Being a Real Housewives fan means striking a tricky balance. In order to indulge in the franchise’s many pleasures — ranking husbands from sort of horrible to full-blown nightmares, drinking up every ridiculous fight and increasingly unhinged accusation — you must also steel yourself against everything that’s so fucked up about it.
And I don’t mean fucked up in a “reality TV rots your brain” sort of way. The surface-level stuff may seem asinine to nonviewers, but real Bravoheads know that underneath all the pettiness is a fascinating and even profound exploration of what it means to love, forgive, and belong. These women attempting to perform their own idealized version of themselves — rich, successful, ageless, perfect wives and mothers — might be doing it all with more money and power than we are, but their anxieties (and even delusions) are really just fun house mirror reflections of our own.
Still, there is a dark side to the Housewives universe, which, of course, centers on wealthy (or apparently wealthy) women, their obscene spending, and their frequently retrograde ideas about sex and marriage (not to mention politics and human rights). One of the franchise’s driving inquiries is the extent to which its cast members do, or don’t, live up to a traditional housewife fantasy. And more importantly: What does one woman’s particular brand of wifedom — and the pressures surrounding it — mean for her social standing?
Though the Housewives cast members have found ways to fight about virtually everything (from a stuffed bunny rabbit to a hat with fake poop on it), some of the most iconic moments of the franchise have been blowups about somebody’s marriage: Think Lisa Rinna smashing a wine glass on Beverly Hills when Kim Richards threatened to talk shit about her husband, Harry Hamlin. So many of the women on any given series are called time and time again to defend their romantic relationships against accusations from their dubious, catty castmates, whether because of a steep age gap, à la Erika Jayne, or because the dude is just plain unlikable (alleged predator Michael Darby on Potomac, controlling asshole Kordell Stewart on Atlanta, medical records forger Brooks Ayers on Orange County).
Sometimes it feels like Housewives really boils down to Divorce Watch, and none more so than the original, Real Housewives of Orange County. Who will survive the curse of the vow renewal, and who on RHOC specifically will beat the odds of the area’s astronomical 72% divorce rate? There was the conservative Christian who insisted that because Eve was made from Adam’s rib she should therefore be subservient to her man (Alexis Bellino, who ultimately, surprise, ended up divorced). On the other side of the spectrum, perhaps most infamously, we had the modern business-owning woman who works hard, plays hard, and has no time or real desire to invest in her longtime marriage (OG castmate Vicki Gunvalson, whose adamant defenses of her cancer-faking boyfriend Brooks in later seasons destroyed most of her friendships and ultimately planted the seeds of her ouster from the show).
Braunwyn Windham-Burke, who joined RHOC for its 14th season in 2019, at first seemed like yet another typical blonde Orange County wife, if a little unusual for her particularly large family. But the mother of seven sent shockwaves through the rest of the cast when, in a post-drinking hot tub scene, she admitted that she and her husband, Sean, had the occasional threesome. (Later, at the end of Season 15, she came out as a lesbian.) It saddened me to watch Braunwyn initially frame this confession as a “gift” she gave her husband for his “monument birthdays,” like his 40th, thus de-emphasizing her own agency and desire.
But even under cover of being a generous and accommodating wife, Braunwyn was still met with shock and even repulsion from her fellow Housewives castmates for, as Vicki later put it, inviting another woman into her marital bed. “I think it’s disgusting,” Vicki specified during what, unbeknownst to her at the time, would be her last reunion (for now, at least). We all know that Vicki is a hypocritical monster — the kind of woman who endlessly moralizes about how the other cast members should be better “role models,” despite her own divorces, affairs, and general history of sloppy, drunken behavior. But even Gina Kirschenheiter, who would later become one of Braunwyn’s only defenders among the cast, joked in a talking head interview that threesomes sound like a good way to get an STD.
Being anti-threesome isn’t necessarily anti-queer, but my internal alarms started pinging nonetheless. Anti-gay prejudice certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for these women, especially Vicki, who once told a guy he didn’t “look” gay, has said she just “doesn’t get” drag, and, most egregiously of all, spread rumors about her now–former best friend Tamra Judge’s husband, Eddie, being secretly into men.
All of this is to say that I wasn’t expecting much from these ladies in terms of progressivism and worldliness, but I was disappointed nonetheless. When Tamra and Emily Simpson started asking Braunwyn questions in the hot tub, they seemed like they were fishing for sordid details — “Where do you find the other girl, Craigslist?” Emily asks — rather than trying to better understand their new friend. Meanwhile, Braunwyn defended herself by insisting that she’s “definitely straight”; she just likes to make out with girls occasionally.
Oof. How many legions of queer women have told their less-than-accepting straight friends this exact lie before coming out? I definitely did, in an attempt to believe it myself. The power of compulsory heterosexuality is so breathtakingly strong that many of us who are now mostly or even exclusively attracted to women spent years convincing ourselves otherwise. All women, even in a supposedly postfeminist era, grow up learning that we should structure our lives around men, that husbands and children are the only things that will give our lives meaning. I could easily see myself having taken a path like Braunwyn’s, marrying young, having a bunch of babies, and wondering whether I’m not attracted to my husband in the way so many women are apparently not attracted to their husbands or if my bone-deep dissatisfaction is somehow a different kind.
In Season 15, Braunwyn says that one of the reasons she kept getting pregnant, at least on a subconscious level, was because she wouldn’t be able to drink during those months — she identifies as having alcoholism and is now nearly a year sober — but I wouldn’t be surprised if another one of those subconscious reasons was that pregnancy was a way to occupy her body and mind in ways that would distract her from really dealing with her sexuality.
