The South, the Poor South!
A racial reckoning on Bravo’s Southern Charm
Even before Meghan Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry set the royal family and its relationship to the racist gossip rags that dominate the British press ablaze, there were little fires everywhere. On this season of The Crown, Peter Morgan’s fictionalized biography of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II has focused even more intensely on how the austere traditions of the royal family were at odds with the political upheaval of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and how Buckingham Palace itself was in architectural ruin as Princess Diana’s likeability, political upheaval under Margaret Thatcher’s conservative rule, and a break-in at Buckingham by citizen Michael Fagan (who easily makes his way past guards to the Queen’s bedroom to demand audience with her), drag the royal family into the sturm und drang of the early ’80s.
The depiction of the slow release of the royal family’s stranglehold on a modern British society came to mind as I watched the paint chip away from the pristine memory of the genteel, white South on the current season of Southern Charm.
Southern Charm is a peculiar reality show amongst the Bravo oeuvre. For the most part, Bravo is a cable channel dedicated to wish fulfillment via the obscene wealth and glamour on display in The Real Housewives or Million Dollar Listing franchises, or a comforting sense of superiority in the deferred fame aspirations of the bartenders and waitresses on Vanderpump Rules. This show—concluding its seventh season in the next couple of weeks—purports to be a peek into the world of descendants of Southern old money in Charleston, South Carolina. That premise is far beyond its expiration date.
Debuting in 2014, the series followed Cameran Eubanks from MTV’s The Real World: San Diego (2004) to her home state of South Carolina, documenting the lives of her friends and acquaintances, most of them recipients of white generational wealth. The cast tends to either host parties on plantations, live on plantations like Patricia Altschul (yes, she is former MTV VJ Serena Altschul’s stepmother), the owner of Isaac Jenkins Mikell House, or are the direct descendants of slave owners, like Kathryn Calhoun Dennis, the descendant of John C. Calhoun, seventh vice president of the United States and ardent defender of slavery. Actually, defender is a bit of an understatement. He was such a slavery stan that weirdo racist faux-intellectual historians founded the Lost Cause of the Confederacy on his defense of slavery and arguments for state’s rights.
There’s nothing particularly aspirational about the cast’s lives, unless you envy people drinking themselves into oblivion while arguing with their friends about their sex lives. Also, They’re certainly not as awe-inducingly hot as the Vanderpump cast. Southern Charm’s true appeal lies in watching American history itself crumble into an embarrassing stupor as it drunkenly stumbles out the back door once reserved as the primary entrance for black people. Bravo is in the midst of a racial reckoning, which has led to the firing of several of its reality stars for racist behavior in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer that forced brands to deal with behavior they previously let slide.
The primary drama this season revolves around Dennis’ fight with Black activist and radio host Mika Gadsden, which occurred in May when Mika tweeted about a Trump rally that was being organized at Mylk Bar in Mount Pleasant. This put her at odds with Dennis, a friend of Mylk Bar’s owner, who felt that Gadsden was “bullying” people for their political beliefs. Dennis DMed her to say “stop using Charleston and your minority claim as a platform to harass people.”
Subsequent messages from Dennis included offensive racial stereotypes and the use of a monkey emoji in retaliation. Dennis later apologized for sending the monkey emoji, claiming not to know the racist connotation (in one episode, she said, “I literally am the furthest thing from racist ever. So, like, my baseline train of thought is not monkeys have anything to do with, like, a Black person. But apparently they do.”), but never particularly apologized for her behavior otherwise. She claimed to not even know Gadsden was black and couldn’t remember why she used the phrase “minority” if that were the case. She did, however, announce that she has a Black boyfriend this season, an excellent ploy to deflect accusations of racism with... other white people, I guess?
This made Dennis an enemy of Southern Charm’s only central cast member of color, Leva Bonaparte (who is married to a Black man). After Bonaparte confronted Dennis about her actions, Dennis’ white castmates Danni Baird and Madison LeCroy turned on her. As a result, Dennis has spent not only the entire season defending her racist actions, but looking for allies in the other white cast members like likeable doof Shep Rose, who was once a womanizer and shitty friend but has now has become moderately worth rooting for after his spin-off dating show, RelationShep, was canceled after six episodes and he settled down with a girlfriend 14 years his junior. He’s still a shitty friend though. For his part, Rose fumbles his way through explaining that Dennis isn’t “racist.” She “just” did something stupid.
