The Gilded Racism of Southern Charm, Bravo's Plantation Fantasy

The Gilded Racism of Southern Charm, Bravo's Plantation Fantasy

From its inception, Southern Charm was designed to serve as a peek behind the veil of Southern high society. Whitney Sudler-Smith, the show’s creator and Charleston socialite, likely pitched his access to that elusive camp when shopping the project around. The son of Patricia Altschul, purveyor of fine arts and antiquities, Sudler-Smith’s stepdad was Arthur Goodhart Altschul, a general partner at Goldman Sachs and an heir to the Lehman fortune. Through his Charleston social circle, he roped in a motley crew of what could be considered the city’s moneyed “elite”: former reality star Cameron Eubanks; disgraced state treasurer Thomas Ravenel; steel heir and Charleston royalty Shep Rose; and Kathryn Dennis, a proud descendant of John C. Calhoun, vice president to Andrew Jackson and staunch defender of slavery.

Together, the cast would spearhead Bravo’s efforts to romanticize a whitewashed vision of Charleston with boozed-up hunks and pretty-faced blondes, the show’s theme song announcing what could be expected from its new generation of Confederacy sympathizers: “He’s got money/He’s in magazines/He’s got more honies than any honeybee.”

Through glitzily filtered shots of former plantation houses, charity galas, and raucous parties, early promos promised the show would tear down the veil that separates Charleston’s “ruling” families from the rest. “Charleston’s special. We have our ways here, in terms of being genteel in our customs,” Ravenel announced in promotional trailers for Southern Charm’s first season, underscored by Southern big band swing. Craig Conover delivered the first season’s runaway catchphrase, claiming that in Charleston, “Men don’t want to grow up.” Another teaser for the premiere promised the reality drama was not your “duck calling, moonshining, hand-fishing kind of show.” Bravo couldn’t have made their intentions clearer. This is a show meticulously groomed and edited to present a South stripped of its deeply violent history, filled only with smiling and “genteel” white 20-somethings, partying and spending money that isn’t theirs.

Its cast members aren’t just propped-up party fiends with powerful families; they are the South as many still wish it to be.

This marketing push in 2014 seemed manufactured to fill a “conservative” hole in Bravo’s lineup. The network was then best known for The Real Housewives, as well as more high-brow reality shows like Project Runway and Top Chef. The marketing for Southern Charm contrasted with the recently debuted Vanderpump Rules. One featured oiled-up and horny Los Angeles waitstaff; the other, equally horny yet more conservative-friendly, “genteel” Southern gentleman and “proper” ladies. This strategy, however, was made only more dire by the election of Donald Trump two seasons in. The language of the show seemed to mirror the framing of Trump’s campaign—namely the “return” to a past America, when slavery was legal and black people and women couldn’t vote. Its cast members aren’t just propped-up party fiends with trust funds and powerful families; they are the South as many still wish it to be.

Southern Charm is not the only pop culture phenomenon to hold allegiance to the loaded idea of this rose-colored South. Celebrities like Blake Lively and Reese Witherspoon both have released brands that play on those images. On its site, Witherspoon’s clothing brand Draper James claims it “is classic American style, steeped in Southern charm, feminine and pretty. Likewise, a photoshoot from Lively’s failed lifestyle brand Preserve, back in 2014, was titled “Allure of the Antebellum.” Lively and husband Ryan Reynolds were even married on a plantation, as is still common among upper-middle-class white Southerners. Whether Bravo will admit it or not, Southern Charm mines this antiquarian nostalgia for the most shameful time in American history.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the messages coded in Southern Charm have begun to spring from the screen and into life. A few weeks ago, Kathryn Dennis sent a string of harassing Instagram DMs to Charleston-based activist Mika Gadsden, including a monkey emoji. Dennis’s tirade began after local nail salon owner Katie Shields posted about organizing a “Trump Boat Parade,” according to Buzzfeed News. Paulina Rodriguez, who sold her own merchandise through the shop, soon cut ties with them through her Instagram stories. In retaliation, Shields prompted her followers to “explain that supporting Trump does not make you racist” to Rodriguez, resulting in an influx of harassment in her DMs and mentions. Dennis joined in, with the reality star posting a video of her herself at the shop in solidarity.

