In the world of high-society housewives, there’s a strict moral code. Within this set of rules, however, there’s one particularly egregious offence that few can ever live down: going without underwear.
In the Real Housewives universe alone, there have been two separate #Pantygates. The first went down in Beverly Hills when Erika Girardi showed up to a Vanderpump restaurant wearing a short dress and no undies. North of the border, the major drama on the Real Housewives of Toronto’s first season revolved around born-again Christian Kara Alloway’s drunken Muskoka dinner party and a pair of panties found on the beach.
“Who took their panties off at my dinner party?!” was the shot heard around the high-society world. A twisted, often vicious series of “she said, she said” whisperings and champagne-soaked confrontations dominated the rest of the RHOT season.
Fans, no doubt with help from the producers in the editing bay, cast Alloway as their villainess, but here’s the thing: you can’t take your panties off at someone’s dinner party and expect nobody to talk about it. You see, the aforementioned moral code isn’t etched into tablets or available to view at the reference library. It lives in the buzz of well-lubricated cocktail parties, in the all-knowing walls of sumptuous hair salons and the false security of synthetically plumped tight lips.
Gossip, whether about panties or the industry titan who shows up to dinner parties with his escort in tow, is often attributed to the domain of women. As many things concerning women are, it’s largely looked down upon as frivolous and mean-spirited – or, at best, a guilty pleasure. However, this ignores the longstanding and significant role of gossip as oral culture and social equalizer.
For the underprivileged who have less access to public spaces, public speech and public decision-making, gossip is a tool to wield power. By making public what is meant to be private, often with the expectation of anonymity, gossip-mongers can critique the powerful, influence social relationships and hold people accountable for their actions. It’s also an extremely efficient mode of communication that spreads like wildfire. Historically, it’s been the communication tool of choice for marginalized voices to generate fear among the ruling classes.
Powerful men attempted to protect themselves by gendering speech and designating women as “gossipers.” The term, which originated as a harmless gender-neutral term to describe a close friend, was turned into a label to belittle women and the power of their words. It became uncouth for women to be seen talking too long in a group, because it’d be presumed they were gossiping. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, some gossips were even publicly shamed, made to wear iron masks or strapped to ducking stools. This fear of women gathering and developing bonds outside of male-dominated structures eventually evolved into the infamous era of witch-hunts.
This history gives insight into a glaring double standard in oral culture. When men share happenings, it’s seen as “sharing news.” Meanwhile, women share “stories.” Men debate, exchange ideas and conduct business while women chat, whine, nag and gossip. As such, female narrators have traditionally been viewed as gossipers, a convenient stereotype that discredits the value of the messages they relay.
Even today, we’re particularly dismissive of gossip’s power in the western world because of our longstanding logocentrism. Since the Enlightenment, truth and knowledge in both science and philosophy have been defined by the rational, intellectual and deductive arguments favoured by the era’s influential men. Alternative knowledge, such as gossip, rooted in lived experience, human relations and communal problem-solving are dismissed. This keeps gossip, often women’s voices, in the private sphere rather than the public as certain conversations aren’t deemed important enough for serious debate, consideration or analysis. Female power is contained and minimized.
Alloway exposing fellow housewife Joan Kelley Walker’s apparent panty indiscretion was a classic power play. But the real power play by Alloway wasn’t to usurp Walker. It was to gain social and economic power by being the most entertaining and talked-about Housewife of the season. As anyone in Toronto society circles will tell you, the quickest way to gain influence in the city is to appear on TV. The most talked about Housewives like Bethenny Frankel, Lisa Vanderpump and NeNe Leakes go on to have their own shows, sign major product deals, for successful businesses and ultimately earn mega fortunes independent of their husbands.
The real winners of the Real Housewives franchises are the women we love to gossip about most.
In a society that increasingly values celebrity and fame above all else, women have also learned to use being gossiped about as a source of power. It began with inviting society columnists to dinner parties in hopes of a flattering photo and boldfaced mention, and evolved into reality TV careers.
What the Real Housewives does for its stars, love them or hate them, is liberate them from simply being seen as the wife of a wealthy man. It gives them their own influence, power and even money. In fact, in the aftermath of this RHOT season, it seems one of the power couples is experiencing marital strife over the wife’s newfound prominence.
In traditional jobs, women still make $0.80 of every dollar men earn. There are five million stay-at-home mothers in the U.S. compared to a mere 209,000 stay-at-home fathers. Earning exceptional status and wealth through business is still a rarity for women, so they use social tools – gossip, social media, personal experiences – to get ahead.
Is Kara Alloway really a villain for telling the town about pantygate? In light of gossip’s storied history as feminist counter discourse, it seems unfair to label her as such. Women still have less access to public venues, speech and power. Self-professed “corporate wives” like Alloway have even less leeway when it comes to their public speech and politics lest it affect their powerful husbands’ careers. Their power is exercised behind closed doors (until it’s caught on camera).
It’s hard to blame someone for chasing success and unfortunately, even today, the best and most efficient way for many women to achieve that is to gossip.