What Will Reality TV Do Without Offensive People?

What Will Reality TV Do Without Offensive People?

Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute have made careers out of being the kind of reality TV star viewers love to hate—or hate to love. On Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules, they’ve lied to their friends, cheated on their partners, and brutally bullied their coworkers at SUR, an L.A. restaurant owned by former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump. Both Schroeder and Doute have been physically abusive to each other and to others on screen, and their ongoing bad behavior has been largely rewarded, both with screen time by the show’s producers and financially—pay per episode was as little as $1,400 in the first two seasons; now, core cast members make between $10,000-25,000, with Doute and Schroeder on the higher end of the scale.

As the Vanderpump Rules theme song goes, “You know that it’s our time, these are the best days of our lives,” which implies that the good times of treating others horribly won’t last forever. For Schroeder and Doute, the end came on June 9, days after reality TV star Faith Stowers, one of the few Black cast members to appear on the show, spoke publicly about an incident in which the pair called the police on her and falsely accused her of stealing. The stunt was meant to get back at her for having a sexual relationship with Jax Taylor, who was (and is) in a monogamous relationship with Brittany Cartwright.

“There was this article on Daily Mail where there was an African American lady,” Stowers recalled in an Instagram Live chat with Floribama Shore’s Candace Rice. “It was a weird photo, so she looked very light-skinned and had these different, weird tattoos. They showcased her, and I guess this woman was robbing people. And they called the cops and said it was me. This is like, a true story. I heard this from actually Stassi during an interview.”

Unfortunately for Schroeder and Doute, the news that they had called the police on an innocent Black person as petty revenge coincided with the largest civil rights uprising in decades. People across the world have been taking to the streets by the thousands to protest the murder of Black people by the police and, as demonstrators grow in numbers and more names of Black victims of police brutality enter the mainstream discourse, a larger reckoning has begun. Brands like Bravo, which has long profited off the offensive behavior of others, are getting called out and responding to save face under increased scrutiny. Thus, Schroeder and Doute were fired from the show, as were new cast members Max Boyens and Brett Caprioni for racist tweets that were posted years ago.

This speaks to a problem with reality TV more generally. Other networks have responded to the George Floyd protests along the same lines as Bravo—Dee Nguyen from MTV’s The Challenge was fired over offensive Black Lives Matter comments, and ABC has announced that, for the first time in The Bachelor’s history, the Bachelor will be a black man. (In 2017, Rachel Lindsey became the franchise’s first black bachelorette. She has since written and spoken regularly about racism and the series.) But consider this: It took George Floyd’s death and immense public pressure to inspire these shows to progress, a gross truth that is almost as much the responsibility of the viewers as it is the networks’.

Morally horrific people are the natural villains, engines, and DNA of reality TV. While generally upstanding people can, of course, be entertaining to watch, there’s a prevailing thought that good seeds don’t last—at least, not without their evil foils. The genre has long been a celebration of disgusting human behavior and fans tune in largely for the schadenfreude of watching extremely flawed people humiliate themselves. So how do we reckon that with real-world issues and real-world consequences?

The Vanderpump Rules firings coupled with Bravo’s sudden focus on the Black Lives Matter movement are, to be explicitly clear, needed and warranted. However, it all feels hollow when you consider the network’s history of programming. Even without Schroeder and Doute, the Vanderpump Rules cast remains riddled with problematic characters: Jax Taylor (one of the worst people in the history of… history?) was embroiled in a scandal along with Cartwright, now his wife, this very season because the pair enlisted an openly transphobic pastor to officiate their wedding. (Following social media backlash, the pastor was replaced by Lance Bass.) Among the cast, only Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix openly expressed concerns about it and were promptly shouted down by their co-stars. On the Instagram Live with Rice, Stowers also expressed her belief that Lisa Vanderpump, the puppet master of the show, was disappointed by her unwillingness to perform a “Nene Leakes” attitude of so-called blackness, saying, “When [Vanderpump] first approached me, she was very happy about the fact that there was going to be a black person on the show… I was very nice coming in, I wasn’t really giving her that show that she needed from me. That’s why you don’t see me in the confessionals, in my opinion.”

In response to Stower’s accusations and the terminations, Vanderpump released a vague statement full of platitudes about love, kindness, and equality. Speaking further on the matter, Stowers issued this brutally accurate own: “…had George Floyd been a dog, Lisa would have marched like she did for Vanderpump Dogs.”

