How “The Real Housewives” Got Political

As Housewives captures a chaotic political moment, the iconic franchise is demonstrating how much reality television has changed — and how much it hasn’t.

“Do not talk about me! It’s none of your fucking business!” Real Housewives of New York’s Leah McSweeney furiously screamed at friend-of-the-show Heather “Holla” Thomson in a recent episode. “Why do you have to be up in everyone’s business, like a Karen?”

McSweeney wasn't angry because she was being slut-shamed, tattoo-shamed, or excluded from a cast trip — as in previous seasons. Instead, she was yelling at a castmate for calling out McSweeney’s refusal to vote in the momentous 2020 presidential election.

Housewives’ political turn might seem like a drastic shift for a franchise most famous for blowups about bringing the wrong cookies to your sister-in-law’s Christmas party. But corporate-flavored identity politics — such as Pride celebrations or the philanthropic efforts of #GirlBoss Bethenny Frankel — have always hovered in the background of the show.

And as the reckoning with “diversity” reached behind the scenes of reality TV over the past three years, Bravo’s flagship franchise enacted casting and storyline changes to speak to the current moment. Since the addition of New York’s first Black cast member, attorney and political commentator Eboni K. Williams, claims of white supremacy, virtue signaling, and microaggressions have become front and center on this season of the show. And she’s not the only new addition to the Housewives universe.

Last season, Coming 2 America actor Garcelle Beauvais was brought on to Beverly Hills, and this year Crystal Kung Minkoff also became part of the cast. Minkoff joined doctor Tiffany Moon on Dallas as the first Asian American cast members on their franchises.

These castings generated positive press for the series. And the new cast members have done the work of introducing discussions about race into the show’s ongoing themes of conflict and friendship. The results have mixed teaching moments with over-the-top ridiculousness as the white cast members are finally put on the spot about their cluelessness. Seeing Mar-a-Lago habitué and all lives matter”–er Ramona Singer and “Countess” Luann de Lesseps googling microaggressions and white fragility because they were paranoid about getting canceled is the kind of “growth” as entertainment the show excels at creating.

But the use of “diverse” casting by itself to perform politics on camera without addressing disparities behind the scenes is part of a pattern in reality TV that papers over real power dynamics about production. So who really benefits from these new storylines and who bears the costs of creating them?

Because Housewives is unscripted, storylines are crafted through a delicate dance between the cast, producers, and editors. Political debate, for instance, would have to be brought up by a member of the cast or feel organic to whatever is happening in their lives to make it onto the show.

And it has. In 2011, on the third season of The Real Housewives of New York, there was a clash between Alex McCord, who was on the board of a marriage equality organization, and the rest of the cast over a marriage equality march. McCord — possibly egged on by producers since she rarely had storylines — put her castmates on the hot seat about whether they would be attending the march that year.

Bravo’s fanbase is largely made up of women and gay men, and it seemed like no one in the cast wanted to be seen as anti-gay. Jill Zarin was asked on camera by McCord whether she was planning to go — she wasn’t — and it turned into one of the bigger feuds that season. “Alex McCord has the nerve to come up to me at the church and [ask about the march]," Zarin said in the season premiere. "She's a bitch. Look at her — she's socializing at a party that is so above her."

The whole conflict took up multiple episodes and culminated in an iconic fight between McCord and Sonja Morgan, a grand marshal of that year’s Pride march, about who would get to speak during the event. The produced plot point mixed the political with the ridiculous in the show’s inimitable style. But getting into political or social justice spats is dicey on many levels — and still rare on the franchise. The cast members often have branding partnerships — now tied to social media — and so turning off fans with their political views comes with an actual cost.

And while conflicts do happen, unsurprisingly, racial politics weren't foregrounded and incorporated on any of the shows in any major way. (Perhaps in part because the shows have mostly been segregated, disagreements over identity politics didn’t come up in the way a network with a majority white audience cared to explore.)

On Atlanta, though, which then included a white castmate, Kim Zolciak, her “I don’t see color” racial cluelessness became a storyline. She had to be schooled on racism by Phaedra Parks and the other women at the third season reunion in 2011. On Beverly Hills, after producer and former Miss Puerto Rico Joyce Giraud was brought on in 2013, she was mostly noteworthy for being subjected to racist “jokes” by Brandi Glanville, who mispronounced her name as “Hoyce” and asked if she couldn’t swim because she is Black. (Giraud is Latina.)

But it wasn't clear that the network — the editors and producers who turn the raw footage into season-long plots — actually knew what to do with these storylines. Andy Cohen, the Very Online face of the Bravo network, executive producer of the Housewives franchise, and host of Watch What Happens Live, helped frame them as “teachable moments,” using the show as a kind of educational tool for a Racism 101 class.

After the furor over her treatment of Giraud, Glanville reluctantly half-apologized about her actions later on Watch What Happens Live. (“I'm sorry and I guess you're not ready for the real Brandi? Should I censor myself?" she said on Cohen’s late-night talk show later that year.) Meanwhile, Zolciak eventually left Atlanta midseason in 2012.

