In recent weeks, there have been a handful of surprisingly swift reactions from powerful institutions in the wake of the mass protests demanding justice for Black Americans. There was the repeal of a law shielding NYPD records from the public, the divestment of public schools from the police in Minneapolis, the stepping-down of the New York Times opinion page editor James Bennet for running a piece called “Send In the Troops”… and the fallout at Vanderpump Rules, a reality show on Bravo about a group of young hot people who work or used to work at a West Hollywood restaurant.
Last week, Bravo fired two Vanderpump men for past racist tweets, and two women, Stassi Shroeder and Kristen Doute, who bragged publicly in 2018 about calling the police to report Faith Stowers, a Black former cast member — the show’s only one, ever — for crimes she had nothing to do with. The cruelty of this harassment should have been obvious at the outset, but it was horrifically magnified by the way George Floyd died in Minneapolis, after someone called the cops.
And more heads are likely to roll. Another star, Jax Taylor, repeated the same smears about Stowers; he and his wife, Brittany Cartwright, have also been accused of asking a pastor with a history of making homophobic remarks to officiate their wedding. Beyond their terminations, many fans are calling for Vanderpump to be entirely gutted, or axed altogether, given that most of these incidents were already known to former Real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump, the show’s executive producer, as well as to the rest of the cast and to others behind the camera — all of whom did nothing, until they became a public-relations and financial liability.
From here, if you are a Bravo completist like me — having seen not only Vanderpump Rules but every Real Housewives iteration and their offspring, for over 15 years since the franchise began and launched the Bravo cinematic universe — the scope of the purge begins to snowball. What about the show set in Charleston with all-white cast members, some of whom still own plantations? What about the nearly all-white show set in summer in the very white Hamptons? What about the shows with the Trump supporters, of which there are numerous? Ramona Singer, a Real Housewife of New York, was recently filmed flirting wildly with a former Republican senate candidate in Missouri famous for writing a Facebook post about preventing his future daughters from becoming “feminist she-devils.” If the viewers are truly taking a zero-tolerance stance toward racism and all types of bigotry, what must we decide about whether to continue watching these shows, reliant as most of them are on white people behaving very, very badly?
This existential crisis was already looming last November over the first BravoCon, a three-day convention in New York that I attended nearly every hour of (for journalism). It was a mass of almost exclusively white women, ecstatically gathered like congregants in a rosé-soaked megachurch. The friction between the frivolous unreality of the shows — heavily edited and produced, about people encouraged to act in outsize ways — and the sobering fact that these were real human beings was already uncomfortable. Not to mention how much money Bravo and the stars were clearly making from this behemoth enterprise, along with a satellite ecosystem of podcasters and bloggers. The fans I spoke to largely consider themselves liberal-minded; Sarah, a 24-year-old nurse from Nashville, told me about a few Facebook groups that had been roiled by political discussions, about several stars’ posting “All Lives Matter” on social media, for example. But the conversations were largely circumscribed by the escapist nature of the viewing. “At the end of the day, I just don’t want to think, you know?” she said. That’s generally how I’ve considered these shows, too, something to satisfy and soothe after work, like a heavily processed, sugary snack.
Now I can’t get the bad taste out of my mouth. The idea that we can keep watching Bravo without thinking, now that more of us than ever are finally doing just that — thinking, about how the concepts of racism and anti-Blackness play out in real life — has fully soured. In a buffet of guilty pleasures, Bravo’s reality shows present a somewhat sinister conundrum: The things we should feel guiltiest about are done in real life, by real people. Doute’s and Schroeder’s actions were not written into a script for characters in a drama, for which a white writers’ room could be held to account; they make money directly from playing themselves. It never made sense to me that Vanderpump Rules, originally about waiters trying to make it in L.A., never had more Black stars or other stars of color, given that that milieu is clearly not all white people. But I didn’t linger too long on the disconnect. The tacit understanding we all had is that it was never about reflecting “reality” but putting hyper-reality on display; as long as the cast was drinking hard, playing hard, slapping each other, and lasering their foreheads, it didn’t matter what world they were presenting or what the extreme ends of their behavior produced. That calculation, and the safe remove from which we made it, feels no longer viable.
Vanderpump Rules probably can’t be salvaged. Maybe Bravo can, starting with the inclusion of more nonwhite producers and other executives, who might have raised a red flag earlier on two white stars’ lying to the police about a Black colleague. The bigots on other shows should be fired, and more nonwhite stars should be hired. Certain joys — tracking yearslong interpersonal drama like memorizing baseball stats; watching fairly harmless, delightful insanity — can remain. A woman dramatically taking off her prosthetic leg at a restaurant; a medium wreaking havoc at a dinner party — there are people the world over who can be counted on to want attention and drink too many Pinot Grigios without being racist.
Of course, representation in something like entertainment is a limited, top-down goal and shouldn’t be confused for political organizing. Bravo’s negligence in keeping its cast to its own standards of conduct is evidence that a corporate entity is not an effective steward of civil rights. There is too much pressure on consumer choice to help shape our lives and too little emphasis on, say, our government, which can feel almost impossible to influence in comparison. No wonder, during weeks that set the country ablaze, people looked around to see what things they could light up more immediately. Bravo was one of them.
But it is a good thing if audience members are losing their appetites for despicable behavior. And it is good if Bravo actually caters to the impulse to hold ourselves accountable, finally, in both the real world and this world we pretended wasn’t really “real” for too long. Part of the seduction of reality shows is that looking at the worst of them helps us look away from the worst parts of ourselves: “I am not involved in this,” we can say from the couch. But of course we are. Bravo will probably never become an egalitarian utopia. But it could be a test case for this new era of openness, in which Americans who have long benefited from thinking of themselves as apolitical, just fans watching a show, are seeing themselves for the first time as cast members. Where do we want next season to go?