Reality television is often derided as fake and manufactured, a glossier version of pro-wrestling’s kayfabe. But when we turn off the television now, Bravo’s “reality” is so entrenched in our real lives, that last night's drama becomes today's headline news. The immediate seismic shift of the pandemic forced Bravo to blur the lines between reality television and actual reality. This isn’t because of any responsible depictions of our current reality, mind you. Instead, it highlights the attitudes of many Americans’ lip service-y attention to mask-wearing and social distancing (every Housewives franchise currently airing is full of women wearing face shields in public without masks).
Southern Charm, however, became the sacrificial lamb in airing 2020’s other reality. It is no longer possible to ignore the cast members’ morally questionable behavior on screen. Last year, The Real Housewives of New York’s Ramona Singer mostly skated by with a scant few digs during the season’s reunion after taking her cast members to a Trump supporter’s fundraiser, and then catching COVID after ignoring health restrictions. Meanwhile, Vanderpump Rules fired at least four cast members for off-screen racist behavior, and has yet to begin filming amidst the pandemic because the show still pretends that its cast members actually work at the West Hollywood restaurant SUR, instead of at their real jobs as reality television stars. Southern Charm, with its cast of generational wealth recipients, already has built-in an explanation for why the cast doesn’t really do anything except work nebulous jobs at boutiques and create hand-sewn pillow empires.
How appropriate, then, that the one character responsible for the season’s racist scandal is not only the descendant of Calhoun, but also lives in Charleston, where a monument to Calhoun was erected in 1887 by a bunch of racist white women under the guise of the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association . Black people freed of slavery proceeded to deface the statue for two decades, to the point where it had to be replaced entirely. It survived without much national fanfare until Dylan Roof’s 2015 terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church left nine people dead. The debate over the role of Confederate statues in society, and whether they whitewash history was reignited, but more to the point: Confederate statues were erected as a looming reminder to Black people that the purveyors of slavery were still among them, even in their deaths. The trauma inflicted on Black people by men like Calhoun is erased away with these monuments, and then papered over by having one of Calhoun’s own descendants become the heroine of a show called Southern Charm—a phrase which invokes genteel behavior steeped in racism and the terrorism of Black people. Still, I can’t deny that it has endured as engaging background television for the past six seasons...that is, until its very existence made it a bridge between Black people in the South shining a light on America’s sinful history and the current debates over slavery from politicians and whack job “historians” who participate in projects like former President Trump’s 1776 Commission, which, in the five seconds it existed before President Biden jettisoned it to the White House trash bin, sought to make the same excuses for slavery that have existed since the Lost Cause’s origins.
I compared the series to The Crown earlier because Peter Morgan’s depiction of the royal family has them perennially preoccupied with the place of royalty in modern society, set to an ’80s pop rock soundtrack as Buckingham Palace literally crumbles on screen. Southern Charm has existed as a series that portrays the “good ol’ boy” behavior of the South as cute and relatable, right down to its plucky theme song. As the lives of these reality television stars continued to collide in messy fights and relationships over the years, the sweet tea they were serving turned out to be bitter. The season finale had Bonaparte calling out Dennis for her white privilege, weeks after the monument of Calhoun came toppling down on camera. Her only reaction to the fervor was, “I don’t care. It’s ugly.” The other white women on the show, who you’d imagine would be defending Dennis as one of their own like the men on the show who constantly coddled and defended her against alleged bullying (it’s a Bravo show, someone gets bullied every season, just ask Denise Richards). Instead called her out for her behavior because the added scrutiny of cameras filming them, combined with the pressing threat of social media, makes absolving her behavior incredibly bad for business. I certainly hope the spirit of Calhoun still looms in Charleston because then he’d be able to see that the very white women who he thought would continue to honor his legacy for centuries have turned their back on the crumbling history of the South. Supposedly, his last words were “the South, the poor South!” The bitch’s ghost is probably still muttering the same thing.