“I think Ramona hates Leah because Leah reminds her of her own mortality,” a friend who vowed he’d never watch a minute of The Real Housewives of New York City, only to get sucked into The Real Housewives of New York City, theorized to me recently. It’s a compelling take on season 12 of the series, in which long-standing cast members Ramona Singer, Luann de Lesseps, Sonja Morgan, and Dorinda Medley don’t know what to do about their younger colleagues, Tinsley Mortimer and Leah McSweeney. Across time and place, cast member additions on Real Housewives are fraught developments, but the tensions that emerge during the show’s final pre-COVID season are—though I would argue not entirely attributable to the fear of death—far more existentially tortured than a simple effort to box the new girl out of the inner circle.
Which tracks, given that Real Housewives of New York City (RHONY) is far more existentially tortured than any other city in the franchise. I’m not naive enough to think RHONY is immune to the calculated image strategies and producer manipulations of reality television in general. But where other cities have less and less to offer in the way of drama as they degenerate into empty late-capitalist showcases for the cast’s styling teams and branded product lines, the women of New York are happy to drink away their concerns about how others perceive them, target each other’s deepest vulnerabilities, and open windows into their own fucked-up inner lives.
That comparative openness—along with the fact that the women are genuinely funny, and seem to enjoy each other’s company when they’re not sparring—has justified the long tenure of a core cast to which viewers are deeply attached in spite of their glaring flaws and probable sociopathy. Of course new arrivals are treated with suspicion; the risk of disrupting this compelling mix of horrible personalities is high. But, by the time season 12 began filming, fans and ex-housewives alike vocalized the feeling that a refresh was overdue. For the first time in years, every tenured cast member’s contract renewal was precarious, and the presence of newer, younger women seemed to lay the foundation for an overhaul—a dynamic that catalyzed some of the most entertaining, stunning, and psychologically rich conflicts the show has produced in years.1
The most obvious manifestation of this: an extended showdown between Ramona, a woman so demonic that if she were fictional people would say she goes too far as a caricature of rich Boomers, and Leah, a millennial streetwear designer with no respect for the social conventions of middle-aged Manhattan. Rarely placed up against a personality as outsized and inflexible as her own, Ramona is bewildered by Leah’s lack of deference and instantly seizes on her style choices, her tattoos, her neighborhood of choice, and her class status as evidence that she doesn’t belong in the group—a stance that Sonja, and, to a lesser extent, Luann and Dorinda, back up.
In early episodes, it seems that the older women’s accusations of Leah being “déclassé” and “rough around the edges” are a convenient cover for Ramona’s insecurity around the young, blond, thin Leah’s sexual desirability. Not only is there historical precedent in the form of Ramona’s prior hostility toward ex-model Kristen Taekman, who survived only two seasons on the show, but it also tracks with Ramona’s current state of desperation for male companionship. It’s been a few years since her now ex-husband, Mario, left her for a younger woman, and Ramona’s opening credits tagline for the season insists, “I don’t need to find love. I love myself.” But that claim to independence —though an accurate depiction of Ramona’s unique strain of narcissism—is contradicted by the fact that, in the season’s first episode, she ends up weeping in a bar, wailing, “I want a man to hold me, to love me, to want me.” Leah’s own bad relationship luck doesn’t make her a compatriot in heartbreak; it makes her competition.
But, over the course of a few dramatic incidents, it becomes clear that Ramona is equally threatened by the possibility that Leah might be a better reality television star than her. Outspoken and impulsive, Leah immediately cements her status as a top-tier Bravo personality by getting too lit in the Hamptons and skinny dipping, throwing tiki torches, and screaming at Sonja and Tinsley about their fixations with outmoded high society norms. (Ramona had already left this party—hosted at her own house—to go to someone else’s home, where men would be present. An incredible, unforced error.) Vacation drinking wreaks havoc again a few episodes later, during the cast’s trip to Newport. On the first night, Leah cries and gets in a screaming fight with Ramona. On the second, she cockblocks the older women and throws a fried ravioli at them before storming out of a restaurant. Ramona, a person who has smeared her own diarrhea on the floor of a vacation rental on national television, grows more sanctimonious with each of these moments; as Dorinda notes, Ramona is “[monitoring Leah] in a way that Ramona doesn’t monitor herself.”
