I’ve always described The Real Housewives franchises as a modern-day comedy of manners. You can’t tell me that Oscar Wilde and Molière wouldn’t be watching Bravo weekly and in between their criminal acts of sodomy they wouldn’t be shouting phrases like, “I am very rich, bitch!” or “Clankity clank!” or “Beast? How dare you?!” at lively salons. At their outsets, each franchise seemed to put a microscope on societal morays that would eventually lead to an obsession with them by esteemed thinkers like Roxane Gay.
The Real Housewives of Orange County examined the plastic surgery, youth-obsessed culture of older women in California. The Real Housewives of New York City examined women clinging to their wealth and status as their marriages crumbled and their behavior proved unfitting for proper society. The Real Housewives of Atlanta was heavily interested in the upward mobility of black women, particularly in Nene’s constant needs to distance herself from her “ghetto” past, a word she often used to deride other women in the cast who hadn’t shed traits from their upbringing that she found culturally embarrassing.
For a few years now, however, the conceit of these shows ran out. Mostly they became about women we liked and didn’t like getting into fights and shopping. Was there anything to learn from these shows anymore, beyond Porsha Williams (then-Stewart) learning what The Underground Railroad was on a trip to Savannah? Not really. But then the most peculiar thing began to happen. These “reality shows” got increasingly more real, as Bravo was forced to contend with the racial reckoning its shows went through at the onset of the pandemic. With riots popping up globally in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Bravo start firing racist cast members and hiring non-white women to join their all-white casts.
What has resulted is in more sinister, but altogether more entertaining (and dare I say important?) outing than the previous season of Southern Charm, which literally depicted the removal of a Confederate statue in Charleston and dealt with the aftermath of a cast member hurling racial epithets at a black woman online. We’ve seen three seasons in a row where women of color have had to endure microaggressions (well, outright racism in the case of The Real Housewives of Dallas) and take on the role of teacher in a group of all-white women. My first instinct was that I absolutely hate that these women have to endure this. But actually, I’m not so sure about that anymore.
While Dr. Tiffany Moon was wholly unprepared for the racism she experienced (mostly because she’s a nerd, a bit of a know-it-all, and even in a group of non-white women she would’ve been bullied, sorry), Eboni K. Williams and Crystal Minkoff seem ready for battle. At their core, reality shows are for our entertainment. And these women have signed on for a show know that they’d be in a group of all white women and naturally have to do some work. Especially given how many Bravo fans love to excuse racism to have a good time. There’s something almost exhilarating about watching Eboni explain that she shouldn’t have to “teach” racism to the women and Ramona Singer responded with, “I can teach you to cook” as if they’re different skill sets. It was hilarious watching Crystal have a rather benign conversation about rache with Kyle Richards, only for Sutton Stracke to not only jump out the window, but open it herself to denounce any talk about racism.
The mental toll on these women should be considered, but also they are being paid to be on a reality television show. And it’s almost cathartic watching them endure what I’ve endured attending predominantly white schools or hanging out with groups of white people. Maybe that’s the real reason these seasons are resonating more. It’s almost therapeutic to watch and you can live vicariously through watching these white women fumble for the right words. But mostly, it’ll probably serve as a warning for people of color who love to watch Bravo and have white friends. For the most part, they won’t love you back. So beware.