When she was still drinking, her attraction to girls could be passed off as drunken, meaningless titillation. She even had a couple of steamy on-camera moments during Season 14 with Tamra — which, for a longtime Tamra hater turned stan and lover of matchy-matchy femme lesbian aesthetics, was extraordinarily exciting!!! Even if the Braunwyn–Tamra moments were largely written off as the sort of wild party-girl antics for public (read: male) consumption, rather than anything genuinely queer. (Vicki found their makeouts disgusting, of course.)
Braunwyn spent much of Season 15 mostly owning up to her shit, apologizing for the things she did when she was still drinking. That doesn’t mean she’s been a saint — when accused of spreading gossip, she’ll often throw the other Housewife with whom she’d been gossiping under the bus. But in the grand scheme of bad Housewife behavior, Braunwyn’s was a pretty mild case (especially before Shannon’s revelation in Part 1 of the reunion that Braunwyn, before she was sober, once offered her teenage daughter drugs).
So it unnerved me to see Braunwyn go through a similar though slightly less intense version of what Denise Richards recently endured on Beverly Hills: ostracized at least in part for her perceived deviant sexuality and for failing to “be honest” about the extent of her attraction to women. In Denise’s case, ex-Housewife Brandi Glanville publicly accused Denise of having an affair with her, which became the main drama of the most recent RHOBH season — evidence of Real Housewives’ gay panic problem, as Kyndall Cunningham put it in the Daily Beast last year. Preceding the Denise drama, Atlanta’s now-fired cast member Phaedra Parks once tried her darndest to paint Kandi Burruss as a closeted lesbian who planned to drug one of her fellow castmates.
While Denise has since left the show (team Denise!!!), Braunwyn wasn’t similarly driven to departure. (Bravo has yet to announce whose contracts on Orange County have been renewed for its 16th season.) But with both Vicki and Tamra gone in Season 15, Braunwyn was left in her sophomore year without both her biggest nemesis and her biggest ally, resulting in a sort of weird limbo. Newly sober, she ticked off cast members like Shannon Beador for insinuating they might have their own drinking problems, and she lost some points for gossip/rich girl snobbery (even though every single one of these women has been a worse rich snob than Braunwyn, IMO!).
But it seemed like Braunwyn's political transformation was one of the main reasons she became increasingly alienated from her castmates. She got into a few fights with Kelly Dodd, who spent the pandemic sowing doubt about mask effectiveness and apparently mocking Black Lives Matter. Braunwyn, meanwhile, was radicalized to speak out against racism by the George Floyd protests and started to question whether conservative über-wealthy Newport was really where she should have raised her family. One of her children has now come out to her as something other than straight, and on the show, we’ve seen heartwarming scenes of Braunwyn and Sean supporting their teenager’s exploration into drag and gender-nonconformity.
Last night on Part 2 of Season 15’s reunion, Braunwyn’s husband, Sean, joined to discuss staying married even after Braunwyn came out as gay in December, choosing instead to pursue an open relationship under the same roof while continuing to co-parent. Braunwyn has been openly dating her girlfriend Kris, whom she met on Tinder (!), and since shooting, Sean’s been spotted with a girlfriend of his own. Even though both of them are seemingly fine with this nontraditional modern setup, Braunwyn’s castmates — including Elizabeth, who came out during the reunion as a "nonpracticing" bisexual — all say they feel bad for Sean. “I just don’t see how Sean’s gonna be happy in this situation,” Emily comments. Kelly and Shannon agree; Kelly calls him “selfless” and “a saint.”
“We just have such empathy for Sean,” Shannon explains to Braunwyn, preempting a blowup, “because you said to us, ‘It’s me time. I’m doing things I wanna do.’ And you have seven children, and I gotta say, you keep posting pictures — you’re out here, you’re traveling here, and Sean is at home with the kids.”
It makes sense to me that the Housewives and their audience will question whether it makes sense for Braunwyn and Sean to stay married after 20-plus years together when they’re both seeing other people. But it frustrates me how little the other women have attempted to understand or empathize with Braunwyn’s journey. (Kelly thinks she’s faking alcoholism, so no hope there.) Even after getting sober and coming out as gay — huge, major, life-shifting events! — Braunwyn hasn’t been afforded much decency or grace from her castmates. And not from executive producer and host Andy Cohen, either, who chose Part 2 of the reunion to lecture Braunwyn about how she should be taking care of herself right now instead of trying to be a role model — as if being the only cast member to be vocal and persistent in her support of Black Lives Matter is a bad thing? And of course this out gay man had nothing to say about, for example, Kelly implying to Braunwyn that pussy tastes like smelly tuna.
Across franchises, the Housewives cast members have all had their ups and downs, both onscreen and off. It’s become fodder for the show as the women try and mostly fail to connect with one another. Still, it’s quite a bummer, if somewhat inevitable, how quickly everyone comes to Sean’s defense, which he neither needed nor asked for — a man victimized by lesbianism, by an autonomous woman and mother who chooses to do some things only for herself. How dare she act on her selfish lesbian lust! How dare she disrupt the straight nuclear family!
Wouldn't it be something if the other Housewives embraced or even just tolerated Braunwyn for reimagining that traditional vision of mother and wife, rather than seeing her differences as a threat to their carefully cultivated universe? What if just one of them recognized that so many cast members past and present have had multiple marriages and family traumas — that they’ve all failed to perform the impossible ideal of wifely perfection at one time or another precisely because it is impossible, and maybe they should stop expecting each other to live up to these ridiculous standards? But you know that I’m not holding my breath. ●