One doesn’t have to scrape back a decade to find other incidents of obvious racism on [bravo].

As of now, Bravo has “no comment on Jax” or the rest of the Vanderpump cast’s employment status, according to Variety. Maybe that’s because producers have realized that by firing anyone who’s said or done racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic things (Taylor alone checks practically all these boxes), they’ll only be left with Madix and Sandoval to film. Then there are the other Bravo shows. Currently, there are calls to fire The Real Housewives of Orange County’s Kelly Dodd for her ongoing racist comments. Former Orange County cast member Tamra Judge openly called her husband Eddie, who is Mexican, a “beaner” in early seasons; that offense seems minor compared with the time she unsuccessfully tried to get another cast member “naked wasted,” leaving her vulnerable (again unsuccessfully) to date rape by Judge’s own son. But it was only recently that Judge was let go alongside Vicki Gunvalson (herself the embodiment of a conservative Facebook message board), not because of what they’d done over the years but because they had become too boring.

One doesn’t have to scrape back a decade to find other incidents of obvious racism on the network: In 2018, The Real Housewives of New York’s Luann de Lesseps arrived at a costume party dressed as Diana Ross, wearing an afro (which Ross rarely did) and bronzing her skin. Southern Charm, which is essentially a celebration of confederate lineage and riches earned through slavery, is—as of Tuesday—still on the Bravo roster of programming. Then there’s the acknowledgment that Bravo’s programming is deeply segregated, with Black women mostly regulated to The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of Potomac, and Married to Medicine, and white women (and a handful of white men) filling the rest.

Like all of entertainment, reality TV is a deeply flawed industry that’s tainted with the same white supremacy and patriarchal values that built the society we live in. But despite the genre being widely recognized as less than real, with stories and cast members manipulated by producers, it does effectively hold up a funhouse mirror to our world—a world in which white people call the police on black people over petty or perceived grievances, a world in which power structures (like Bravo) only change when their bottom financial line is challenged. So how does that world—and the real world (not to be confused with The Real World)—evolve? Start firing every problematic person on reality TV and, by nature of all people being problematic to varying degrees, you’d have no one left. Razing the entire genre is an option, but reality TV is cheap to produce and popular with viewers, so networks won’t be able to resist for long.

Responding to Kristen Doute and Stassi Schroeder’s termination from Vanderpump Rules on his Sirius XM show Radio Andy, Andy Cohen—inarguably the public face of Bravo—dodged responsibility, saying, “I want to remind people because I’ve been getting so many tweets and messages and whatever about Vanderpump Rules and about Southern Charm and other shows. I am not, I don’t… I feel like I remind people this all the time… I’m not in charge of programming at Bravo anymore. I am not an Executive Producer of Vanderpump Rules. I don’t have anything to do with the show except I love it and that I host the reunions.” Though technically true, the statement is disingenuous. Cohen’s influence at Bravo runs deep and if he objected to the on-going production of Southern Charm, he could certainly throw his weight into having it canceled. But white viewers are guilty of similar thinking. Complaints from white people regarding racism and bigotry on reality TV were few and far between before the ongoing police brutality protests made racism impossible to ignore.

I’m someone who’s made a portion of a living by covering shows like Vanderpump Rules and The Real Housewives for almost a decade. I’d like to say I’ve done so analytically, focusing more on what reality TV says about us as a culture than about the actual on-screen content, but I’m also, inescapably, a fan. Many of us are part of the ecosystem that allows offensive people like Doute and Schroeder to thrive. And as much as our devotion to these shows is about watching the characters—real people—backstab and fight, it’s also about self-affirmation. Following along as Doute told Schroeder in Season 2 that, yes, she had sex with Stassi’s ex-boyfriend, is an affirmation (though a flimsy one) that we’re better people than they are. Learning that they called the police on Stowers because she slept with that same ex, then seeing them get fired, affirms that we would never do that.

Only we would. As the ongoing protests demonstrate, white people call the police on black people for minor or made-up offenses all the time. And like the Vanderpump Rules cast, regular (as in “not on television”) people tweet horrible things, cheat on their significant others, hurt their friends, and abuse each other. The big difference is that, with Schroeder and Doute, we’re seeing people get held accountable—cynically and belatedly, sure—for their actions, something that doesn’t often happen in real life. Once again, reality TV is not reality.

Madeleine Davies is a former Jezebel editor and is currently on staff at Eater.com. She’s devoted her career to treating stupid things seriously and serious things stupidly.

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