And then came the convulsions of the 2016 election.

It’s telling that even as Trump’s rise spurred questions about his links to white supremacy, politics became a talking point on Real Housewives, but not explicitly in terms of whiteness or racism. Instead, the election itself became the topic.

Viewers wondered who the Real Housewives cast members had voted for, and Cohen started putting them on the hot seat, first by pointedly asking the question during a New York reunion. Many — including Ramona Singer and Luann de Lesseps — refused to say who they were voting for. Bethenny Frankel even got annoyed at castmate Carole Radziwill for talking too much about politics. (Like many millionaires, she prefers privatized, nonpartisan philanthropy that she can get publicity for.) Cohen later tweeted out that the women of Orange County and New Jersey were mostly Trump supporters.

As the debates around the election and the #MeToo movement rippled through pop culture, they eventually made it onto the Bravo screen too. Kenya Moore filmed a PSA about intimate partner violence on Atlanta. On Beverly Hills, Lisa Rinna brought up the confirmation hearings for now–Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to spur the women into started talking about #MeToo. While Rinna spoke out about her horror at his confirmation, Camille Grammer-Meyer took the opposite tack and spoke about the horrors of being falsely accused. The silence of some of the other women, like the usually outspoken Kyle Richards, was telling. (Rinna later called out fans of the show for trying to get her QVC product lines pulled from the network because of her Kavanaugh comments.)

The reckoning that came for  Housewives didn’t initially center on race or Black cast members, but rather ethnicity. 

In 2020, as mass protests sparked conversations about racial injustice and anti-Blackness, the network started creating some standards around what degree of racism it would allow from cast members — both on the shows themselves and on their social media platforms. For instance, Kelly Dodd, who mocked Black Lives Matter, was ultimately let go of Orange County earlier this year.

But these standards are largely invisible to outsiders and have seemingly been decided on a case-by-case basis, determined by an invisible equation likely based on Twitter backlashes and the women’s value to the network and to their shows. “My thing that I keep coming back to is these are not elected officials. They’re Real Housewives, not Barack Obama. What standard are you holding them to?” Cohen mused about Housewives. Bravo has “been able to build a big tent,” Cohen said, sounding like a Republican Party operative.

While Bravo did fire cast members from RHOBH spinoff Vanderpump Rules who had falsely accused Black castmate Faith Stowers of a crime as revenge, the reckoning that came for Housewives didn’t initially center on race or Black cast members, but rather ethnicity. (That kind of displacement seems to be a feature of diversity efforts.) Last year, on Dallas, white cast member and franchise villain (and self-proclaimed gay icon) LeeAnne Locken went on a rampage about Kary Brittingham’s Mexican heritage — including calling her the “chirpy Mexican” — behind her back to her castmates.

But whereas Brandi Glanville’s comments about Giraud were a blip on the radar, Dallas stretched the Locken controversy out into a season-long plot point, making the final episodes of the season about the other women’s complicity in not telling Brittingham what Locken had said.

During the Dallas reunion last year, the women let down the fourth wall, blaming the producers for not knowing if they would include Locken’s outbursts on the show. It was almost like Housewives was staging the uncertainty of the production — editors and cast members — figuring out how to deal with racism and xenophobia on the show itself. Locken was eventually confronted at the reunion, and because she didn’t fully apologize, she was fired from the show. And that seemed to mark the beginning of the newest wave of political engagement on Housewives.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, we don’t want politics in our shows’ or ‘We don’t want to cover social issues,’” Cohen told the LA Times this year. But he added that he felt a responsibility to showcase the tumultuous politics of the past year because it was part of the women’s reality. “We are in a global pandemic, you had a reckoning of race relations and you had a highly divisive presidential election,” he pointed out.

Starting with the 2020 seasons, Housewives made some of the women’s political actions part of the show. Atlanta’s Porsha Williams’ activism and arrest over protesting Breonna Taylor’s killing became a major storyline. On Orange County, Braunwyn Windham-Burke came out as a lesbian and marched in support of Black Lives Matter. The drama then predictably centered on the other cast members calling out their activism for clout. (Kelly Dodd claimed Windham-Burke came out to have a storyline, and Kenya Moore questioned Porsha’s commitment.)

Dallas took a predictable path too, after a video of cast member and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Brandi Redmond performing racist Asian stereotypes went viral. Tiffany Moon’s entire season had mostly been about Moon dealing with the aftermath of Redmond feeling embarrassed about the reaction to her video. In one scene, Redmond got mad at one of her white castmates for telling the press the other cast members would address the video on the show. Moon’s storylines seemed to get swallowed up by the editing around Redmond’s paranoia around being canceled. The way that the white cast members focused on their reputations — almost as if Moon wasn’t there — was a symbol of how people of color are boxed into storylines in the show.

Real Housewives of New York has almost become a commentary on white women’s cluelessness about racism. 

