The Kavanaugh Senate hearing has been the site of substantial pain and trauma, with survivors across the country subjected to the scrutiny and interrogation of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. (If you’re a survivor who’s struggling with the news cycle, Vox has published tips that might help). In the middle of it all, Real Housewives creator and executive producer, Andy Cohen, found time to thank Jeff Flake, the Republican Senator from Arizona who delayed the Kavanaugh senate vote by a week.
Andy’s tweet opened the door to criticism, confusion and eyebrow-raised emojis. One user responded, “[H]ow about thanking the real heroes like [Dr] Christine Blasey Ford, [Ana Maria Archila] & [Maria Gallagher]?” Indeed, the latter two names are those of the women who cornered Flake in an elevator and successfully pressured him into motioning a delay only minutes later.
Cohen responded that he was simply excitable: “I know who the real heroes are.” I’m partially sympathetic to his initial tweet: if you’ve studied Psychology 101 you’d know that behaviors are manipulated best through operant conditioning by either positive reinforcement (praise) or negative reinforcement (punishment). Good behaviors are rewarded; bad behaviors are penalized. With enough repetition subjects adapt their behavior to suit their new environment, aka thanking the Republican senator for doing the absolute bare minimum is theoretically more effective than publicly calling him a dickwad.
But the focus on Flake in proxy to our three heroes had me questioning Andy Cohen’s broader track record when it came to women and their representation in media.
We recognize Andy Cohen as that white gay dude who sits with the Housewives at the end of each season and asks questions pertaining to their tumbling sobriety, turbulent vacations, and tumultuous relationships. He kickstarted his career in television interning at CBS News alongside fellow intern Julie Chen. In 2009 he became the first openly gay host of an American late-night talk show. He won an Emmy in 2010 as Executive Producer of Top Chef. In 2015, he co-hosted New Year’s Eve with Carson Daly and until 2013 he served as Executive Vice President of Development and Talent for Bravo, becoming both a household name and a pioneer for queer representation on the television.
His accomplishments haven’t rendered him immune to controversy. In late 2017, Kathy Griffin posted a 17-minute video on her working experience with Cohen: he “live[s] just to take women down” she offered, alongside a tweet labeling him “deeply misogynistic.” With recent tweets like, “Look at Miss Lindsey Graham trying to be all tough!” it’d seem that maybe Griffin isn’t the best advocate for progressing our conversations around gender, but two things can be true at one time: Cohen’s sexism and Griffin’s regressive commentary.
The misogyny is made explicit on Watch What Happens Live, where Cohen routinely asks female guests whether they’ve “taken a dip in the lady pond” (aka had sex with other women). But in probing the women’s sexual experiences as if they’re on some kind of game show, Cohen reinforces the harmful stereotype that women having sex with other women is a trendy phase or college experiment. In repeatedly asking this question Cohen de-legitimizes and cheapens lesbian and queer women’s sexualities through what writer Anna Dorn dubs “the Gay Male Gaze.” Does he ask an equivalent question of his male guests? No. When the tables were finally turned and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump asked Cohen if he’d ever had sex with a woman, he — of course — had to make mention of his “gold star gay” status (a term which carries its own set of issues).
Cohen’s wayward history with queer women also includes a controversial stint on NBC’s Today show. In defending Channel Seven reporter, Samantha Smith, from her own row of sexist speculation, Cohen added, “that poor lesbian reporter” — and soon after apologized for speculating on her sexuality. He charmingly reflected on the experience in his 2014 memoir, The Andy Cohen Diaries: “She was a bull dyke and you wouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out”.
But much of this misogyny also festers in his art. Earlier this year, The Biggest Loser’s Jillian Michaels shared her view on the Real Housewives franchise: “It’s like [the franchise] was created by someone that hates women!” she said. “I mean, the guy hates them. He’s an asshole.” Michaels’ involvement in The Biggest Loser — a reality show now known for its alleged abuse and manipulation — makes this kinda awkward, but again: two statements can be true at once.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Cohen responded to Jillian’s claim: “I love women… Housewives is a show about women and it’s predominantly for women, even though so many men watch it so I think that’s a really good question for the millions of women who watch the shows. … It’s a show about friendship. It’s a show about being a wife. It’s a show about being a mother. It’s a show about being a sister. And sometimes the experience of being a friend and a mother and a wife and a sister isn’t pleasant and sometimes it’s wonderful.”
As someone whose love for RHONY extends to a plug in his very own writer’s bio, I would very much like for Cohen’s defense to be completely true — but it’s not. The premise and ultimate success of the Real Housewives franchise largely rests on the humiliation of women as a form of entertainment. This takes shape in raucous dining excursions, snippy sidewalk phone conversations, and tequila-fueled trips to whatever holiday spot is in vogue. There’s a seeming disconnect between us, as viewers, wanting the wives to do well (I cried when Carole ran the NY marathon), and where the show harvests the majority of its success from: the bickering, booze, and drama (Countess Luann Houdini-ing her way out of handcuffs in the back of the police car made for perfect television). For the show to work, it needs to play on the tropes that women are catty, dramatic and manipulative. Absent from any major bouts of melodrama, the trailer for the newest season of Real Housewives of Atlanta flooded my Twitter feed with commentary on how boring it looked.
Leaving RHONY after Season 10, former ABC journalist Carole “You’re so full of shit, Andy” Radziwill admitted that she won’t miss “the drama, the negativity” of the series. “It’s hard to navigate that kind of addiction and mental health issues,” she continued.
One could argue that the women are doing it to themselves with full agency over their representation, but we also know that the maintenance and upkeep of misogyny and sexism doesn’t rely exclusively on the cis heterosexual man. Camille Grammer’s (RHOBH) Twitter feed, where she doubts the credibility of Dr. Blasey Ford, can easily attest to that. One could further argue that the wives are just capitalizing on a formula fixed beyond their control, where drama and infighting translate into money and power. The show has become a prime platform for the women’s personal business ventures (Bethenny’s SkinnyGirl, Ramona’s skin care, Sonja’s family-crested shoes).
A post on Feministing puts responsibility back on the producer: “Instead of intervening and ceasing the back-and-forth between ladies as they respond to controversial questions posed by Cohen, he is often seen sitting back and watching the events unfold,” they write. Is Andy Cohen doing enough to mitigate the sometimes undoubtedly obvious issues with substance abuse, bullying, and mental health that plague the show? Or is he simply cashing in on the humiliation and hatred of women?
It’d be easy to argue that Cohen’s shows are simply fun escapism; televised vacations for viewers to run from the horrors of modern life. But all throughout our broader public conversations on humiliation, abuse, and sexism, I worry about the effects of internalizing this kind of entertainment. I worry about what we’re being conditioned to think about women when we’re repeatedly screaming and gagging at their expense.
Will I stop watching RHONY? Honestly, no. But I guess two things can be true at once: my personal hypocrisy, and the ways Cohen fuels a culture deeply soaked in sexism.