By Chris Revelle | TV | January 27, 2023 |
By Chris Revelle | TV | January 27, 2023 |
“When you’ve traveled the world, you can speak in any accent you want.” Such is the tagline of one Dorit Kemsley, cast member of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and what a tagline it is. Taglines are a funny little artifact of the HWives world. Every single episode begins with a credits sequence in which each wife introduces themselves, usually spinning slowly in some fancy gown, sometimes with family in the background. As the electronica-muzak plays, you’ll hear their voice-over saying something usually not clever, but at least with the cadence of a witty one-liner. Here’s Dorit saying hers and you can hear the accent. It sure is something! Watching this also brought me back to Erika’s challenging, “I’m a riddle wrapped in an enigma, AND CASH,” which should be studied by scholars as a modern koan.
When Dorit first began, the accent was one of several things people jeered at. And to be fair, there is a lot going on with her. She’s married to Paul Kemsley aka PK, a British businessman who used to be Vice-Chancellor of the Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur and now the recently revived New York Cosmos. He also manages Boy George, who appeared to maybe live with the family part-time when their time on the show began. Episodes started with a shot of Dorit and PK in the kitchen with Boy George in full make-up and a kooky hat, massive elephant of “WTF is Boy George doing here” firmly in place. When Dorit created a swimsuit line, she wanted to call it Nava, a Hebrew name meaning “beautiful” or “suitable,” which would make for a fun pun. PK, citing his business sense, forced her to call it Beverly Beach, which sounds more Walmart than Rodeo Drive, but what do I know?
If I were to describe the accent, I think I would land on “Euro-trash.” Is that still a thing we say? It’s partially British, maybe a little French (?), and a lot confusing. Maybe we go with “pan-European.” It’s the sound of someone eluding questions of nationality, handwaving that they’re “a citizen of the world.” So where does Ms. Kemsley actually originate?
Why, Woodbridge, Connecticut! If this is all starting to sound a bit Hillary “Hilaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrria” Baldwin, you’re not wrong. Another lady from New England trying this again? There are some complicating factors, however. Dorit was born to an Israeli father and a Moroccan mother. She also seems very aware of how this accent can and is received; she’s repeatedly claimed it’s come as a result of frequent world travel. Let’s go back to her catchphrase and really get at something: “When you’ve traveled the world, you can speak in any accent you want.” Given her explanations for the accent, it seems that she really means it, so let’s take this very seriously and get to know the construct of the Imperial Accent.
If you were to enumerate the prerequisites for being “allowed” to speak with an accent, what might those be? I think we might say, “being of that country and that culture.” That could take many different forms with many hypothetical rabbit holes, but let’s accept that it would be odd or notable to just start speaking with an accent associated with a country you’re not from. Again, paging Hillary Baldwin to the table! Dorit and her catchphrase get that, which is why she’s making sure you know she’s not just choosing any old country, she’s speaking with an accent that reflects her broad travels. Travel lots, choose whichever accent you want, one is license for the other.
Do I need to tell you how privileged it is to have traveled so much? It’s prohibitively expensive to travel at all, let alone globally. The catchphrase might as well be, “If you’re rich enough to go anywhere you like, you can speak in any accent you want.” Culture becomes a collection of items that can be purchased with the right level of status. That’s the real issue here with Dorit and Hillary: they feel that because they have the money and power to travel, they can pick and choose cultural flavors from wherever they’d like. This is the Imperial Accent. The issue is in them feeling totally free to pick up the accent just because they went somewhere. This isn’t your Sophomore roommate in college studying abroad in England and coming back with a new lilt for a couple months. This is deciding that, in fact, the world is an open menu and that all places are yours for the harvesting because you’re rich and because you want it.
A brittle, hollow sound is the Imperial Accent. The Imperial Accent is the mark of someone who feels no shiver in their spine at the word “colonial,” because it’s a furniture design aesthetic at Pier 1. It speaks to a view of the world as not a kaleidoscope but a grab-bag from which those rich enough to see the world can take. Lived experiences within a national identity are wiped out if you can afford it. Have privilege, will appropriate. At the heart of this is not only the idea that money and status should allow access to anything and everything but also that culture is a commodity and one to be purchased and used as a decoration. The same rationale that leads countless white people at music festivals to wear the feathered headdresses of the people America slaughtered and displaced leads Dorit and Hillary to develop their bespoke accents. It’s not papering over the same kind of bloody genocide, but it flattens and disregards culture at the whim of the powerful all the same.
And for what? Being a tacky Chanel-laden clown on Bravo and shilling a room you “designed” for Buca di Beppo? Moira Rose did it best with fruit wine! Between that and Hillary’s whole “Los Baldwinos” thing, the prizes of these dumdum games look evermore as brittle and hollow as the Imperial Accent itself.
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?.