possibilities that relate to all the “types” of women they represent, have been exhausted. In the aftermath of Moore Manor vs. Chateau Shereé, RHOA is a shell of itself; the storylines are recycled from earlier seasons, and the new characters feel like diet version of old ones. Parks was fired after Season 9 for her role in spreading a potentially libelous lie against Burruss, thus ending her archetype of the backbiting, self-righteous Southern belle (as well as any real reminder of Apollo Nida and his compelling fraud storyline). Whitfield departed after Season 10, and Moore left along with her, after she married New York restauranteur Marc Daly, and right before she gave birth to her daughter. (Moore either left because of a dispute with the network over pay or what kinds of storylines she was willing to present on the show.) Now that she’s married with a kid, she’s apparently thinking about moving out of Moore Manor, telling Cynthia Bailey and NeNe Leakes in the Season 10 premiere, “Ghosts have been walking around in there. I want a new life.” It’s ironic: Now that she finally has what she’s always wanted, she’s no longer a part of the show. Overall, RHOA feels like a less vulnerable, and ultimately less courageous, show than it once was. No one’s putting their foibles, or their pride, or their self-esteem, on the line in the same ways anymore.
Andy Cohen said that their struggles made the Housewives more relatable to viewers, but I think it’s really the housing storylines and what they symbolize that fortify that link. There’s a symbiotic relationship between house-flipping shows and the lifestyle ones like The Real Housewives of Atlanta: HGTV is scapegoated for fueling the culture that led to the subprime mortgage bubble, and RHOA cast members are perceived as higher-end influencers of these housing trends and, through their real estate businesses, the beneficiaries of a depressed market. More often than not, the Housewives are derided for being shallow, “wealth-obsessed,” and deluded, as David Serchuk observed in a 2010 piece about the entire Real Housewives franchise and the recession. Serchuk’s summary of RHONJ’s debt-saddled Teresa Giudice is insightful: “To me [she] has larger symbolic value. I see in her a micro vision of our larger economy; built on mountains of bullshit, all for the illusion of prosperity.” The RHOA share that symbolism.
Failure is a central motif in the mythology of the 2008 financial crisis. American politicians deemed corporations like AIG “too big to fail” and bailed them out; during the recession, folks blamed the failure of either the market or federal regulators for the crisis. In his essay on reality TV’s trademark “loser edit,” in which the loser of a competition show becomes increasingly apparent by their arc in the editing of an episode, Colson Whitehead explained a link between reality TV production and failure: “The loser edit is not just the narrative arc of a contestant about to be chopped, or voted off the island, whatever the catchphrase. It is the plausible argument of failure.” That’s contrasted with the “winner edit,” which, “even in its artifice, is a gesture toward optimism, the expectation of rewards waiting for that better self. Whenever he or she shows up.” For the foreseeable future, we won’t get to see Whitfield or Moore’s “winner edit,” but maybe it’s best for them to keep it offscreen anyway. Failure and misdirected optimism, for reality TV stars, homebuyers, and the Federal Open Market Committee, are in constant tension. (You could call them the Moore Manor and Chateau Shereé of philosophy.)
What both Housewives and the folks who defaulted on their subprime home loans might have in common is cruel optimism, Lauren Berlant’s term for when “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Berlant uses the concept to explore neoliberalism and “the question of how people maintain their binding to modes of life that threaten their well-being.” She asks, “Why do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies — say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work — when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear coast abounds?” That process plays out in RHOA, especially in the Manor vs. Chateau saga. And in Moore’s case, her appearance on RHOA was actually an obstacle to her real-life flourishing. In Berlant’s meaning, the cruel optimism comes through in the attempt to thrive in a context where sustainable happiness is a ratings killer. Yet it also feels like the Housewives’ acid-tongued shade is a performance of verbal cruelty. Shade is a hiding place, and so is a home. ●
Niela Orr is a writer from Philadelphia. A former BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow, she is a columnist for the Baffler and an interviews editor for the Believer. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Elle, and McSweeney’s Quarterly.