In a now legendary Real Housewives of New York scene, then 49-year-old Luann de Lesseps is hungover and unapologetic. On a girls trip to Turks and Caicos, a wild night of partying has ended with a naked man asleep in the group’s rented villa, much to the dismay of castmate Heather Thompson. “Be cool,” an unbothered de Lesseps tells Thompson, strutting around their lavish accommodation dressed only in a bikini, robe and dark glasses. “Don’t be all like, uncool.”
At home in Sydney, I gleefully watched this drama unfold while horizontal on my couch. Ten-odd weeks into another lockdown, there has not been much to do besides inhale episode after episode of reality television. Boredom and cabin fever has been a fixture of my Covid experience, as I’m sure it has for everyone else. But as a woman in her early 30s, I’ve also contended with the bubbling anxiety that the pandemic is swallowing the last of my youth, and with it the final gasps of both possibility and my relevance to society. (Yes, I am prone to dramatics.)
Real Housewives, as well as being a much-needed source of entertainment, has been an unexpected balm to these frustrations. The franchise, which follows the lives of wealthy women in various regions around the US and the world, features casts largely in their 40s, 50s and 60s. It’s a demographic sorely underrepresented on screen and frequently made to feel invisible in the real world. In scripted shows, middle-aged women are often one-dimensional supporting characters to their husbands and children, if they’re given roles at all. But on reality network Bravo, they’re positioned front and centre and presented as aspirational – successful, glamorous women who lead interesting and fulfilling lives.
Of course, these women are obscenely privileged, with bank balances and opportunities that are not representative of the typical midlife experience. But even still, watching them is a relief. In all their middle-aged glory, the castmates party, holiday, date, enjoy sex, find love and throw wine at the frenemy who just implied that their husband might secretly be gay. It gives me great comfort to see that not only does the fun not have to stop, but that the goss only gets filthier as you age.
It’s a gift to get to see middle-aged women thrive, but I even find reassurance in the tribulations the cast face. Stick with it long enough and Real Housewives becomes a longform character study – in the New York series, you stay with many of the core cast for over a decade and watch them go through incredible change over that time, mostly coming out strong on the other side. When de Lesseps swaggers around that Turks and Caicos villa, for instance, she has recently begun afresh after a divorce. In later seasons she’ll remarry, divorce again, get arrested and do a stint in rehab, before embarking on a new career as a cabaret star. Wealth hasn’t insulated these women from sadness or ensured everything turned out the way they planned. But seeing many of them enjoy incredible second acts after their marriages break down or children move out of home is a testament to how much life is left after 40.
In her final season on the show, journalist-turned-Housewife Carole Radziwill, who was widowed at age 34, has really hit her stride. She’s shrugged off the end of her on-again-off-again relationship with a hot chef two decades her junior because she prefers being single anyway, and is training for the New York marathon, despite never having exercised before in her life. “The 30-year-old Carole definitely couldn’t have imagined the 54-year-old Carole running 22.6 miles,” she laughs in a piece to camera. Watching her limp over the finish line six-odd hours after the starting gun sounded, it was hard not to get a little emotional.
Now, after hundreds of hours of Real Housewives, I no longer dread getting older. Instead, I look forward to seeing out my 40s as a hot mess, holidaying in an island villa (or its more affordable alternative), somewhere between my first and second marriages. Honestly, it looks great.
Katie Cunningham is a freelance writer from Sydney