- Scholars do Bravo Too:Reality Television, Public History, and the Historians on Housewives Podcast
In spring 2019, doctoral candidates Kacey Calahane and Max Speare partnered with Dr. Jessica Millward, associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, to create the Historians on Housewives (#HonH) podcast. We envisioned this project as a multi-platform and interdisciplinary endeavor to make scholars accessible to a broad public audience and to help them communicate their work in ways that transcend the academy, using reality television as the primary subject and medium. Our podcast brings together scholars from across the academy to use the pop cultural phenomenon of The Real Housewives reality television show as a vehicle to explore questions about United States and world history and interdisciplinary methods of research. Historians on Housewives and guests on the podcast interrogate characters and episode story arcs to contextualize academic history for a public audience using BravoTV's vast catalogue, including non-Housewives programming, as an archive. Launched in August of 2019, the first season tackled a broad spectrum of subjects, including slavery; segregation; the politics of fashion and identity formation; wealth accumulation and branding; publishing; colonialism; immigration; historical memory; oral history; genocide; adolescence; feminism; motherhood; fertility; divorce; and domestic violence.1
The #HonH project demonstrates how scholars can use the podcast to interact with the public in culturally relevant and accessible ways while also providing new avenues for student engagement and alternative career paths for graduate students. The #HonH project also bridges these conversations beyond listening to the podcast by engaging with social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to contextualize—with the help of academic books and articles—the popular culture consumed by the public each day.
On every episode, guests, who are largely academics, join #HonH and use Bravo's most memorable moments to contextualize their scholarship. We have asked, for example, what does it mean that a broad public found solace in the plasticity and vanity of Orange County, California in the midst of the 2008 market crash? How has the category of "housewife" been destabilized, not just historically, but across the franchises? What does it mean to be a housewife in Atlanta, Orange County, Beverly Hills, Dallas, Miami, [End Page 135] Washington, DC, Potomac, New Jersey, New York, and Melbourne? To what degree are these different experiences not just captured but also consumed? Can the Real Housewives and other Bravo shows help our students engage with national and transnational debates about feminism, sexuality, motherhood, and belonging? How do race and power function on the franchises and how do we reconcile the racial politics that have become formulaic for entertainment value? What is the role of capitalism and the commodification of gendered "norms" in the franchise? Why does Bravo capitalize on the prominence of cast members descended from well-known American families like the Calhouns (Kathryn Dennis), the Kennedys (Carol Radziwill) and the Morgan robber barons (Sonja Morgan)? And, finally, in what ways do the tensions in old-moneyed housewives' relationships play out in their pursuits of entrepreneurial endeavors versus their nouveau riche social climbing counterparts?
Our podcast places particular reality TV moments within their historical context and is dedicated to discussing the craft of history, including archives and oral history. The pilot introduced listeners to the Bravo show Southern Charm, which follows the descendants of well-known slaveholding families in South Carolina, like Kathryn Dennis (John C. Calhoun) and William "Shep" Rose (Mary Chesnut Boykin). That episode discussed antebellum slavery and genealogical history by highlighting the manifold linkages between South Carolinian slave holders, enslaved people, and current cast members. #HonH juxtaposed the ways that the "Southern Charmers" continue to inhabit plantation spaces in South Carolina with the trip made by the all-African American cast of the Real Housewives of the Potomac (RHOP) to the Whitney Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. This highlighted the key difference between the understanding of race and space on Southern Charm and RHOP: the Potomac women provided a perspective of the plantation centered in African American history and the multi-generational trauma of slavery. In addition, the comparison contextualized the contemporary...