Soon, Gadsden posted the video on her Instagram Stories, and wrote: “This is how white women show solidarity.” Dennis retaliated, calling Gadsden a sociopath, as well as “what is wrong with our city.” She continued: “Stop using Charleston and ur minority claim to harass people,” adding a monkey into her racist tantrum. After Gadsden shared the texts, and public outrage ensued, Dennis attempted an apology on Twitter:

Dennis was fired from a brand ambassadorship at a boutique in Charleston as a result but has thus far faced no consequences from Bravo. Coincidentally, castmates like Cameron Eubanks and Naomie Olindo have also exited the show, although it’s unclear if they were fired or left of their own volition. Most, however, are turning on Dennis and condemning her actions. It’s an interesting, albeit smart, move for the ex-Charmers, considering they spent years onscreen supporting Dennis and acting out the same, tired views they clearly share with her. The exodus might spell doom for a show already floundering after years of internal cast conflict and public controversy, or it might be a rating goldmine, with viewers desperate to villainize Dennis or forgive her.

In Dennis’s Instagram comments, various fans of the show have breathlessly asked each other some flavor of: “How could this happen?” But in many ways, Dennis’s actions are to be expected: 25 percent of Charleston residents are black, yet in six seasons there has yet to be a black cast member on the show. In the cesspool of generational wealth onscreen, there’s little room for the more complicated, racially diverse city that exists in reality. Like Gadsden told Buzzfeed News: “People like Kathryn Dennis are everywhere. They are pervasive, they’re everywhere in Charleston, and they’re rewarded for their behavior and are given spots on reality shows.”

In the cesspool of generational wealth onscreen, there’s little room for the more complicated, racially diverse city that exists in reality.

The racist tropes that Dennis weaponized in her messages play out clearly onscreen. Conflicts inside the world of Southern Charm are cast as wars
between the young cast members, who represent a “new generation,” versus the old. Never mind that their only difference is this new generation seems more willing to curse and drink publicly. This frame ignores the very real struggle that takes place outside of these supposedly feuding groups, the residents who have long been denied agency and access to power.
Whitney Sudler-Smith says it himself, in the first season: “There is a small, ruling, entrenched minority of ruling families in Charleston.” Few in number, still, the political influence and social reach of the cast members and their families run deep and are often weaponized against the community they treat like a plaything.

In its first season, Southern Charm featured a plotline concerning a 22-year-old Dennis and her dueling relationships with Thomas Ravenel, 51, and Shep Rose, 35. For a season, viewers watched as both men attempted to woo Dennis, each using their family names and status in Charleston society to win her over. The common, if slightly predatory, plotline was complicated, however, by just who their families actually are.

Thomas Ravenel is, as mentioned, the disgraced former state treasurer of South Carolina, a job he was ousted from in 2007 after a federal cocaine bust. The son of former Republican Congressman Arthur Ravenel, Thomas hails from a family disturbingly ingrained in South Carolina history. A descendant of French Huegeonots of the same name that landed in Charleston (supposedly) in the 1680s, his family was among the largest enslavers in South Carolina. Carrying on that lineage, he purchased and lived on the Brookland Plantation for over a decade. Never one to admit shame, Ravenel boasts about his lineage at every chance he possibly can. His father, meanwhile, also has a questionable relationship to political ethics. A huge proponent of flying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse while in office, Arthur Ravenel regularly held Confederate Flag rallies. He mocked the NAACP and ran for office in the ’90s specifically to seek funding for a bridge he could name after himself: the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

Family history was central to the triangle between Dennis, Rose, and Ravenel. They preached of tradition, family names, and reputations: What it means to be a Ravenel or a Rose or a Calhoun-Dennis in South Carolina. As previously mentioned, Dennis was a descendant of John C. Calhoun, a major proponent of the slave trade in the Confederate South, who preached it was a “positive good” to the country. Rose, meanwhile, hails from the “inventors of the railroad” in Chicago. His grandfather was a federal judge in Alabama, and his great-grandfather was well known Congressman Sam Hobbs, who introduced the still-used Hobbs Act, which criminalizes extortion and robbery. On the show, he even alludes to a mysterious “steel fortune” accrued by his other grandfather, who was a “successful businessman in the industry.”

