The Big Shot With Bethenny Frankel Isn't Empowerment Fluff, It's Faux-Feminist Torture Porn

The Big Shot With Bethenny Frankel Isn't Empowerment Fluff, It's Faux-Feminist Torture Porn
Screenshot:HBO Max

Bethenny Frankel is the textbook girlboss. Once a star of the Real Housewives of New York, the salad-dressing entrepreneur has since spun off her career into a variety of questionable business ventures, including a stint on Shark Tank, a line of shapewear, a charity where she just flies private planes around the country, and now a lucrative deal with MGM Television and producer Mark Burnett to produce unscripted reality television projects.

The first of those offerings is The Big Shot With Bethenny on HBO Max, where Frankel offers contestants a chance to be the number two of her Skinnygirl empire. As she describes it, she’s looking for Oz from The Wizard of Oz, a job title which didn’t work out so well for the dude, if she’d stayed until the end of the movie.

From the press releases and official description alone, I tuned in to The Big Shot’s first two episodes expecting an hour of reality television cringe. What I got instead was faux-feminist torture porn, in which Frankel reigns like a feudal lord eager to sacrifice their starved and overworked serfs.

I would generally start with a description of the show’s format. But in its two episodes so far, The Big Shot has yet to find one. Generally, it goes something like this: Bethenny arranges a gathering of her would-be underlings under false pretenses, like a cocktail party in the first episode, during which she spies on and manipulates them with increasingly exaggerated reality television show gimmicks, like a surprise twist, or a last-minute reversal of assignments. Sometimes, people are eliminated, and other times, she spends about 10 minutes scolding the contestants for not being as smart and powerful as she is, then sends them off to do it all again the next day.

The first episode, during which the aforementioned cocktail party takes place, sees the contestants gather together for the first time. It’s a mix of personalities. Some come from the corporate HR world, while others are “entrepreneurs” with vague job descriptions, and others work in PR. A standout in the early episode is Nicole Rose, or DJ Nicole Rose, depending on who she talks to. Rose is an influencer, DJ, and brand consultant. She demands everyone take a shot of cocktail syrup and tequila with her and is later humiliated when Bethenny reveals the “cocktail syrups” are actually coffee syrups. They’ve been mislabeled, apparently, even though they were set out next to the bar.

As for this cocktail party, it serves two functions. For the greater portion of it, Bethenny spies from the second-floor balcony, sending her assistants downstairs to pretend they are fellow contestants. They flit in and out of the party, occasionally popping upstairs to laugh at people, make snap judgments, and inform Bethenny who should be eliminated before the first challenge. It’s also a real estate commercial, since it is hosted in the backyard of a Hamptons home where she kindly informs the contestants she has never slept or live. Don’t worry, she tells them, because she’s ready to sell it, and has already bought another investment property down the block.

They all clap when she tells them this.

Immediately, however, Bethenny fires a large swathe of the people of color in the competition because she “can’t see herself” working with them. The first is Ann, a publicist, who Bethenny grills until she is almost reduced to tears. The next is Ali, who is an HR consultant that helps workplaces create safe and inclusive working environments. This irks Bethenny, because she wants someone who is a “killer” and is “not afraid to ruffle feathers.” The subtext, of course, is that she wants someone who won’t find issues with the way her workplace is structured. The next on the chopping block is Mary, who runs a sock company, about which Bethenny all but laughs in her face. She presses Mary repeatedly on whether or not she’d give up her company and dreams to completely devote herself to the job. Mary hesitates over this and expresses a small wish to retain her independence and self-worth—traits, mind you, that Bethenny repeatedly admires about herself.

Rather than admiration, this enrages Bethenny. She reduces Mary to tears, then promptly fires her, Ali, and Ann. The episode ends with a challenge in which the contestants have to film 30-second Instagram Stories about a variety of Skinnygirl products, and Bethenny fires yet another of them.

In the second episode, it’s more of the same. Bethenny begins with a diatribe to her assistant and claims she’s not sure any of the contestants are “smart.” She laughs about them on the phone with fired RHONY star Dorinda Medley, then surprises them at a loft she bought and renovated for the competition. On her way in, however, she is sidetracked by how disorganized producers have left the place, and spends a good few minutes wandering around and re-adjusting things, muttering to herself about how hideous it all looks. Once properly inside, she informs the contestants that she is allowed to be inappropriate and rude because she is “the rainmaker,” but they are not, because they work for her and she demands respect.

In another challenge, contestants have to shoot a promotional campaign for her Skinnygirl shapewear line. Predictable chaos ensues, like mismanaged schedules, missing models, and ego trips. The real shock, however, comes when Bethenny surprises the contestants with a visit to the set, during which she informs them she now wants to be included in the shoots herself. As she tells her stylist and makeup artist, her time is “valuable,” and the contestants have to be prepared to cater to her every whim, even if it involves a last-minute schedule change to flatter her own sense of vanity. But because she is not just some random reality competition show host, and instead, the very powerful Bethenny Frankel, the contestants are obviously nervous about ordering her around.

Rather than treat the situation with any measure of professionalism, however, Bethenny sulks on her “passive-aggressive couch” for most of the challenge and mocks the scared contestants to her glam squad. It seems obvious they’ve all experienced this side of Bethenny before based on the way they solemnly nod at her antics and rarely say anything but “yes, you are correct.” The drama on-set eventually bubbles over when DJ Nicole Rose asks Bethenny to get dressed not once, not twice, but three whole times. Bethenny refuses each time, just to show she can, and eventually yells out that she is going to skip Rose’s shoot entirely because the DJ didn’t cater to her every whim. The kicker, however, is in her truly jaw-dropping meltdown, she chillingly informs the poor influencer: “I have been on shoots literally for the cover of People magazine, the cover of Forbes magazine, and they don’t make me wait.”

The episode ends with Rose scuttling off to a bathroom and locking the door so prying cameras don’t film her ensuing breakdown.

Really, The Big Shot represents the final stage of girlboss culture, in which the definition of “female empowerment” is the subjugation of others in the pursuit of wealth and individual ascension. It’s no shock, really, that the first two contestants to endure her wrath were women of color (and successful ones at that). But most harrowing of all her theatrics onscreen is how closely the contestants’ experiences seem to mirror those of Bethenny’s employees. Or, more broadly, how often she telegraphs that the job waiting for them at the end of the tunnel will be punishing, isolating, and torturous.

At every opportunity, Bethenny proclaims she is the most powerful woman in the world. The winner won’t be another empowered “boss,” despite how many times Bethenny claims that’s what she’s looking for. In reality, the only way for her reign of terror to continue uninterrupted would be for her to hire someone with just enough spine for Bethenny to break over and over again, until they are reduced to a sniveling yes-person, eager to please the master’s every whim.

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