Eight women sit at a pristinely set table, dutifully arguing with each other as they advance a plotline that the producers have agreed will attract the most viewers. It’s a typical evening of taping for Season 10 of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills until cast member Denise Richards ignores protocol and yells “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!”
Bravo, of course, is the cable channel that airs the show, and by shouting its name (while looking at the camera) Richards broke the fourth wall. Her outburst caused face cracks among the rest of the housewives, who weren’t sure what to do. It also signaled a new era for reality television.
When the Housewives franchise premiered in 2006, neither cast members nor viewers fully understood how being surveilled could manipulate the perception of a person’s identity. Whether we were living our lives in front of television cameras or posting our photos on Facebook, most of us shared the illusion that we could control how we were perceived.
It's impossible to believe that now. Today, most reality fans are familiar with the “villain edit,” where a cast member’s statements are stitched together in a purposefully unflattering way. Meanwhile, social media platforms are explicitly encouraging users to create narratives for other people. The app BeReal even brands itself as being more authentic because it removes the idea of curating our online presence. In the app, a user and their friends simultaneously receive a daily notification to post a picture of whatever is happening at that moment. No filters needed, no permission necessary.
This writer was unknowingly included in a friend’s BeReal posts and didn’t learn about it until a mutual friend mentioned the photos. The pictures themselves were harmless, but they were a sobering reminder of how difficult it can be for any of us to control our own "edit."
Denise Richards understands that. In that landmark moment, she knew she was getting an unsavory edit over dinner, and she hoped to get it removed from the final cut by directly addressing the cameras. She was trying to regain control over how she was perceived, just like the growing number of people untagging themselves in social media posts.
It’s both damning and hopeful that the Real Housewives producers included Richards’ defiance in the finished episode. On one hand, it reinforces the idea that no one in front of a camera will ever have more power than those behind it, even when they try to disrupt a scene. On the other, it speaks to the collective frustration that millions of us feel when it comes to controlling our own image.
No matter how it’s interpreted, there’s no coming back from Richards’ “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” moment. Hulu’s The Kardashians took a sledgehammer to the fourth wall from the moment it debuted this spring. (Read our review.) In one memorable episode, Kourtney Kardashian is shown calling out producers for editing her engagement party to look like a feud with her ex-boyfriend rather than the family celebration it actually was. Even recent highbrow fare like HBO’s Mind Over Murder shows interview subjects objecting to how they’re being depicted.
So what now? Maybe now that so many shows have normalized the peek behind the curtain, producers can strive for something closer to truthful storytelling instead of exploitative edits. A new commitment to honesty (or at least a manufactured form of it) could revitalize the storytelling on reality TV and engage viewers who no longer want to see beleaguered cast members attempt to protect themselves from the media beast. And if producers can't adapt? In the immortal words of Blac Chyna, perhaps once and for all it'll be time to “cut the cameras, deadass.”
Alexi Chacon is a theatre and culture critic based in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Body, Theatrely, The Brooklyn Rail and more.
TOPICS: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Bravo, The Kardashians, Denise Richards