New York, in contrast, has almost become a commentary on white women’s cluelessness about racism. Because they specifically cast Williams, a political TV commentator and Housewives fan, as RHONY’s first Black cast member, she has brilliantly turned the season into a comedy of manners about white lady fragility and social justice etiquette.

She made Black history part of her storyline by having her castmates attend produced events, like a Harlem night where she made the women learn about James Baldwin and Nella Larsen. But she’s also pushed back in less-scripted moments. When they got into a discussion about the class politics of talking about dicks, de Lesseps called Williams an “angry woman” — angry in italics — and asked her to leave her house. This was, as Williams later pointed out, right after McSweeney had just called the entire table of women “hos” but was simply told to cool off.

Not only did Williams call de Lesseps out on the use of the angry Black woman trope, but she also made the point to the women that she’s not there to educate them — at least not on their own comfortable terms. And since then, she has kept the women — who usually bulldoze over new cast members — on the defensive.

Williams is adept at using the show’s own themes of friendship to raise issues about interracial friendship in a way that’s rarely depicted on television. In the middle of one of the now-routine (and boring) cast trips (this one to Salem, Massachusetts), Williams put Ramona Singer on the spot. Singer has never wanted to address her politics on the show, but Williams wanted to know what she thought of Trump’s “stand back and stand by” comments to the far-right group Proud Boys.

“I want to kiki. I want to girl-talk,” she explained. “However, we can't get to kiki if I have an outstanding question in my heart and mind if you are aligned with white supremacy.” When Singer started screaming that she wanted to change the topic and started white-lady-dancing to distract the group, Williams said, “No, no, we’re not gonna shut this down, Ramona.”

And there has probably never been such a succinct demonstration of the emptiness of the commodification of anti-racism by white women than McSweeney using “Karen” against white former castmate turned friend of the show — Heather Thomson — not because she was wielding the innocence and privilege of white femininity against a Black person, but because Thomson was making her look bad by calling her out not voting in the 2020 election.

Now another friend of the show, Bershan Shaw, who became the second Black castmate ever, has been brought on RHONY midseason — whether by producers or Ramona — to add “another side” to the arguments that have embroiled the Housewives cast. So far, she has been edited in by calling out Williams for being too teachy, seemingly bothsidesing the issue for the Bravo “big tent.” (In turn, the other women brought up that Williams’ mom voted for Trump, in a rather quick erasure of the “no talking about children or family” rule that is occasionally kept by the cast members.)

Now fans online have launched into arguments about whether or not Williams is too preachy, too boring, or too one-dimensional.

There is no doubt that Andy Cohen is a savvy connoisseur of reality TV history, and he’s talked about his love of the pioneering MTV docu-soap The Real World. “I was a huge soap opera fan and I was like, wow, this is like a real-life soap opera,” he said of the show’s influence on him.

In many ways Housewives is modeled on The Real World, which brought diverse strangers together to fight and make up on camera, as a kind of multicultural soap opera. And as an ongoing docu-soap with recurring characters and “diversity” built into its DNA, Housewives, produced by a white gay man, has been able to incorporate difficult subjects more organically, than, say, The Bachelor, where the backlash to Chris Harrison’s overtly anti–anti-racist tirade led to his leaving the franchise.

It’s harder to see the problems with multiculturalism when it’s more seamlessly incorporated. On reality television in particular, the executive producers — like Cohen — likely displace the actual work of creating new storylines “about race” onto overworked and underpaid editors and storyline producers who in turn depend on the cast to make changes and bring things up. (Despite the addition of cast members, two of the original cast members on their franchises — NeNe Leakes and Married to Medicine’s Mariah Huq — claim that the network doesn’t reward the Black women on the shows with production opportunities behind the scenes.)

The decision to bring in people of color who — like Tiffany Moon — then end up caught in storylines about a white castmate’s fall and redemption is a natural extension of a brand premised on multiculturalism as a teaching tool for white audiences. Cohen, for instance, expressed regret at the Vanderpump Rules firings because he prefers that arc of redemption. “It’s more interesting to sit in the moment with people that you have a rooting interest in and watch them find their way than it is just turning out the lights and forgetting it existed,” he said in an interview earlier this year.

But for the people of color on the shows, politics aren’t just about a story arc of redemption, nor do they stop once they get offscreen. Tiffany Moon is now dealing with racist social media harassment. Williams is now also dealing with racist pushback, as she’s blamed for making the show too serious. (She recently responded with an open letter to a white recapper who suggested she find common ground with Singer.) New York’s ratings are reportedly now lower than ever, as the franchise’s majority white fans are seemingly tuning out.

In 2019, Cohen spoke to Paper magazine about how casting decisions are made, and why Housewives cast members are fired: "If they become a turn-off to viewers, for whatever reason — they appear too fake, they're not interesting, they're not entertaining." But the current viewer backlash to the show’s makeover is a reminder that the line between preachy and entertaining is itself political. It remains to be seen if Bravo — and Cohen — can see that. ●

Correction: Bershan Shaw's and Heather Thomson's names were misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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