Fifteen years after the first “Real Housewives” franchise appeared on March 21, 2006, some of Bravo’s biggest fans are rendering the network’s brash reality fare impossible. Just this week, for instance, the network apologized for airing an episode of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” that featured Kenya Moore dressed in Native American costume for Halloween. (Moore says she has Native American heritage.)
On Instagram, Bravo apologized for the episode, writing in part, “We had hoped it would provide a teachable moment, however in retrospect it is clear that the network did not address this properly given the gravity of the situation. We apologize to both the Native American community and our audience as a whole.”
Bravo is naturally a progressive network with a progressive fan base — even if that base doesn’t represent the broader audience. Emboldened, however, by the recent wave of social media activism, Bravo bloggers are tirelessly scrutinizing reality television stars, holding them to the same impossible standards of moral purity and cultural leftism they expect from politicians.
This is performative, but it’s also based on a misunderstanding of the genre. Reality television stars are antiheroes. They most often showcase the worst of us, and only a truly delusional viewer would think otherwise. Of course, they have some nice moments, made all the nicer by the contrast. But if you’re watching “The Real Housewives” to see women of upstanding morals act morally, you should… stop.
Such standards are impossible, but they also defeat the purpose of reality television. On “Vanderpump Rules,” viewers see beautiful narcissists drunkenly slap each other in Vegas. The effect is not to glamorize their idiocy, it’s to reinforce our shared understanding of idiocy and its sources. The glamor heightens the instructive contrast of indulgence and sin.
It says something about our culture that this is a matter of any confusion. Now, of course, it may seem obvious that people are confused by this. I think it is. The Kardashians were first pitched to us as a modern “Brady Bunch.” For all its prior savagery, corporate media has lionized the “talentless” ever since. But Bravo’s biggest fans should know better. Indeed, their humor, poetically packaged in meme form, is predicated on the antihero model.
Given that Bravo executives were morally opposed to Moore’s choice, they treated it exactly right by airing her costume with disagreement from others in the cast. Unlike the Kardashians, the housewives were never intended to normalize modern standards of behavior or present their antiheroes as paragons of virtue. That’s been clear since the “Real Housewives of Orange County” premiered 15 long years ago this week. We can no longer have the “teachable moments” that Bravo hoped for with Moore — or with Luann de Lesseps’ Diana Ross costume — because the left’s standard-bearers are not humble enough to engage in conversation or concede they could learn from their opposition.
Bravo’s superfans are mindlessly putting the network in an untenable situation. The pressure is leading them to transform their shows into clashes between politically moral cast members and ignorant ones. Shep Rose referred to Leva Bonaparte’s “finger-wagging” on the last, miserable season of “Southern Charm.” Bonaparte spent the better part of the season awkwardly creating opportunities to lecture her castmates on political correctness during the tumultuous summer of 2020.
It was contrived and grating. Of course, Kathryn Calhoun Dennis, a woman who has two children with troubled former cast member Thomas Ravenel, doesn’t have the racial politics of an Oberlin graduate. Forcing her to performatively adopt them drains the show of its authenticity. While viewers generally wish her the best, they don’t want to be like her. She’s a giant case study in what not to do, along with basically every other star on the network. But Bravo’s strategy to deal with its critics clearly involves planting “finger-waggers” like Leva on nearly every franchise, people whose central value to the show is their politics and not their personality.
Some housewives and Bravolebrities have partially transcended the antihero model along their journeys, like Bethenny Frankel and Kandi Burruss (who, by the way, took Moore’s side this week). But they’re exceptions. There is no point in holding Kim Zolciak-Biermann or Kelly Dodd to woke standards or even any moral standards at all. Their stardom is predicated on breaking all of them and upholding their own glaringly dubious moral code.
Everyone “yass kweening” Jen Shah after her social justice posturing at the “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” reunion, for instance, was in for a rude awakening when video emerged that appeared to show her verbally abusing her staff in recent months. Even when the housewives embrace leftist politics, they’re still complicated and deeply troubled.
It’s amusing but also irksome to watch legitimately hilarious and very popular Bravo fan accounts constantly meme the moral failings of the housewives, then turn around and demand they be better. It misses the point. Actually, it’s unintentionally an argument against the point.
The point is that the culture of our elites is corrupt and decadent, fueled by an immoral incentive structure. While I disagree, I am completely open to the argument that watching these shows poisons our minds and boosts that incentive structure. But the reason the show sprang up just before the recession hit is that the culture of decadence already existed and Bravo was smart enough to realize people would be entertained by documenting it.
The best way to see the “Real Housewives” is as Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. They may not all be living in physical squalor, but they’re coping with the delusions of elite society, desperately seeking to keep up appearances while being consumed by their decadence.
It’s why Bravo makes for much better television than “The Bachelor.” Until recently, there has never been any suggestion these cartoonish matriarchs are protagonists. It’s always been the opposite, an opportunity to gawk at the dangers of 21st-century indulgence. Of course, that’s one layer of the show’s appeal, along with the glamor and the drama. That’s all part of the fun too.
But this is why the memes mocking their stupidity and materialism and ignorance and vanity are funny. This pressure to comply with the far left’s ever-changing, increasingly rigid standards of political correctness is not just hurting Bravo, it’s hurting art in general, from comedy to cinema.
So why are Bravo’s biggest fans breathlessly demanding the highest standards from the women they mock? It’s partially because they want access, sure, and partially because they really believe in those standards. But a more likely cause is their fear of watching a show full of problematic women without publicly opposing their problems. In our anti-nuance media climate, the only acceptable way to deal with antiheroes is public flogging. That flogging reflex makes it virtually impossible for Bravo to continue capturing the moral depravity of our elites.
The world has changed quickly since we first met the Orange County housewives 15 years ago. Bravo’s content has given us a window into the ultra-wealthy’s clumsy efforts to grapple with those changes. If the network’s online fanbase gets its way, that window will close entirely.