Like All the Best Reality Shows, “Real Girlfriends in Paris” Was Ultimately About F*cking Up in Friendships

When I first told y’all about Real Girlfriends in Paris — which is, unfortunately, NOT a show about a lesbian polycule living in Paris but rather a group of “girlfriends” in the same way my mother refers to going out with a group of women as going out with her “girlfriends” — I wasn’t quite sure what I thought about it. New reality series in this style of the genre where it’s just about a group of people living their lives vs. a competition or something more structured often take a while to find their footing, especially when there isn’t a built-in hook like some of the cast already being famous. Indeed, Victoria, Anya, Margaux, Emily, Adja, and Kacey are people you’ve never heard of outside of the context of this show. But while it takes time to get to know them — and for them to get to know each other — by the back half of the show’s first season, Real Girlfriends in Paris finally taps into what makes it fun to watch regular ass people live their regular ass lives. The drama, scenarios, and stakes are all analogous to real life situations, but the lens of reality television makes it so that the characters — yes, I do refer to reality television casts as “characters” because they are indeed performing personas — are acting completely and entirely from the id. Impulsive, rash, self-destructive, manipulative actions rule reality television.

Perhaps you clocked me saying that Real Girlfriends in Paris takes a while to find its footing not just because we have to get to know the characters but that they have to get to know each other, too. Another thing that makes this Bravo style of reality television precarious is that it is often not as simple as Bravo cameras parachuting into the dynamics of an existing friend group. These shows go through casting processes just like scripted television. These girls weren’t hanging out every day prior to filming; they got to know each other through the process of filming, becoming friends and coworkers all at once. It’s a strange realm. Their literal job is to be friends. Even the show’s so-called besties Victoria and Margaux didn’t know each other for very long before production began; mutual friends put them in touch shortly before they both learned they were cast.

(Ever wonder why the early seasons of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills were soooo much better than more recent seasons? I think it has a lot to do with the presence of sisters Kim Richards/Kyle Richards as well as Lisa Vanderpump’s legitimate longtime friendship with Kyle — these relationships interpersonal histories were already baked in. Instead of having to be invented by the show, they were there already and then transformed by the show. And that makes for better reality television imo!)

That might sound like a lot of context and preamble, but it matters when looking at what does and doesn’t work about Real Girlfriends in Paris. We’re basically watching a new friend group form in real-time. In the beginning, the various intergroup relationships feels forced. But the nature of filming a reality series together ends up bringing them all genuinely closer together. And the closer they get, the more they’re able to hurt each other, increased comfort giving way to malevolence. It’s much easier to be upset with someone you know vs. someone you don’t. Or, at least, the stakes of that upset feeling are much higher.

Indeed, the first several episodes of Real Girlfriends in Paris feel not unlike the speed dating session that the girls go on. The Girlfriends are figuring out how they fit together, where the storylines are, what reality roles they want to slot into. And the most dramatic moment of the first half of the season goes down not between two of the Girlfriends but between one — resident bisexual Victoria — and her friend and coworker Yoanne who she clearly has known for a while before filming. In fact, the turning point of their fight is when Yoanne brings up something from her past regarding her tumultuous divorce from her ex-husband. Victoria flips a switch, throwing wine in his face, leaving, and then COMING BACK to dump french fries on him.

There are a lot of physical altercations involving thrown drinks on reality television (I mean, so much so that it has become a trope and easy fodder for parody, as with the iconic Jenna Maroney line in 30 Rock‘s “Queen of Jordan” line “I drank all the throwing wine!”), but there’s an extra layer of mortification and discomfort to this one. It’s too real. Here are two actual friends. Yoanne knows exactly what to say to hurt her feelings; Victoria has a frightening anger problem that makes her spin out of control. Sure, it’s unkind of Yoanne to bring up her divorce, but it’s also easy to see his unkindness as a symptom of reality television. He’s likely embarrassed by Victoria calling him out for being late to work on camera, so he’s trying to get back at her and is being mean in a way people believe they’re supposed to be mean on reality television. I really think he thinks he’s giving good drama. Victoria’s reaction, meanwhile, reads as something else. I don’t think she threw the wine and fries because the cameras are there but rather in spite of them, which is all the more unsettling. For both of them, the stakes are incredibly high, because they’re real friends and collaborators. The cameras just make everything worse.

