Don’t Come for the Housewives, Honey

Dan realizes that he can’t win with Phaedra in the Traitors conclave, but even this is shrouded in fear of the Housewives collective vs. individual gameplay. Photo: PEACOCK

The players on The Traitors have entered an era of realizing stuff. Thoughts are being thought, cliques are clicking, and Larsa Pippen has admitted she’s no Beyoncé. As of last week’s “The Funeral,” the gamer-vs.-non-gamer dichotomy has been firmly established, and the Real Housewives who represent the latter side are finally recognized as a formidable threat.

But this realization misses the point. So caught up in their fear of a clique and the oversimplified binary between competitive and noncompetitive reality shows, The Traitors gamers fail to understand the subtle strategy and critical thinking mandatory for a long-term Real Housewives career. This underestimation not only makes them look clueless to any viewer who’s seen even one season of the Housewives at work, but it clouds their ability to consider someone like Phaedra as a Traitor. Housewives contain multitudes, but whether we’re talking about a born-for-this player like Phaedra or a doomed-for-banishment-based-on-annoyingness girlie like Larsa, they all have top-tier scheming skills. It’s just a matter of making them fit within The Traitors container.

When talking about any of the season-two cast’s Housewives — Phaedra Parks (RHOA), Tamra Judge (RHOC), Larsa Pippen (RHOM), and Shereé Whitfield (RHOA) — other players consistently use words like “performing” or “backstabbing” as the start and end of their tactical abilities, while other contestant’s skills are referred to as “gameplay” or “strategy.” It’s dripping in misogynistic condescension — very “those girls and their silly drama.” Backstabbing sounds as easy as walking up to someone with a knife, but if it were, everyone would do it. That level of manipulation requires a narrative arc of buildup, an allegiance to be broken. Monica spending an entire season of RHOSLC befriending the other gals as a newbie only to Saltburn them all was not just a simple little act of cattiness. It was the next evolution of Housewives gameplay, bolstered by months of strategic maneuvering on the parts of both the manipulator and the manipulated.

Even with this sudden “the Housewives are a threat” turn, the other Traitors players don’t grasp what the best Bravo stars to ever do it are capable of on an individual level. Exhibit A is Parvati insisting the Housewives get scripts (lol, if true, Bravo, please call me!) and are thus good at performing. What Housewives actually do is so much harder than playing an assigned role: They have to architect a persona within a larger universe and then wield that persona to cause the correct amount of chaos without destroying their IRL personhood/family. Oh, and they must do all of this in full glam, with effortless snark and charm. It’s the embodiment of range. Phaedra Parks could do The Bachelor/Love Island/Big Brother, but none of these other jokers could ever do The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

There’s a point in “The Funeral” where Dan acknowledges that he can’t win with Phaedra in the Traitors conclave, but even this is shrouded in fear of the Housewives collective vs. individual gameplay. Shakespearean levels of dramatic irony for us viewers! This man is clearly clueless about the breadth and depth of the Phaedra Parks canon. She can go from casually fibbing about her own pregnancy to getting fired for planting arguably one of the most harmful lies in Housewives history — and not only that, she can rise like a phoenix from the shitshow ashes and cement herself as charming, hilarious, and worth casting on shows like this one. Making people overlook your past sins is not mere performance, it’s a master class in image manipulation. It’s wild to watch Phaedra reduced to her Traitors on-camera persona, especially by someone like Dan, a supposedly powerful gamer who oafs around doing a consistent “aw shucks” bit while Parvati damn near thwacks him in the noggin with a poisonous goblet. Unimpressed!

As much talk as there is about treachery and deceit, the most valuable skill on The Traitors is deflection. Contestants live and die by how good they are at defending themselves. This is especially obvious when Dancing With the Stars hunk Maks is accused of being a Traitor and basically mumbles, “Uh, umm, I’m not comfortable with this, but did you guys hear about Ekin and Janelle?!” My man would last four minutes on a Bravo production, because deflection and denial are Housewives 101. These women excel at looking someone dead in the eyes, ignoring a literal binder of receipts and hours of footage, and convincing the accuser, the audience, and God himself that “I never said that.” It’s a commitment to the bit, a refusal to back down, a willingness to build a multi-season arc on a single conviction. Just look at the infinite She by Shereé saga, or Jen Shah’s gameplay before the feds intervened. It’s all effortless self-delusion. Housewives don’t discuss this type of “strategy,” just as you and I do not discuss our plans for keeping our hearts beating. It’s a special kind of subconscious strength you just don’t get from carrying heavy shit around an obstacle course.