The relentless escalation of Ramona-Leah tensions reaches an apex at the birthday party Ramona throws herself, her self-proclaimed “50 closest girlfriends” in attendance. Understandably out of place among the Upper East Side contingent, Leah shows up in a skintight dress that Ramona says is only appropriate because there are no men in attendance. Leah then proceeds to drink too much, dance with Luann and Dorinda, and hike her skirt up—and becomes the sole recipient of a dramatic upbraiding from Ramona, even though the rest of the cast is behaving with a comparable degree of rowdiness. When Leah tries to make this point (admittedly not well), Ramona becomes so furious that she demands the crew stop filming, and threatens to quit the show, an unprecedented fourth-wall breach.
Taken on its own, the incident is fairly straightforward: Ramona, staring down her own advancing age, is enraged by Leah flaunting her comparatively youthful body. But the events that precede Ramona shrieking at the producers provide a far more complicated context. In the days leading up to the birthday party, Ramona and Leah are actually on good terms, even joking that Leah will protect Ramona from the drama she’s worried Sonja and Dorinda will start.2 Later, Leah goes to the spa with her sister, who casually informs her that their mom, Bunny, said she doesn’t really like either one of them as people, and likes Leah even less than Sarah. Understandably sad about this, Leah shows up at Ramona’s party only to get cold-shouldered by the birthday girl—which drives her to drink, and the drinking drives her to act in a way that sets Ramona off in a fashion unparalleled even for Ramona, a known gargoyle.
While it is the most potent example, the birthday blowup is by no means the first time the lines between Ramona and Bunny get blurred. Like Leah and her self-proclaimed “other mother” Ramona, Leah and Bunny have a complex dynamic—one that has been intensified by Leah’s recent decision to start drinking again after years of sobriety, and, before that, a troubled past that included high school expulsion, an arrest, rehab, and a stint in a halfway house run by nuns. “My mom still views me as that wild teenager,” Leah explains. Bunny’s brief appearances on the show reinforce that impression. Neither notably mean nor notably warm, she mostly seems bewildered by, and anxious about, the reality television of it all.3
During a brief stretch of episodes earlier in the season, biological mother and daughter stop speaking, and Leah invites advice from Ramona during a shared car ride to an event. Though Ramona is hilariously, predictably aghast that Leah tried to make amends by texting her mom instead of talking in person, she gives thoughtful advice about what steps Leah might take next, and keeps bringing the conversation back to the fact that Bunny is acting out of concern for her well-being. In a talking head, Leah says that “Ramona and my mom are, like, complete opposites, but having Ramona’s attention in this maternal way is really comforting right now.” But that dynamic can be as destabilizing as it is comforting; that kind, maternal car ride conversation is part of the same pattern that leads Ramona to be judgmental and withholding when she’s trying to punish or ostracize Leah, and leads Leah to act as immaturely as she can when she’s trying to get a reaction out of Ramona.
Mommy issues drive Ramona and Leah apart, but motherhood itself brings them together. Several attempts at confrontation and/or apology fail to bring any closure re: Leah embarrassing Ramona in front of her 50 closest girlfriends. It seems the closest they’ll get to moving on is Leah accepting she’s not going to out-stubborn Ramona, and resolving to stop bringing it up. But, while dining out in Mexico during the season’s requisite international vacation, they stumble into a detente while discussing their respective commitments to staying on good terms with their daughters’ fathers, setting aside their difficult feelings about these men to give their girls reliable parental foundations. Seething anger melts into genuine respect and empathy—they both know the exact contours of this maternal sacrifice—and even though you know the bond is not going to last, it’s still sweet to see them find common ground.
While motherhood can ease tensions between the most combative of enemies, childless RHONY cast members are generally treated like they’ve been imported from another planet. At this point, the Housewives in the title is devoid of meaning; there has not been a married woman in the cast in several seasons. But, in the show’s early years—the ones in which the majority of the cast were actual wives—Bethenny Frankel’s single, childless status made her colleagues turn her into an object of pity and a receptacle for unsolicited advice. And, when she did make progress toward marriage and motherhood in season three, it shifted the balance of power in her close friendship with Jill Zarin, leaving it fractured for years.4
Later, in season five—the show’s first, and ultimately failed, attempt to cycle out the old guard for a hipper, younger cast—Carole Radziwill, journalist and author, joined the ensemble. Her cool-girl image and ability to stay above the fray throughout her first year grated on the other women (especially Ramona, although you already pieced that together from context clues).5 But in her sophomore turn, Carole’s calm demeanor was thrown out of balance by Aviva Drescher’s accusation that her memoir, What Remains, had been secretly ghostwritten. When I adjudicate most Housewives conflicts, I’m not determining who’s wrong and right, but rather which of two wrong parties is behaving more and less ridiculously.6But during this arc, I was outraged on Carole’s behalf—and almost as livid that her coworkers could only bring themselves to empathize with her anger by processing it through a she doesn’t have a child, therefore her career is her baby lens. As if a woman’s creative and professional integrity isn’t a sufficiently meaningful personal value in its own right! I hate it here. (I will never leave.)
