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Bravo's Appalling 'Southern Charm,' or 'The Real Housewives of Dixie'

By Chris Revelle | TV | February 14, 2023 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | February 14, 2023 |


All the way back in 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary and film essay directed by Raoul Peck based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. It is a searing gem of a film, channeling Baldwin’s uncompromisingly righteous words into a moving, resonant tour through America’s devotion to whiteness at the cost of erasing, ignoring, and imperiling lives of color. I was particularly struck by how the film paired images of the oppression of Black people with the cheerful white faces of Hollywood musicals like The Pajama Game, driving home the message that America favors the white person’s reality with silence and selective ignorance. A striking sequence that involves scenes from Birth of a Nation shows how even when the white-favoring culture of America deigned to portray Black people, they would not hire actual Black people (and instead put white actors in blackface), and then put into these ostensibly Black mouths lines that serviced white ignorance. In this film that occupies the same air as other historically significant but irrefutably evil films like Olympia and Triumph of the Will, Black slaves celebrate their captivity, assuring viewers that slavery is not only what every Black person wants but needs. So many words written to justify the unjustifiable, to give every white person a rationale out of caring about Black people, no matter how facile and patently ridiculous it is.

I remember leaving the theater with my friends, going to a train station nearby to get home, and seeing a poster advertising Bravo’s new offering: Southern Charm. The cast, all white people, stood facing the camera in anodyne glamour; sparkly and dull. With the images of Doris Day opening an oven in a spotless 1960s kitchen laid over oppressed Black bodies all swimming in my head, I viewed this poster with dread, but also a deeply mistaken sense of ‘that just won’t fly.’ I believed, quite wrongly, that a show celebrating rich white people who own Jim Crow art and proudly flog their Confederate ancestry would be received as obviously barely veiled racist content. This cast where Patricia Atschul, a grand-dame type with an embarrassing wealth of lawn jockeys and red-lipped portraits of savage-coded Black people, could smirk without censure about who was and was not “our kind of people.” This cast where Thomas Ravenel, a coke dealer and son of Confederate apologist and U.S Representative Arthur Ravenel Jr, is treated like a prince destined for great things despite being a right-wing troll with a failed senate campaign. This cast where Kathryn Dennis, a racist idiot, can wax rhapsodic about her ancestor John Calhoun, a U.S Senator who spent his 20 years in legislature trying to unite the south against “abolitionist attacks” on the system of slavery.

This show is for people who think plantation weddings are just so classic and charming, it must’ve gotten a crazy amount of shit, right? Oddly enough, no! And I think it’s worth asking why. Why would an audience accept a tv show with such a casual attitude about platforming a bunch of racist assholes?

The answer to all of this is, in my view, that Bravo cultivated an audience that’s largely cool with that. Southern Charm is the most obvious sign of a conservative bend to Bravo, but it didn’t drop out of the sky. There were some checkpoints on our way to this celebration of Confederate failure and white mediocrity-at-best that helped shift Bravo’s Overton window so far to the right that putting a bunch of racist people on TV in an aspirational light was successful. We can find those checkpoints in Bravo’s flagship enterprise: Real Housewives.

We can start with the basics of the very concept of Real Housewives: riches and wealth are aspirational in and of themselves, irrespective of any use of that wealth that occurs. How very 1% to gather treasure and coin like a covetous magpie. Then there’s the relative dearth of queer representation in which anyone who’s so much as curious is harangued in the midst of a queer panic. Denise Richards of Beverly Hills and Kandi Burruss of Atlanta are great examples of how merely expressing same-sex attraction will result in a storm of undue shit, including, in Kandi’s case, being accused of attempting to drug and rape another cast member.

The most damning checkpoint on our way to the White Power Hour is Housewives’ casting history. With very few exceptions, Bravo racially segregated their Housewives casts from the time of the first franchise (Orange County, 2006) up until 2013 with the casting of Joyce Giraud on Beverly Hills. The exceptions to this included blithering racist Kim Zolciak-Biermann on Real Housewives of Atlanta, which was otherwise cast with Black women, and Real Housewives of DC and Real Housewives of Miami, which had diverse casting compared to the rest but were short-lived (Miami has returned with a new cast though!). With Black cast members kept mainly in Atlanta and Latinx folx kept mainly in Miami, and with white people making up every other franchise, segregation was normalized and enough of the audience came to expect this. When Bravo cast a lone woman of color to Dallas and New York and Beverly Hills dared to have two women of color added to cast, there was a big audience sect that hated that, very loudly. Viewers who had no issue stanning the tacky Trumpsters of NJ suddenly couldn’t take hearing Dr. Tiffany Moon speak about being an Asian American woman in medicine or Garcelle Beauvais inviting the other wives to taste a Haitian feast. These viewers had become accustomed to their diet of white women with money occupying white spaces and then Bravo asked them to accept people of color as equals. Bravo briefly offered a separate Southern Charm franchise in New Orleans that has a diverse cast, but it was a brief and underappreciated blip.

So of course there were viewers defending Southern Charm as fun and harmless, but for who exactly? We communicate to people of color how casually we regard the white person’s history of violent subjugation and slavery any time a white person reaches for a weak, brittle reason the Confederate flag should stay flying or a statue of a slave-owner should stay standing. It’s patently insane that we take for granted that Black people should accept this. Why do we not treat the Confederacy the way Germany treats Nazis? Any expression of nazism at all is fully illegal there. Especially considering how Hitler was inspired by the American slavery system when he mandated concentration camps, to say we’re remiss as a country is an understatement. That Bravo felt comfortable putting Confederate defenders on tv is reprehensible, but it’s also reflective of the culture we all live in. I doubt Bravo would’ve found such success with Southern Charm if there weren’t a demand for it.

Southern Charm is still on and it’s still enjoyed by many people who very easily ignore the implications of consuming Confederate media. Just like every other artifact of the Confederacy, it should be relegated to the past, remembered only as the hateful thing it is.

Chris Revelle is a chatterbox with a lot of thoughts about media and can be heard shrieking about it on the podcast Why Did We Watch This?.