If you’re a fan of The Real Housewives franchise, then you’re well acquainted with the one-of-a-kind, giddy thrill of watching grown women hurl f-bombs and cocktails at each other. Sure, seeing the ladies of Atlanta and Orange County go about their lives of luxury in total harmony is lovely and all, but let’s be real: we’re here for the drama.
The greatest Real Housewives fights are iconic in the reality TV canon. These sensational brawls unfold on private yachts, in the backs of limos, and in the middle of opulent cocktail parties — pretty much wherever the women are gathered and alcohol is present. But without fail, virtually every season a Housewives battle erupts in the midst of a fabulous, would-be civilized group dinner. What starts as a beautiful evening quickly devolves into a full-on sh*t show in a matter of minutes. And we can’t. Not. Look.
Birds and tables are flipped (Teresa Giudice, “The Last Supper,” RHONJ Season 1). Friendships and wine glasses are shattered (Lisa Rinna, “Amster-damn Slap,” RHOBH Season 5). Sometimes, one woman accuses another of pimping out their daughter for John Legend tickets (RHOA‘s Kim Zolciak v. Kenya Moore at NeNe’s White Party). They’re more or less what some might call a good ol’ fashioned catfight.
But it’s hard to pin down why, exactly, these spectacular shit-shows are the most absurdly entertaining, compulsively watchable thing in the world. What is it about these Housewives conflicts that hooks us? Why is seeing Vicki Gunvalson go off the rails so exciting? And why is watching glamorous forty-somethings behave like toddlers at an opulently set table so fascinating to millions of viewers?
To answer these questions, Bustle spoke to a couple of psychology and media experts, and learned there are actually some very good reasons you can’t turn your heads away when the claws come out.
Oddly enough, our basic primal instincts might help explain why we love to watch the Housewives spar over caviar. “Any time a fight breaks out, whether it’s emotional or physical, you have to look,” explains Dr. Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University. That compulsion to look at violence is rooted in our survival instinct. The humans who paid attention to violent outbursts were the ones who avoided getting killed and went on to reproduce. “[A conflict] might endanger you next. You might need to get involved, you might need to get away. And the only way to figure that out is to look at it.”
But hold up: Doesn’t the fact that it’s TV, and not a real life situation, make a difference here? Bizarrely, no. Even though we know we are not in any actual danger, that drive still kicks in.
“The brain is easy to trick that way because it doesn’t understand television,” says Dr. Nancy Mramor, a psychologist who has studied the effects of media. “[The survival instinct] evolved in a time where anytime you would’ve seen those things, you would’ve been there. It would’ve been people you knew in front of you.” In a world without screens, we never had to learn how to distinguish between TV reality and actual reality, so we didn’t develop the ability to do so. Intellectually, of course, we understand the altercation between Tamra and Vicki about Brooks’ cancer sham is so not our problem. “But the part of your brain that’s looking out for survival, it doesn’t care,” Dr. Mramor says.
We’re Social Creatures
There’s another key human instinct at play here: We like to be all up in each other’s business. “Part of our evolutionary heritage is we are social creatures,” Dr. Gentile says. “Maintaining awareness of the complex social networks is really important to understanding where we fit in the pack.” Essentially, paying close attention to these social structures — who lies, who is dangerous, who’s ganging up on who — increased a human’s odds of surviving, and therefore over many millennia became part of who we are. “So these dramatic fights, or even dumb little sarcastic or snippy comments — those are all part of that understanding how these complex interconnected people fit together,” Dr. Gentile says.
Even better than knowing the social hierarchy of the pack is being at the top of it. When we see Bethenny Frankel take somebody down, that same instinct takes note. “It’s like we’re watching how to win,” Dr. Gentile says. “It’s learning how to establish social dominance. It’s learning how to get what you want.” These cues are especially valuable if they’re from people of a higher status, Dr. Gentile says — and what better teacher than, say, the conversation-commandeering Lisa Vanderpump?
We Like Looking Down On The One Percent
It’s no secret there’s a bit of schadenfreude at play here. It’s simple, really: When somebody’s behavior is embarrassingly bad, as often is the case at these dinner parties gone wrong, “people get to shake their head and judge them in a way that makes them feel better about themselves,” Dr. Mramor says. And when that person is above us socioeconomically, she adds, it’s especially gratifying. “[We] like to watch people who are of a certain status behave beneath their status.” Because while we may feel inferior to the Housewives when it comes to wealth, privilege, beauty, and fame, we can feel superior to them morally when they throw temper tantrums (ahem, Brandi Glanville). It’s a matter of fluffing our superegos. “When somebody’s aggressive instinct acts up, the superego likes to look down on it and say, ‘tsk tsk,'" Mramor says.
We Like Watching Other People Lose It — Because We Can’t
Dr. Gentile has a different theory about why we enjoy watching the women go ballistic on each other. Most of us are familiar with the concept that we like living vicariously through the Housewives — peering into their overstuffed walk-in closets, witnessing their state-of-the-art beauty treatments, tagging along when they jet-set to idyllic locales. But there’s another less obvious form of vicarious living at play when we watch the women explode with emotion in these scenarios: self-liberation.
“Most of us spend all our days working to control [our] thoughts and feelings,” explains Dr. Gentile. “We don’t say everything we think or do everything we [want to], and this is part of the stress most people feel, the feeling that they can’t quite be themselves.” He continues, “And so when you watch someone not being able to control themselves, that’s interesting to people because we know how it feels to want to just say the things we’re feeling [...] This is a way of vicariously feeling that adrenaline rush. Getting to see what would happen if you just let loose.” Hey, there are definitely way more harmful ways to let loose than a Real Housewives marathon on the couch.