Photograph by Emily J. Davis.
Podcaster Kacey Calahane, a Ph.D. candidate in history, uses “The Real Housewives
of Orange County,” “Southern Charm,” and other shows to bring history alive for students and Bravo fans and to forge connections with other scholars. She shares hosting duties with fellow “Bravo-demics,” or Bravo academics, Max Speare, her husband and fellow doctoral candidate, and Jessica Millward, an associate professor of history.
What’s the connection between reality TV and the study of history?
A big thing for us is the way that Bravo offers this great entry point into conversations about race and class and womanhood, and even the way that wealthy white women have historically been a part of the project of building the American empire. (As) historians, we start watching as a guilty pleasure and then all of a sudden, we are seeing little resonances of our work on-screen. There’s a so-what question in our work: Why does it matter? Well, we see it continuing to play out in pop culture now, even if we are writing about things that are generations—hundreds of years—old or older.
Can you give an example of historical research reflected on a show?
In our first season, we interviewed a medieval historian, Dr. Jennifer Edwards, and she writes about nuns at the Sainte-Croix Abbey. She was talking about how it can be really difficult to teach medieval history and have students care about it. But she can say, well, on “Housewives,” you see these fights over who’s going to sit next to who, and they jockey for placement and attention. She says that’s no different than the medieval nuns at this abbey.
Personality clashes and alcohol-fueled arguments are mainstays of the shows. What can we learn from that?
In these arguments, we see these women kind of go toe-to-toe about the way that you define womanhood or motherhood or any number of issues at the table. For as much as these shows are a vehicle for portraying women’s relationships and all that complexity and messiness, we really see both an anti- feminist and a feminist tension at play. All sorts of arguments have been made by viewers of the shows. Are these shows feminist or are these anti- feminist shows? (The writer) Roxane Gay has famously said, these are very feminist shows, because of the depiction of female relationships. Whereas someone like Gloria Steinem has insisted that the shows are incredibly anti-feminist, and she calls them a minstrel show for women.
What are the “must-hear” episodes of the podcast?
One episode that was really emotional for all of us I think was Nora Lessersohn’s episode in Season 1 about historical memory and the Armenian genocide. (A Ph.D. candidate at University College London), she talked about “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” a bit, and we did talk Bravo, but I think it was such a great episode for thinking about the way historical memory works and the way that something that is useful about reality TV is being able to kind of move through and share and heal from our own traumas with moments that we see some of these reality TV stars go through.