Are The Real Housewives Having A Long-Overdue Racial Reckoning?
Well, to a limited extent.
This is the free edition of Rich Text, a newsletter by Claire Fallon and Emma Gray. Rich Text is a space for the indulgent and the incisive, for witty and wistful explorations of the cultural, the personal, and the political in both written and audio formats. If you like what you see and hear, consider becoming a paid subscriber. Rich Text is a reader-supported project — no ads or sponsors!
Also, stay tuned for a subscriber-only audio post later this week about the finale of Cruel Summer. We have THOUGHTS.
We’re back with a sporadic Rich Text feature: Emma explains the Real Housewives to Claire! This week, Claire has questions about the cryptic tweets she’s seen hinting at an outbreak of racial reckonings on one or more of the shows, and Emma, thankfully, has answers. Let’s begin!
Claire: I only have room in my life for one sprawling cinematic universe, and that universe is Bachelor Nation. So when something happens with regard to a Marvel hero -- or, God forbid, a D.C. (?) one -- my Twitter feed is basically incomprehensible to me. The same is true of the Real Housewives.
But I’m fortunate to have you, Emma, to guide me through these moments of confusion. Lately, I’ve been seeing indicators that all is not placid garden brunches and handbag line launches in Real Housewiville. People keep using first names like “Sonja” and “Sutton” in tweets like I should simply know who they are, and that they’re not in “The Bold Type.” Terms such as “white privilege” and “white fragility” now appear in a heavy proportion of the tweets I see about Real Housewives. Is something afoot? Are the many “Real Housewives” shows having, just a year after the rest of the country, a close encounter with Robin DiAngelo?
Emma: Claire, I can affirm that your spidey senses are correct. A racial reckoning is indeed happening within Bravo. Is it an unlikely cultural venue for racial reconciliation? Yes! Are the participants largely ill-prepared and messy? Hell yes! (And that’s being generous!) Is it hard to watch? Absolutely. (In fact, I audibly cringe at least five times an episode while watching “Real Housewives of New York” and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”)
I have only been a Housewives enthusiast for a few years now -- I’m certainly no Brian J. Moylan -- but I think that I’ve accrued enough institutional knowledge to guide you through the broad strokes of what’s going on. The big picture is this: Since “The Real Housewives of Orange County” premiered in 2006, Housewives shows have largely operated as racially-segregated products. The Housewives of Atlanta and Potomac have always been dominated by Black women, whereas Beverly Hills, Dallas, Orange County and New York centered white women.
Over the last few years, there have been efforts to diversify. In 2019, Garcelle Beauvais, who is Black, joined the cast of Beverly Hills and Kary Brittingham, who grew up in Mexico, joined the cast of Dallas. In 2020, “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” premiered with a mixed-race cast, and Dr. Tiffany Moon, who is Asian, was added to the Dallas cast. This year, Beverly Hills added a second woman of color to the cast, Crystal Kung Minkoff, and New York has its first (HOWWWW) Black Housewife, Eboni K. Williams. As you can probably imagine, integrating these super white -- and super privileged -- spaces has not gone altogether smoothly.
Claire: Thrilled to hear that they’ve finally found a Black woman in New York worthy of drinking wine spritzers with Ramona Singer (yeah, even I know about Ramona Singer). I have so many questions, but to begin with: where did this come from? Was there external pressure on these super-white shows to diversify? Was it acknowledged in any way by the show? Or did production just coyly slip them into the cast and step back, content in the knowledge that they’d done enough?
Emma: There have long been cries from outside the house to make some of the biggest Housewives shows less white! (I mean it is truly batshit crazy that it took nearly 15 years to cast a Black woman on a show about New York City.) But it wasn’t until the last year -- amidst the racial reckoning that the nation underwent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer -- that Bravo executives started speaking openly about these efforts. They also started firing (some) white cast members of Bravo shows like who had been called out for racist actions, both on and off-camera. Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute were fired from “Vanderpump Rules,” and Leanne Locken got the boot from RHOD after going after Kary during the season and invoking Kary’s Mexican heritage while doing it. (At one point she called her a “chirpy little Mexican.”) Suddenly, audiences weren’t giving a pass to the network and the various production companies that produce Bravo’s most beloved shows. The cost of standing by and letting racism happen -- often literally on TV! -- finally became high enough that small, incremental changes started to happen.
“The audience has been really clear that they do expect us to take some accountability for the people that we have on the air and that it isn’t acceptable for us just to say, ‘We’re just the observers,’” Alex Baskin, president of Evolution Media, the production company that makes “Vanderpump Rules,” Beverly Hills and Orange County told reporter Anna Peele early this year. (If anyone wants to understand more about the Bravo reckoning, I highly recommend reading Peele’s big reported piece for Vulture on this very topic.)