Competition-based shows are comparatively luxurious in the conditions they offer. There’s voting and structure, defined moments and rules for eliminating your enemies. Housewives cannot simply rally an army and vote off a nemesis. They have to dig deeper, leverage patience and social media, and slowly turn viewers against their target while keeping their own hands at least moderately clean. They may not be used to playing “a game” — they do not show up to work ready to don a helmet and a life jacket to hulk their way to a cash prize — but they are masters of The Game: clawing to get a seat next to Andy Cohen at the reunion, engineering enough drama to negotiate a new contract with a better rate, bolstering their reputation within the fandom, and laying the groundwork for their personal business ventures, or at the very least, spon-con deals. That’s what they call a career, baby.

Housewives’ dedication to the dramatic narrative is similar to the professional-wrestling concept of kayfabe, wherein wrestlers perform staged events in the ring and rivalries outside of it as reality. The gals are masters of keeping the mask firmly on, brawling a whole kayfabe fight on camera that has little to nothing to do with the real interpersonal conflicts happening behind the scenes. It’s a code of conduct that’s part of their job description. The quick-to-cry normies from season one and other non-Housewife Faithfuls like Deontay — who walked in episode four — don’t have the wherewithal to build a persona, much less the stamina to hold it tight for the entire Traitors filming schedule. Tamra Judge has been doing “slightly two-faced, no-nonsense feisty” for 17 years. Personas are not merely for filming days. Housewives stay on at all times, building an entire universe of off-season drama (and content) to sustain their livelihoods. I saw Luann de Lesseps while waiting in line for the bathroom at a Hollywood coffee shop, and you best believe she was full Countess. These tough-as-nails broads don’t break kayfabe for anything.

Housewives are also students of the genre. A Housewife would never ask, “What ‘challenge’? What’s that about?” like Kevin or gawk with befuddlement at the inherent fuckery of Larsa Pippen dating Michael Jordan’s son. First, because Housewives do not like admitting ignorance, and second, because they are largely fans of the entire reality genre. It’s obvious from how they knowingly interact with others that they’ve watched everyone else’s shows, like players studying their rivals’ tapes before the big game. Gamers like Parvati, on the other hand, evidently think docusoaps are beneath them — why bother trying to understand what Housewives are capable of if they’re “scripted”? But Housewives are built for constant evolution. They grow over years into stronger versions of themselves. The same way they borrow and subvert moves from other Housewives franchises, future Housewife players are primed to wield the lessons of their predecessors — both gamer and non.

At this rate, the Housewives will be running this show in a few seasons. They’ve already shown themselves to be sharp — in season one, Brandi Glanville immediately ID’d two out of three of the first Traitors, and only got eliminated for pushing too aggressively on her one incorrect guess. Larsa clocked Dan early on before getting distracted by Janelle. (So far, Faithful Housewives have been remarkably shrewd, but fall victim to their Bravo conditioning, hyperfocusing on their biggest annoyance versus the real threat they’ve already identified.) I’m not putting the big bucks on a Housewife like Shereé eviscerating the gamers this season. In the language of Bravo, she’s currently playing at a Real Housewives of Potomac season-one level: There’s talent there, but the pieces aren’t fitting together quite right; give it a few seasons before a breezy kind of dominance settles in. But Phaedra Parks, Esq.? Now we’re talking. She clearly saw the missteps her Ultimate Girls Trip pal Brandi made in season one and is putting those learnings into action. She has the raw charisma, low-key intelligence, and coveted Traitors position to win The Game, whether or not she actually takes home the cash. In fact, in the gauntlet of manufacturing iconic reality television, she’s already won.

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