It’s also impossible to ignore some of the racial and power dynamics at play here. It is established throughout the season that people are very drawn to Victoria’s (thin, white, femme) beauty. Strangers approach her even with cameras up. She’s the most popular Girlfriend by far at the speed dating event, and when Adja complains about that, it’s not out of jealousy but rather the very valid frustration that of course these Frenchmen chose her over everyone else. I’m left wondering how Victoria’s outburst would have been perceived by her employer if she were not a pretty white girl, if the tables were flipped and Yoanne had been on the other side of that wine glass and plate of frites. The show doesn’t go there, and it’s in those moments of obscuring certain realities that Real Girlfriends in Paris — and really, most of Bravo — fails to tell a deeper, even more honest story.

The fight is too real, but then, so too is the eventual reconciliation between Victoria and Yoanne. Victoria correctly realizes that she can’t blame other people for triggering her. She has to take responsibility for her own actions and control the ways she reacts to things from her past. That’s a tremendous amount of self-awareness for reality television, the place where self-awareness typically goes to die. I’m not defending Victoria even a little bit here, but I do think the arc of this fight is riveting, simultaneously sincere and heightened by its reality television context. I do think Victoria would have thrown the wine and fries even without cameras around, but she wouldn’t have had to reckon with its aftermath in such a transparent and intentional way. Watching people grapple with the consequences of their actions in real-time and for the consumption of others is part of the strange allure of reality television. Imagine having a call time for a friendship apology. It’s wild!

As the rest of the season unfolds, we start to see more and more moments that are — if not quite as volatile and soap operatic as Frites Gate — closer to this kind of real friendship drama. Nothing accelerates intimacy like traveling with other people, and when the Girlfriends (minus Kacey, who ends her tenure on the show early due to visa issues) take a trip to Margaux’s family’s summer house in Cannes, the group dynamics start to solidify — and molder.

Some of the most interesting tensions on the show are rooted in class and money. There’s a clear line between the Girlfriends who appear to have significant inherited wealth (Margaux, Emily, and Kacey) and those who seemingly don’t (Victoria, Anya, and Adja). When Kacey has visa issues, she thinks someone else will just fix it for her instead of taking action herself. Emily comes to Paris hoping to expand her mother’s interior design company overseas and instead trips and falls right into a coveted fashion internship. Margaux’s central storyline is her desire to become financially independent from her father, but instead of getting a normal ass job as a starting place, she keeps making and remaking new entrepreneurial pursuits she has difficulty following through on. In Cannes, Anya talks about her tendency to live way beyond her means and the financial precarity she always feels without a safety net. Margaux chimes in to say it’s actually quite hard to be a trust fund baby which, lol. But also, these feel like real, tense, non-performative conversations and dynamics. Margaux’s point about her father’s control over her life is valid, even if her defense of inherited wealth is more than a little eyeroll-inducing.

But something really shifts in Cannes. Whereas the Girlfriends start out being a little careful about the ways they talk about each other in the beginning, by now, they’ve been filming together long enough to take off the reality television kid gloves. Margaux calls Emily out for flying with literal fucking Covid, which Emily claims is untrue, but Victoria and Margaux later speculate that she’s still lying and also expose that she continually took her mask off on a flight. Victoria feels left out one night when she hears Adja and Emily laughing together after claiming they were going to sleep. When Victoria and Margaux stay an extra day in Cannes, Adja thinks it’s rude — not because of the decision to stay longer itself but because of the way they went about telling the rest of the group, making up some excuse about the cost of flights. (Adja, for the record, is my favorite Girlfriend. Anya is a close second because she is so committed to her Paris persona and being the Mom of the group that she’s almost like a caricature, and I live for that level of theatricality.)

