The Ugly Spectacle of Reality TV Tearing Families Apart
The argument is now unironically known as “Pizzagate”: Luis Ruelas, the socially challenged husband of Real Housewives of New Jersey star Teresa Giudice, claims that he lost $250,000 investing in a doomed pizza oven business with his wife’s brother, Joe Gorga. The Bravo fandom (also unironically) ate Pizzagate up and attempted to decipher whether this business ever existed. Is it even possible to lose that much money on a non-existent pizza oven? No one knows.
Giudice has starred on RHONJ since its inception in 2009. It’s a show where everyone seems to have an uncomfortably red face and be at least a little bit Italian, where gender norms are upheld by the ample use of Ozempic and steroids, and where the constant flow of alcohol leads to explosive drama. Giudice became an all-time great when she literally flipped a table over in the first season, but since then she has gotten divorced and even been sent to jail as Bravo’s cameras rolled. And now, she’s married to a guy who boasts about wearing her deceased father’s pajamas in bed at night. It’s practically a fairy tale.
For almost as long as Giudice has appeared on the show, she has been feuding with her brother Joe and his wife Melissa Gorga, who joined the cast in 2011. The viral TikTok song “Waking Up in the Morning” was originally sung by Giudice’s daughter Gia when she was just 10 years old about her mother fighting with her brother. Gia is now 22 and, this season, the animosity in her extended family is still the central storyline on RHONJ, which culminates in the Gorgas refusing to attend Giudice and Ruelas’s nuptials. The family is currently estranged.
Watching the show this season — knowing all along that the Gorgas would not be attending the wedding and that their relationships would soon implode — I’ve felt conflicted at times. “Nothing is more important than family” is an adage we often hear on RHONJ — a show that has always differentiated itself from the rest of Bravo’s Housewives franchise because of its focus on family. But on both sides of this intractable feud it would appear that some things do matter more, like fame and money.
Reality TV shows have followed families since the very beginning of the genre — and it hasn’t always been pretty. The first-ever reality show, 1973’s An American Family, starred the Loud family, who lived in California. In the show’s most famous scene, Pat asked Bill for a divorce after 21 years of marriage on camera. It was a scene that was unlike anything the show’s 10 million viewers had seen before. The following year, the BBC made its version in the U.K., called The Family.
In the early 2000s, when the reality TV genre was becoming a cultural phenomenon, The Osbournes followed a famous family who were anything but ordinary. The show helped its youngest members, siblings Kelly and Jack, to carve out successful media careers, which reportedly inspired mogul of the future Kris Jenner to pitch Keeping Up with the Kardashians to E!. The Kardashian family’s relatable cycle of arguing and reconciling allowed them to brand themselves as “just like any other family,” despite the fact that this was obviously nonsense. (Some of KUWTK’s bizarre early storylines included Kim Kardashian’s dilemma over whether or not to pose for Playboy and losing a $75,000 pair of diamond earrings in the ocean). Now, on their Hulu show The Kardashians, conflict between family members is no longer the primary focus, with the series instead exploring their shared experience of global fame and business ventures.
To me, there is an important distinction to be made when I watch families arguing or marriages breaking down on reality TV. If it feels like these relationships were always going to fall apart and cameras are merely capturing that, it’s less complicated for me to enjoy — if that is the right word. After all, family arguments and breakups are part of “real life,” so reality TV can and should reflect that.
For example, on the Real Housewives franchise, there is no shortage of marriages which have broken down because they were already in trouble before the show. Some women have said they signed up to the franchise knowing their marriage was in a precarious state, but wanting to gain financial independence. Former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong, who was in a physically abusive relationship with her former husband Russell, even said that she hoped Bravo’s cameras would provide her with some degree of protection from him.
I feel myself becoming more conflicted, though, when the desire to appear on a reality TV show — and the fame, money, and attention that comes with that — starts to play an active role in tearing families apart. On Housewives, it’s common to see divorces which seem to have been at least partially caused by the show, or the power shift when a woman is suddenly in the spotlight. On the latest Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip, a Peacock spinoff that brings together ‘wives from different Housewives shows, the cast discussed how corrosive the show can be to their relationships. Sometimes, when I’ve watched reality TV sending a formally happy couple on the fast track to divorce, I’ve wanted to crawl through the TV screen and shake them: “Is this really worth it? Just quit the show!”
These words also apply to RHONJ’s resident feuding family. It’s impossible to separate the tension between Giudice and the Gorgas from the show itself. This season, one of the central beefs has been the Gorgas claiming they “put food on the table” for Giudice’s family by filming a spinoff show with her former husband Joe while she was in prison for fraud in 2015. And although their issues predate the show, a long-running bone of contention between them is Teres’s claim that Melissa only got her spot on Housewives because of her — and also that she signed up to the show without telling her. Now, there is the unspoken understanding that, if Bravo is forced to choose between them, the network will probably let the Gorgas go.
These are not normal family tensions. Usually, if people are at odds, they take some time away from each other. But it’s impossible to do that if you’re being paid to attend events together — and argue — on camera. It’s also not normal to have to relive conflicts months later and have millions of fans and media outlets offering their opinions and commentary on what happened. (Fans have taken their involvement to uncomfortable and creepy levels this season, even going so far as to investigate the cheerleading schedule of Gorga’s teenage daughter in order to disprove parts of her story). Still, the money that Teresa and Melissa will be making per season will be substantial now that they have appeared on the show for over a decade. Their personal brands and the other ventures they’ve started — from clothing boutiques to podcasts — feel tied to the show too, so this is a trade-off that they are presumably OK with.
As repetitive and exhausting as this feud is to watch, RHONJ does not have a monopoly on families at war. The last season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills sparked a major rift between original cast member Kyle Richards and her sister Kathy Hilton, mother of Paris Hilton. I am mystified as to why two very wealthy sisters would agree to star on a conflict-driven reality show together. After all, the early seasons of the show followed numerous fallouts between Richards and her other sister Kim. Unlike the Kardashians, they don’t have any editorial control over what Bravo chooses to air. Why take the risk?
Thirst for fame aside, the answer to this might be similar to the question of why families fight in the first place: because they’re messy and the dynamics we carry from childhood into adulthood are complicated.
Jerry Springer, who passed away in April, made a career out of bringing these messy (and straight-up bizarre) family feuds into our living rooms. His show, which defined early reality TV, inspired a whole genre of daytime TV shows like Maury that capitalized on real dramas from working-class America. It’s a dynamic that was popular, but plainly exploitative. Often, clearly vulnerable people were encouraged to take a wrecking ball to their lives and literally throw chairs at each other in the name of good TV. A British version of this format, The Jeremy Kyle Show, was canceled in 2019 after a contestant took his own life after being “humiliated” on the show. It had previously been criticized by a judge in the U.K., who described the show as “human bear-baiting.”
We like to think reality TV has moved on from this specific sub-genre. But watching RHONJ, I wonder if that’s totally true. Sure, the participants are wealthier and have more agency than most of Jerry Springer’s guests, but it still feels like a form of bear-baiting, where they are being wound up for our entertainment to sacrifice their familial relationships in the name of content, fame, and money.
RHONJ currently feels less like a fly-on-the-wall look at a family feud, and more like a situation where “the show” and all that surrounds it is purposefully pouring gas on the fire. It’s become a show about how a reality show can tear families apart. For now, I’m still watching — but it often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.