Oh, the pleasures of schadenfreude!
“If two drinks help you forget, then at four, you start to feel a helluva lot better for a little while. And the next day I wake up and am in the darkest place I could be in.” So said Taylor Armstrong on a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
. Of course, this businesswoman and philanthropist has been having a tough go of it lately, from having to deal with her husband’s recent suicide to being forced to surrender her wedding ring to lawyers in order to help pay off a lawsuit settlement. It would seem that being a millionaire with unlimited access to the shops on Rodeo Drive
and all the plastic surgery a person’s heart could desire might not be the key to happiness after all. And maybe – just maybe – that’s a big part of why Mrs. Armstrong’s TV show is such a hit.
But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, just in case you’re not overly familiar with The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the television series is part of a reality show franchise begun in 2006 with the premier of The Real Housewives of Orange County
. Each of the various incarnations of Real Housewives follows the daily routines of a small gaggle of extremely wealthy women living in desirable locations around the globe (along with numerous American locales, shows in Greece, Canada and Israel have also been produced, with France on the way), the cameras rolling continuously as they spend oodles of money while navigating through the often troubled waters of business deals, family feuds, and vicious social circles. In short, the premise of the franchise is part Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
and part MTV’s The Real World
. And it’s a formula which has been a massive ratings hit for the Bravo network, with the franchise’s most popular offering, The Real Housewives of Atlanta
, drawing an impressive 3 to 4 million viewers per week. To put that in perspective, while that may represent just a third of the viewership of cable’s most popular program, The Walking Dead
, the numbers still dwarf those of any show on CNN
. And, more importantly to Bravo
, it’s a big enough audience that the ad revenue it generates (when combined with the profits from the show’s spinoff products) makes the Real Housewives franchise a half-billion dollar industry. Without a doubt, plenty of people like their Real Housewives.
But why? What is it about watching a bunch of surgically modified middle-aged women spend extravagant amounts of money on useless status symbols while their personal lives crumble around them that makes for such compelling viewing to so many people? Asking friends and trolling message boards gets you any number of responses to that question. For some, the enjoyment comes through the vicarious experience of seeing how the fabulously wealthy spend their time: “Hey, let’s all take an impromptu trip to Saint-Tropez because, you know, we can!” For others, it's the simple entertainment found in over-the-top soap opera style drama: “Oooh… do you think Brandi stained Lisa’s furniture with self-tanner on purpose?” And for others still, it’s the inherent hilarity found in watching people just being the weird creatures we humans can sometimes be: “So, Mama Elsa’s psychic? Riiiight.” In other words, ask ten different people why they watch Real Housewives, and you’ll probably get ten different answers.
Andy Cohen, one of the top executives at the Bravo Network, believes something very basic lies behind Real Housewives’ popularity. As he explains it, “You can watch it, you can talk about it with your friends and, at the end of the day, you can feel better about yourself and your life.” Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., concurs in an article in Psychology Today
: “Watching these beautiful, insecure women display their angst, I'm ashamed to say, I felt not only empathy for their emotional pain, but a tiny bit of envy and Schadenfreude; a very unmindful state involving feeling illicit pleasure at someone else's misery.”
Despite the physical beauty of these “Real Housewives,” they lead troubled lives. Sibling rivalry, addiction, lack of marital intimacy, unfaithful spouses, social snubs and slights, betrayal by friends, being ostracized or excluded, being publicly judged, criticized, and ridiculed – such appear to be the lives of these rich and famous women, and therein lies the formula for the show's success. If these women, who have lives that most of us can only dream of, were nice, happy people with good relationships, it would cause us mental angst, leaving us with the perception that our own lives were pathetic, miserable and inferior. On the other hand, if we can see that these women are in fact unhappy underneath despite outward appearance (that “pride comes before a fall,” so to speak), we can curl up in bed afterward next to our ordinary, snoring spouses thinking our own lives are pretty darn good.
Now If the people who produce Real Housewives and the professional psychologists who watch it are convinced that schadenfreude is a key component of the show’s success, then perhaps that should give the rest of us pause before we tune in for the next episode. After all, it’s one thing to rejoice when we see the defeat of forces seeking our destruction or the collapse of systems designed to oppress us, but another thing entirely to take pleasure in watching the personal destruction of an individual. As far back as biblical times with proverbs such as “do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and when they stumble, do not let your heart exult, lest the Lord see it, [and] be displeased with you”, the human tendency towards celebrating the suffering of others has been denounced, and it’s a sentiment which has been echoed throughout the ages in the writings of such philosophers as Plato, Schopenhauer, and Kant. Even Freud called such emotions childish, and we know that guy wasn’t overly concerned with ethics. Take your pick, the overwhelming consensus is that schadenfreude is an unhealthy emotional state to be avoided.
So, does all that mean we should avoid watching shows like Real Housewives? Not necessarily. The flipside to schadenfreude is empathy, and good melodrama always offers plenty of opportunity for that. All it suggests is that it might be healthier for the individual viewer to examine why they enjoy the show so much and make sure their interests lie in the right direction. And now’s a good a time as any to start just such an examination, because after the (possibly) former alcoholic Kim recently confronted the (possibly) current alcoholic Taylor over her drinking problems and Kyle brought the uninvited Faye to Lisa’s tea party, you just know that tensions are building and somebody’s going to get smacked down hard on the reunion show. Not that, you know, I would enjoy seeing something like that happen.