In other words, they’re starting to fight about the things real friends fight about — ranging from very serious things like the Covid stuff to more petty remarks, like when some of the Girlfriends make snide comments about Victoria’s fashion show. The closer they get, the more their conflicts have teeth to them. The more they start fucking up in these friendships. And the structure of these reality series requires that those fuckups be faced head-on. And because of that pressure to resolve things and the fact that none of these conversations are being held privately but rather for public consumption and dissection, people end up acting straight from the id, feral and without filter or time to let things simmer.

As Autostraddle’s in-house Bravo Dyke, I promised to keep you appraised of any bisexual ongoings. Victoria does indeed come out to her mom near the end of the season, and it goes well! Emelle, the girl who lives in London who Victoria has been talking to on a dating app, flies in for the finale in the very important, age-old queer ritual of traveling long distance to stay with someone you’ve only had online flirtations with. Their first official meeting feels very true-to-life — giggly and awkward, made all the more uncomfortable by the presence of cameras. Hilariously, when Emelle realizes that a Realty Television Argument is about to happen on the boat she, Victoria, and the other Girlfriends are on near the end of the finale, she gets up and leaves as if to say “this is certainly not my business.” It’s a slight puncturing of the fourth wall in a way that’s genuinely funny and relatable.

It’s during that boat scene that all the arguments of the back-half of the season come to a head. Victoria becomes incredibly defensive. Adja asks her how many siblings she has to prove a point that Victoria doesn’t really ask the rest of them about themselves and talks about herself a lot. The question from Adja doesn’t come off as malicious; it’s genuine. The issue is not that Victoria and Margaux are close but that they haven’t even tried with the rest of the Girlfriends. Margaux in particular seems to have a moment of clarity here, realizing her own tendency to not ask other people questions. She says she knows its a weakness of hers and that she feels she has other strengths when it comes to friendships.

The vast majority of drama that unfolds on reality television has to do with the actual show and its making. People say they’re mad because someone didn’t ask them to go shopping with them when really what they mean is that they’re mad they didn’t get to share that screen-time. People say they’re mad because someone is being “withholding” when what they really mean is that they’re mad that they’re not being more forthcoming in front of the camera. Because of those fourth wall rules, they’re not really allowed to talk about things in this way, so they come up with other ways to talk about it, which in turn exacerbates the conflicts. Did Victoria feel excluded by Adja and Emily that night in Cannes or was she worried they were talking about her on camera? And in the end, what’s the difference?

What do we get out of watching reality television? Sometimes, that question feels endlessly complex to me, and sometimes it feels stupid. Reality television is just like any other form of entertainment. It has a lot of the same elements as scripted television. Only, the stories and the consequences of people’s actions keep going even when we aren’t watching. Real Girlfriends in Paris doesn’t feel like watching a scripted drama; it feels like being mired in a group chat with a group of friends who don’t always get along, whose drama ranges from petty to hugely consequential. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s straight-up boring. Yes, reality television is heavily produced and manipulated, a simulacrum of reality of anything. But when those little pockets of genuine reality pop through — especially in the ways people reckon with their mistakes within relationships — it makes for very compelling storytelling.

I guess what I’m really saying is that even though it’s far from perfect, I already want more Real Girlfriends in Paris.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 458 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I will probably never watch this show. I feel like Emelle in that i can’t even be in the room when my fiancée is watching real housewives. But I still find all of your dissections of reality television incredibly illuminating

  2. I adore boring reality TV shows – I’ve been referencing “The City” for 12 more years than any other person on the planet, and the degree to which nothing (other than Victoria committing actual assault) happened is just a perfect execution of the genre. The artifice of the show is something so special and fun, watching people learn how to be friends and how to be characters. Even Anya! bless her has to figure out how to translate her everyday fantasy into someone who is on a TV show. I’m dying for four mid grade seasons of this, but at least there’s still two more episodes to air in Canada before we say au revoir.

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