It is no secret that reality television has had its share of casualties in its quest for the most grotesque, up-close, uncomfortably invasive depictions of human lives it can attain. There have been deaths, alcohol-induced self-destructions, stints in rehab, and violent separations of families. And like many people, I have always found myself able to watch with an ironic, detached “Oh, look at how crazy these people are, so glad I’m not like them” kind of attitude. I was happy to watch women embarrass and degrade themselves on season after season of dating shows where they become little more than a harem, more eager to get a millisecond of exposure than an eternity with the fallen celebrity they’re “chasing.” I’ve been to parties and cocktail hours where we feel free to laugh at the expense of people who’ve chosen to humiliate or endanger themselves for our entertainment. I even felt a giddy thrill, watching the Salahis desecrate their names, because they would frequent DC bars and neighborhoods that I liked to go to, as well.
I have mentioned this “love” for reality television several times on Thought Catalog, and one of my earliest articles was a list of the reasons why I love the Real Housewives franchise in particular. The list, of course, was simply a run-down of the most obvious schadenfreude I could milk out of their problems. I even mention, distinctly, the sound stage-flimsiness of their marriages and the depressing husks of romance and family life they had become in their quest to become rich, well-connected, and celebrities for doing nothing. At the time, I could think of nothing more important to glean from the shows than the cautionary tales that they demonstrate about what to avoid being when you grow up. And in watching the shows with a sense of superiority and pity, I somehow remained able to ignore the fact that these were real people. More importantly, I ignored that they were real people with real children and real loved ones who may not have wanted the exposure the Housewives themselves did. When women would have brutal, violent meltdowns on the show or behave in ugly, immature ways–when their children would look on in embarrassment and horror–I was able to write them off as simply cogs in a machine of entertainment, never considering the implications these choices may have when these children are adults themselves.
But after this past Monday evening, I cannot ignore these things anymore. Russell Armstrong, the estranged husband of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast member Taylor Armstrong, hung himself in his home. There was no note left, but those close to him have come forward non-commitally indicating that the show, his impending divorce, the accusations of abuse that were being thrown around, and severe financial problems were probably the causes. And truly, it would be hard to imagine it was anything else. Anyone who watched the show knew Russell as the permanently uncomfortable, often condescending, emotionally distant husband that frequently left his party-girl wife in tears. She, eager to spend tens of thousands on a four-year-old’s birthday party and stay out all hours of the night dancing in skin-tight dresses, could not have been more ill-matched to the cold, calculating man who seemed more awkward and uninvolved at every turn. It was often cringe-inducing, watching their stifled interactions and the tears she would break into shortly after realizing that, yet again, they weren’t going to see eye-to-eye.
The news of their divorce came as no surprise, and, if anything, seemed like it would probably be best for their daughter. The sweet little girl, seen in only one full scene truly interacting with her father, was at that tender age where the implications of her mother’s excess and father’s distance haven’t really set in. Watching her help her father cook dinner when the mother was out of town was one of the few moments of their family’s segments that was purely enjoyable to watch–even if Russell did still seem rather awkward. And when I read about his suicide, that scene was the first thing that came to my mind. I couldn’t care less how many sympathetic tweets Andy Cohen has to send out or how many hours the editing crew is going to be putting in overtime cutting him out of every scene–because Lord knows they aren’t going to scrap the season or cut out Taylor’s story altogether, that would be too tasteful. No, those things are irrelevant. What came to my mind, what made my stomach turn, what made me cry in my shower an hour or so after I finished the news story, was that scene with his daughter.
It was strange, feeling this overwhelming sense of sadness for people whom I don’t know, whom I’ve never met, and, for all intents and purposes, didn’t like. People die all over the world all the time and I do not cry, but this made me truly sob. And I felt, amongst other things, profoundly guilty. In a palpable way, I participated in the death of that little girl’s father. I encouraged her mother, through advertising value and even a tongue-in-cheek article, to keep exploiting her family. I gave my approval, and worse, I didn’t even own it. I pretended to be better than what I was watching, pretended to have even a modicum of moral high ground above the people whose lives I was helping to destroy.
And granted, not all cast members self-destruct in such a horrific way. There are stories with relatively happy endings, and people who parlay their exposure into savvy business success. And to that I say, good for you. But it would be a lie to imply that the bread and butter of these programs is anything but the lowest-common-denominator crying and hair-pulling. This is what the people want, and they will keep giving it to us regardless of what we pretend to be better than. We feel, at once, like we know these people intimately and yet couldn’t care less when they show their personal relationships to be in tatters or their mental health quickly declining. The epitome of hypocricy, it seems incredible that we could expect anything other than a series of suicides–perhaps not from the people who eagerly signed the filming contracts, but certainly from the people who were dragged along into a limelight that they were never made for.
I suppose I want to say, above all, that I am sorry. I am sorry for reveling in these people’s pain and poor decision making, I’m sorry for enjoying it, I’m sorry for laughing at it. I’m sorry for giving Taylor the ratings she wanted while her marriage was falling apart and her child was clearly suffering. I feel physically dirty and uncomfortable knowing that the now-five-year-old girl I watched through this ugly little peephole is now going to grow up fatherless. Perhaps things wouldn’t have been much better without the show, but in watching it it’s hard to pretend that the constant exposure didn’t have something of a negative influence. I will never give that show another moment of my time, and I can only hope (perhaps in vain) that Taylor will perhaps strut down the red carpets with just a tiny bit less gusto this season.