They preached of tradition, family names, and reputations: What it means to be a Ravenel or a Rose or a Calhoun-Dennis in South Carolina.

While other, less lineaged cast members have come and gone, Southern Charm has thrived on the dynastic conflicts between this core group of self-professed Southern royalty. The “drama,” as its often heralded by Bravo fanatics, comes with a huge heaping of predation, alleged sexual assault, and onscreen manipulation. For much of the early seasons, viewers watched as Dennis spiraled out of control while under the sway of Ravenel. He frequently painted her as the money-hungry siren to other cast members, often lustily chasing other women while forcing her to stay inside his former plantation and play housewife. They now have two children and have since split.

Amid his separation from Dennis, however, and during their ensuing custody battle, Ravenel was accused of sexual assault and battery by two separate women. In April 2018, the daughter of Debbie Holloway Perkins, Ashley Perkins, claimed her mother had been assaulted by Ravenel during a Tinder date. (Ashley told People that Ravnel eventually settled with her mother for $200,000.) A few weeks later, the couple’s former nanny, Dawn Ledwell, accused him of sexual assault in 2015. Ravenel eventually pled guilty in September 2019 to third-degree assault and battery. He paid Ledwell $125,000 as a result, alongside covering attorney fees and donating $80,000 to charity People Against Rape.

Despite the dark underpinnings behind the scenes, cast members remained dedicated to conversing about “good old boys,” as though the outdated mode of Southern masculinity excuses all sorts of bad behavior. The most recent season addressed this more explicitly, with women like Cameron Eubanks, Chelsea Meissner, and Naomie Olindo, recently exited, railing against such conventions, claiming it was not an excuse for manipulating and abusing women. But the men whose drunken behavior remained at the center of such conflicts never faced any retribution. Rose would frequently court multiple women at once, often pitting them against each other, while lecturing others about “proper” Southern behavior. During Season 4, he repeatedly tried to kiss co-star Chelsea Meissner, despite her protestations. Despite his apparent inability to treat women with any decency or respect, Bravo gave him his own dating show, the widely criticized Relationshep. He also came under scrutiny in August 2019 for a video that surfaced featuring him cruelly mocking a homeless woman.

Likewise, the men on the show never quite dealt with their complicity in Ravenel’s onscreen habits, namely: the abuse Dennis seemed to suffer at his hands. Up through the end of Season 5, before his abrupt exit, Ravenel seemed emboldened among his male cast members, with many of them choosing to film with him despite the very public accusations against him. They’d go drinking with him, they’d socialize with him at parties, they’d vacation with him, and stay silent when he’d demean Dennis in front of them. Season 6’s turn in tone, spearheaded by women on the show, felt less like a revolution and more like a network trying to cover its tracks.

Whatever comes of Kathryn Dennis or Southern Charm, as cast members exit the show and condemn her, the stain of Southern Charm will not be easily washed away from Bravo’s lineup. Deeper, though, is the reality white Americans seem unable to face or admit to. The deep-seated convictions of the Confederate South are not gone. They are still powerful enough to be platformed and celebrated on a national television show, full of cast members boasting of enslaving ancestors, living on former plantations. Dennis can claim “the context was not my intention” in sending a monkey emoji to a black activist in Charleston, but the behavior falls well in line with the culture she, and all her fellow costars, happily remain seeped in. It’s what they’ve been celebrating on television all along.

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