The wine-hurling Real Housewives of today come from a long tradition: Since the early 1900s, women in film have been angrily tossing drinks on their rivals and nemeses.
Screenshot via Bravo
There are many ways to express disdain for another person: yelling, stomping off, slamming doors, and going into a silent rage all qualify. Or, alternatively, you could toss a drink in their face.
Drink-slapping—colloquially known as "throwing a drink in someone's face"—is an act that may seem exclusive to the fantasy world of the Hollywood screen and the even more fantastical realm of reality television. The first drinks hurled in ire, which graced the screens of Old Hollywood, were typically tossed by women and targeted at men; with the advent of reality TV, however, it's become somewhat more of an equal opportunity maneuver.
Throughout most of recorded history, women were expected to eat, drink, and be merry without any raucous side effects. Lady-likeness was required, even if a woman was a little buzzed and a lot of ticked off: Think of the sisters in PBS' Downton Abbey, ever the tight-lipped Brits, wining and dining in style, always keeping their drinks to themselves; or depictions of composed women drinking in fine art.
C. Lee Harrington, a professor of sociology at Miami University who has published several works on soap operas, tells Broadly that the "genteel verbal aggression" exhibited by the refined, polite ladies of yore serves as a stark comparison for the "gender mockery" created by the "high-camp drink-slap." "Throwing a punch is not [traditionally] feminine, and drink-slapping has somehow become an acceptable feminine alternative," says Harrington.
For decades, there truly has been no shortage of these displays. A 1914 short, silent film titled The Wages of Sin is widely considered to contain the world's first cinematic portrayal of a drink-slap: The picture's main character, a sex worker in a saloon, tosses a drink into the face of a man trying to woo her. Since then, drink-slapping has appeared in numerous films: In the 1977 movie Turning Point, starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, Bancroft's character throws a drink into the face of MacLaine's; as Joan Crawford, Faye Dunaway threw a drink in the face of her Mommie Dearest co-star, Steve Forrest in 1981.
Throwing a punch is not [traditionally] feminine, and drink-slapping has somehow become an acceptable feminine alternative.
Television is perhaps the most enthusiastic adopter of the drink-slap, and soap operas, in particular, are associated with the act. But beloved primetime television shows from the 1990s onward haven't shied away from drink-slapping either—everyone from Samantha on Sex and The City to Robin on How I Met Your Mother to Lana on L.A. Confidential has chucked liquid ire into the faces of men. Samantha does it for revenge, Robin does it because she's annoyed, and Lana takes aim after she's insulted in public. While the inspirations vary, the message is very much the same: Piss off, dude.
When the Real Housewives reality franchise premiered in March of 2006 with The Real Housewives of Orange County, it ushered in a new era of TV entertainment. The Orange County series did and still does feature wealthy women and their husbands, boyfriends, families, ostentatious displays of wealth, and, of course, a constant supply of alcohol. Women on these shows often seem tipsy or full-blown wasted, and they adore throwing drinks. Drink-slapping is so popular on The Real Housewives—and on Bravo in general—that the station's website actually has an article listing "The Best Drink Throws in Bravo History."
What's curious about the drink-hurling women of The Real Housewives is that men are not their usual targets. Rather, the Housewives prefer to throw drinks in the Estée Lauder–painted faces of their fellow female castmates. A notable recent example of this took place during The Real Housewives of Orange County season 6, when Real-ish Housewife Jenna threatened to throw Tamra's "skinny little ass" in the pool during a house party. A few more words were exchanged, then, as she turned on her stilettos to walk away, Tamra chucked her full glass of red wine directly into Jenna's face.
You can punch each other eight times in a row, but you don't (literally, can't) drink-slap eight times in a row.
Harrington speculates that the humor inherent in drink-slapping lies in the fact that it's patently melodramatic, yet seemingly harmless. "The woman throwing the drink is simultaneously aggressive and ridiculous," she says. "The drink doesn't physically hurt her opponent so it's not 'real' (read: masculine) aggression, inviting the viewer to laugh with and at both parties." Harrington likens this type of gendered violence to other more "feminine" tropes: "[It's] the same with hair-pulling, those wonderful old Dallas and Dynasty woman-on-woman violence sessions. It's gender mockery all over the place."
Harrington also notes that a drink-slap can be the deciding moment in an argument between two women in a way that throwing a punch just isn't. "You can punch each other eight times in a row, but you don't (literally, can't) drink-slap eight times in a row," she explains. "A drink-slap is highly provocative—it either escalates into physical altercation (shoving, hair-pulling), or de-escalates into either a verbal argument or one woman cleaning herself up and the other woman triumphant."
Drink-slapping has become such a common way to say "fuck you" on screen that it has become its own joke, and mostly reads as a parody. One episode of Friends, for instance, features Joey dealing with an off-kilter stalker who doesn't understand he's an actor on a soap opera, and instead believes he really is his character from Days of Our Lives. To scare the stalker off, the rest of the Friends gang accuses Joey of being Drake's evil twin, then takes turns throwing water in his face. Similarly, the "Queen of Jordan" episode of 30 Rock mocks the trope as a reality TV staple: In the episode, a Real Housewives spoof show devolves into several people simultaneously throwing drinks into one another's faces, culminating with one of the faux cast members throwing a drink at a German shepherd in the back of a limo.
The drink-slap isn't merely a harmless joke in real life, however. The act can potentially be illegal, depending on where a drink-slap takes place. In various parts of the world, there is precedent for people getting arrested on assault charges after allegedly throwing drinks. So, while it may seem exceptionally cathartic to douse a nemesis or romantic rival in your alcoholic beverage of choice, it's probably a safer move to leave the drink-slapping to soap opera stars and Real Housewives.