This is my long-winded way of saying, yes! Predictably, until viewers yelled loudly enough, nothing changed. And now it -- sorta kinda somewhat? -- is. In this respect, it’s not unlike “The Bachelor.” Remember how people had to literally campaign for a biracial Black man to be cast as “The Bachelor”? And how it went when he was cast but nothing was really changed structurally to support him? Fun times.
Claire: And speaking of “The Bachelor,” any TV franchise that is essentially a showcase for wealthy white heteronormative lifestyles has a far more deeply entangled relationship with white supremacy than can be fixed with some splashy casting. We all saw how that played out with Matt James’s season. Dunking a handful of Black and brown castmembers into televised enclaves of white privilege is a risky move (for those castmembers, mainly). How has this played out on the Real Housewives?
Emma: So glad you asked. Just as Matt James was thrown to the white privilege wolves, so too were the women of color cast on historically-white Real Housewives shows. However, on the whole, these women have shown themselves to be savvier and more adept than Matt was at navigating this wildly difficult, unfair racial dynamic. (Eboni K. Williams told Vulture that her time as a talking head on Fox News served as “a primer” for being on RHONY, which frankly tracks.)
Part of that is probably the format of Housewives vs. Bachelor -- audiences get a lot more time with a new Housewife than with a new Bachelor, and there are more pathways to success on a show that isn’t always running towards the end-goal of marriage. Plus, the Housewives tend to be significantly older than Bachelors and Bachelorettes. (The youngest women on these shows are in their late 30s.)
Claire: It can’t hurt, too, that the whole show is essentially about navigating interpersonal conflict, rather than opening yourself up to love with one partner. Matt was supposed to be focused on his heart, so all the extraneous drama was ostensibly just that -- a distraction from his official role.
Emma: Yeah, that’s a really good point. “The Bachelor” is fundamentally not a show built for navigating these kinds of conflicts.
But regardless of their ability to wade through a sea of utter white nonsense, the burden on women like Crystal and Garcelle on RHOBH and Eboni on RHONY is very high. They not only have to be messily entertaining, they also have to be ultra-sensitive racial educators! Thus, when a white Housewife steps in it and does some racism, it largely falls on the women of color -- who tend to be newer and thus have less goodwill built up with the audience -- to teach them to be better and forgive them for whatever racial harm has been caused. The emotional labor is… A LOT.
Claire: To be both messy enough to be good TV, but composed and gentle enough to avoid being cast as the villain amid a sea of white women, seems like a frankly impossible tightrope to walk. It’s not a role I would want! How is it going overall?Any racist blow-ups being played for eyeball-grabbing drama? Are the ladies of my beloved New York City handling themselves poorly?
Emma: Why yes, Claire, thank you for asking. White ladies gonna white lady -- especially on a show traditionally populated by Upper East Side Republicans!
On RHONY, a fight between sophomore Housewife Leah McSweeney (a white woman who is problematic in her own delightful ways, but is Eboni’s closest friend and confidante on the show) and noted Trump supporter Ramona Singer, over the way Leah talks about sex, became something much darker. After Leah stormed off and called all of the women hoes, Eboni told Ramona and Luann de Lesseps that it bothered her that they equated explicit language about sex with a lack of class. Luann then said that it was more about “education,” which led Eboni to point out calmly that she, as an attorney, was actually the most formally educated person there.
Claire: You can’t see me but I am making the same face as the famous Edvard Munch painting right now!!! Luann!!! I don’t even know where to begin with unpacking all of the racist assumptions contained in that!
Emma: I may have audibly gasped and started frantically texting my Bravo group chat while watching. And then it got worse! Luann became deeply offended, and when Eboni tried to further explain and the conversation got lightly heated, this exchange followed:
Luann: “Why are you getting so angry?
Eboni K. Williams: “Oh, now I’m the angry Black woman.”
Luann de Lesseps: "I'm not going there. You're an angry woman right now. I never referred to your color, nor would I."
Eventually, after Eboni expressed that she would not allow her very normal emotional reactions to be policed, Luann asked Eboni to leave her Hamptons home. During the following episode, Eboni sat down with Luann and calmly educated her and Ramona about the history behind labelling a Black woman “angry.” (A delightful surprise was that long-time Housewife Sonja Morgan -- of the J.P. Morgans -- was revealed to be far more aware of her racial privilege and responsibility than Ramona or Luann.)