All this is to say that these women invariably perceive their childless counterparts as deficient and inferior, a norm so powerful that not even ex-socialite Tinsley Mortimer’s immense cultural capital manages to transcend it. The scion of one of the First Families of Virginia and a style influencer long before Instagram had melted a single brain cell, Tinsley faced condescension around her age, childlessness, and staunch refusal to change her personal aesthetic.7 But this largely manifested in the form of ambient meanness rather than active conflict. Season nine roommate tensions with Sonja, whose iconically bizarre townhouse Tinsley stayed in upon moving back to New York, dissipated quickly. For several seasons, the only elder antagonist Tinsley faced was her mother, Dale Mercer, who demonstrated a preternatural gift for getting her daughter to cry on camera.
But in season 12, the previously not-noteworthy dynamic between Tinsley and Dorinda sours, producing something far darker, weirder, and more complicated than the mother-daughter projections of Leah and Ramona that unfold concurrently. Though she’s always been prone to losing her temper, Dorinda’s fuse gets even shorter in season 12, and Tinsley is almost always on the receiving end of it—in spite of a total lack of antagonism on her part. (In fact, Dorinda’s primary criticism of Tinsley is that she’s staying out of things too much by keeping her personal life private from the other women.) It’s apparent that this dynamic is more about Dorinda being in rough psychological shape than anything Tinsley is or isn’t doing. “There’s nothing carefree about me anymore,” Dorinda laments at one point, explaining how hard it’s been to manage flooding damage at her Berkshires home without a partner’s support.8 These home repairs not only create material and logistical strain, but also force her to sift through a basement full of possessions that remind her of her late husband, Richard, who passed away in 2011. Confronting her grief means confronting the fact that she’s not living the life she imagined: “I did everything right…and this is what I get?” she drunk-cries.
But the fact that all this emotional turmoil is Dorinda’s personal problem doesn’t lessen the impact on the recipient of her anger, and there’s clearly some reason Dorinda has seized on Tinsley specifically, albeit not a good or rational one. Dorinda claims it’s because she’s so overwhelmed by grief, stress, and loneliness that she can’t bear to listen to Tinsley’s comparatively minor problems, such as fighting with her mom about whether she should wear her hair curly or straight for a runway show. Which, honestly? Fair. Tinsley, as much as I love her as a TV character, would be unbearable in a social setting. But I’d argue that the fact that she’s not a mother is a significant factor as to why the other women feel so comfortable infantilizing her. And, while this explanation captures Dorinda’s reflexive annoyance with Tinsley, it fails to get at the complexity of how the two women relate to one another.
In a rare moment of intentional perceptiveness, Ramona suggests that jealousy is at play, noting that “Tinsley’s always been taken care of, and Richard used to take care of Dorinda.”9 Ramona is correct to suggest Dorinda wants to return to an idyllic past that’s not unlike Tinsley’s present, but I believe that’s only one strand in this tangle of regret and grief and anger. While Dorinda is jealous of Tinsley, Tinsley is also jealous of Dorinda for being a mother, something she badly wants and has not yet achieved. Further complicating the reciprocal nature of the jealousy, I think Dorinda also resents seeing part of her tough, take-no-shit self in sweet, passive Tinsley—and wants Tinsley to harden herself in preparation for a future in which she might have to fend for herself so that she can avoid the suffering Dorinda is weathering.
Some of these complexities are gestured toward during the pair’s tearful, drunken truce negotiations in Newport, during which Dorinda uses the term “cautionary tale.” But most of their conversation gets drowned out by Ramona and Leah having a screaming fight on the other side of the table. (And, as is often the case in the Real Housewives cinematic universe, the de-escalation agreement only stays intact for a few episodes.) The snippets we get to hear through the gaps in Leah and Ramona’s yelling sound like they add up to something honest and compelling, but we’ll never really know how Dorinda explained herself to Tinsley.
Frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to know. The appeal of RHONY is that it’s an environment in which rare depictions of the knotty, strange inner lives of adult women and standard-issue, heavily produced reality TV antics coexist in perfect harmony, where novelistic character development and cheap episodic entertainment take on a symbiotic relationship. If it leans too heavily in either direction, its charm evaporates. Too little conflict makes for boring viewing (Dorinda herself says she’d rather listen in on the Newport chapter of the Leah-Ramona showdown than have a heart-to-heart with Tinsley), too much and you lose the context that lends weight to the personality clashes—and too much visibility into individual psyches would suck the fun out of speculating about why these women behave like no other humans on earth.
If I didn’t have parasocial ties to these freaks and insatiable curiosity about what horrendous things they’re going to do and say next, I wouldn’t give a shit about any of their intergenerational rancor. It’s not something I find relatable on a personal level; the only remotely comparable experience I can think of is when my Gen X mother roasted me—the child she gave birth to in the year 1990—for not knowing that Patty Duke was Sean Astin’s mom. But I understand that generational tension between women is a real thing that people engage in, and RHONY provides a funhouse-mirror peek at the fraught ways in which older women can treat their younger counterparts.
It’s more than just envying youth because youth is valued within consumer capitalism broadly and by individual men specifically, but that’s certainly a piece of it. Nor is it solely a matter of fearing one’s own professional and biological obsolescence, though, again, that’s a motivating factor too. But those overarching explanations are far less compelling than the disorienting, intimate psychic struggles a person faces when they’re forced to accept that their past has truly passed: confronting one’s regrets around the person they’ve become and the relationships they’ve lost, considering the choices they would have made differently knowing what they know now, processing the limitations that would have been loosened if they’d been born a little bit later. I’m confident that millennial Ramona would still be an absolute ghoul, but I bet she’d have some fascinating tattoos.
- In the spirit of transparency, I have not yet watched season 13, which was filmed in late 2020 and early 2021, and starred Ramona, Luann, Sonja, Leah, and Eboni K. Williams—a 38-year-old attorney and TV host, and the first Black cast member in the show’s history. Reportedly, Ramona and Luann who remain happy to flaunt their social connections to the Trump family (though FEC records show Luann made a large donation to Hillary Clinton in 2015 and didn’t financially support any Trump presidential campaign)—leveled up their baseline hostility toward younger women with appalling racism and knee-jerk defensiveness whenever said racism was addressed. Interactions among the cast and the network deteriorated to the point that Bravo could not get all the women to agree to show up for the reunion special, and canceled its filming “due to scheduling challenges”—another first for the franchise.
- This concern emerges from Sonja feeling put out because Ramona wasn’t acknowledging her proximate birthday, and Dorinda correctly pointing out that it’s weird to be obsessed with your birthday as an adult, clowning on the event as a “my first period party,” which: lol.
- Weirdly, this energy is not dissimilar to what Ramona’s daughter, Avery, brought to the table in the show’s early years. Though her social media presence suggests she’s grown up to be more like her mother, Avery lorded over Ramona’s embarrassing antics with stern judgment as a child.
- The pair finally reunited in season 10, when the remaining early-season cast members attended the funeral of Bobby Zarin, husband of Jill (who left the cast after the fourth season) and the epitome of a good egg. By this point, Bethenny’s marriage had ended on traumatically bad terms; in a genuinely touching moment, she and the freshly widowed Jill wept, hugged, and bonded over feeling alone.
- Carole’s connections to the Kennedys and European royalty took the class-based jabs that were leveled at Leah off the table, leading the other women to settle for defaming her as “not a girls’ girl.” This meaningless phrase might be my favorite absurd strategy Ramona has invented for pretending she’s not threatened by a new co-worker.
- Something I excel at due to being the first-born daughter of an acrimonious divorce!
- Interestingly, Bethenny treated Tinsley the most harshly of anyone, while Tins and Carole became close.
- At this point, Dorinda is still seeing her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend John, but he is—how can I put this kindly?—a tremendous doofus who should be put in an adult-sized version of a baby incubator until the common sense sector of his brain develops.
- Throughout the season, the four women involved in these intergenerational conflicts offer rich insights into the arguments they’re not embroiled in, but outside of Leah, they aren’t willing to do much self-reflection about their own feuds. (I’m not suggesting that lack of self-awareness is a flaw; I think it’s a big part of what makes the whole thing so mesmerizing.)