Claire: Nothing distills white privilege more intensely, save perhaps the word “summer” used as a verb, than the phrasing “of the,” as in “Sonja Morgan, of the J.P. Morgans.” When your whole family is so wealthy and influential that they’re a collective celebrity… that’s a level above even mere Housewife status, no?
So at least Sonja’s aware of the concept and has perhaps read some helpful Instagram slides about anti-racism. Whereas Luann is unaware that while money can’t buy you class, neither does, you know, being white (??).
What about Beverly Hills?
Emma: On Beverly Hills, the conflict was less protracted, but still painful to watch. New Housewife Sutton Stracke, a white woman, got into it with Crystal over the phrase “I don’t see color.” After an odd conversation in which Sutton seemed to bristle at Crystal discussing racial stereotypes, she asked Sutton if she was “the girl who doesn’t see color.” Sutton became very upset, spilling many fragile white tears, asking the camera what was so wrong with not seeing color? Crystal explained that Sutton, as a white person, was able to avoid thinking about racial stereotypes in a way that she was unable to. Crystal was left shaken by the exchange and her subsequent interactions with Sutton, who tried to blame her behavior on the fact that she recently moved out of her dream home.
Claire: Cool, I’m just going to need you to pause for a second while I read that last half-sentence a few dozen times.
Okay, so Sutton’s explanation was that she was understandably leaking a little light racism here and there because she was so emotional about moving out of a mansion? Or, perhaps, that she was leaking tears not due to white fragility, but due to complex homeowners’ grief?
Emma: Sort of??? I mean it was obviously absurd. But at least on RHOBH, Crystal could go for coffee with Garcelle the next morning and chat about the initial dust-up. There is a real value -- specifically for the cast members themselves -- to not being the one and only.
Claire: Right, I want to hear about Crystal and Garcelle’s relationship! Have they been friends, or at least able to compare notes? And how is it different from what we see with Eboni and her pal Leah on RHONY?
Emma: It’s complicated! Crystal and Garcelle are very new friends, and both are closer with white women on their cast than they are with each other, whereas Leah and Eboni seem to have a genuinely close and pretty honest relationship. However, there is a certain pressure relieved from the group dynamic when it isn’t fully on one woman of color to educate the rest about race. After Crystal’s dust-up with Sutton, she and Garcelle got coffee and talked it out. It wasn’t the most substantive discussion, and it certainly didn’t resolve the tension between Crystal and Sutton, but Garcelle was able to easily hear Crystal, and understand why she was bothered by the interaction without having it explained -- despite the fact that she is friends with Sutton! When there is a shared experience of being “othered” in America, some things simply don’t have to be spelled out, and I would imagine that is a relief.
On RHONY, it’s essentially all on Eboni. (Although her close friendship with Leah allows for some shared outrage at the cultural ineptitude of their older castmates, as well as a useful model for viewers to see a white woman being called in by her friend when she fucks up.) The difference, however, is that Eboni considers it her life’s work to be a Black disruptor in white spaces -- she has explicitly said as much. Her years at Fox taught her what she can change and what she cannot, and she showed up on RHONY with eyes wide open.
“I wasn’t exhausted, but I could see how someone else in my position would be,” Williams told Vanity Fair back in May. “You have to remember, I have a degree in Black studies, right? So I’m not just, like, a Black woman who is showing up as her authentic self. Part of my authentic self is the kind of minutiae of the Black experience…My capacity to engage in the details and these conversations about Black life and experience is probably abnormally high.”
Claire, maybe it’s time for you to dip your toes into some Housewives. We haven’t even talked about the latest scammer scandal about to erupt on RHOBH!!!
Claire: Emma, thank you for all your work in explaining this to me. It’s yet another window into the inadequacy of diversifying white, exclusionary institutions, cultural products and spaces -- a process that mostly just dumps enormous stress and backlash onto the small group of Black and brown people tasked with integrating a hostile bubble. And yet, it’s not sufficient to throw up our hands and say, well, let’s just keep peddling visions of unexaminedly white wealth porn because changing that is a fraught process. At least casting someone who is very intentionally choosing and prepared for that role of disruptor is a wise choice.
I can’t say that this chat has made the franchise sound MORE appealing to me, especially since I’ve been meaning to devote my free time to catching up on my back issues of NYRB and learning how to make chili. But it has made me consider why people love the show: watching women clash and gossip and make up is a pretty solid way to see how people are reckoning (generally poorly) with the thorniest issues of our day.
Now please start marshaling your thoughts on the new Real Housewives scammer -- I need that explainer as soon as humanly possible.