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The Real Gay Panic of 'The Real Housewives'

By Chris Revelle | TV | February 28, 2023 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | February 28, 2023 |


In a 2000 episode of Sex and the City entitled “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl …”, sex-negative sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw squirmed with discomfort at the idea of kissing a character played by Alanis Morisette during a game of spin the bottle at a party. Carrie was dating Mark, a bisexual man, and was spiraling about it, replete with such quips as “bisexuality is just a layover to gay town.” Carrie goes through with the kiss, but pecking Alanis on the lips is an experience so destabilizing to her stridently heteronormative existence that she quickly leaves the party and her relationship with Mark, concluding that that was not for her. To be clear, I’m not sneering at Carrie realizing her boundaries and minding them, I’m sneering at the queasy display the show frames this moment in, as if there’s a fundamental wrongness to bisexuality.

Through Carrie’s snide layover comment, we’re led to believe bisexuality isn’t real and we’re presented with a very binary view of sexuality as a comforting thing. Being drolly dismissive of queer identities, especially those that are presenting more overtly, is very characteristic for the show, characteristic of the time in which it aired, and of the time we live in now. It’s funny to think of this moment while you remember this show was created by Darren Star, a white gay man who would continue making tv for straight white women with the vacuous exercise in Mary-Sue fantasy indulgence Emily in Paris. It may seem strange at first blush why a gay person would turn around to paint another identity under the queer umbrella so poorly, but white gay men gatekeeping for straight people is nothing new. And wouldn’t you know it, the same heteronormative and breathlessly panicked approach to sexuality would rear its head in another media entity popular with women and gays emceed by a rich white gay: Real Housewives and Andy Cohen. And much like Carrie being thoroughly undone by her brush with bisexuality, the women of Real Housewives lost their shit in revealing ways when presented with queerness in women.

Let’s start with Denise “j’adore la piscine” Richards, a brief cast member of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Denise is an actor, maybe best known for Wild Things, playing Dr. Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough, and for being a supremely good sport as a spokesperson for idiots. She’s also the ex-wife of Charlie Sheen, a rather large piece of baggage I can only imagine the weight of. By the time she was on Housewives, Denise married Aaron Phypers, a “holistic healer” type who specializes in a conveniently abstract “medicine” and claimed quite loudly to be persecuted by the pharmaceutical industry. She shared stories of her past including how at a past Thanksgiving, Charlie Sheen showed up with a sex worker and Denise prepared them an extra seat at the table. Denise seemed self-deprecating and down-to-earth, a refreshingly unselfconscious presence that was appealing to viewers. The other housewives seemed a little caught off-guard by this, but didn’t really seem to lose their shit until Brandi Glanville rolled back into town.

Brandi is a former cast member who still comes back now and again, having been booted off the show for being too overtly racist to a cast member of color. She’s a big confrontational presence that many viewers are only too happy to welcome back because racism doesn’t faze the viewership more than a bandage dress. Denise and Brandi hit it off, hanging out together off-camera, effectively taking it from a professional “friendship” stage-managed to hell and back by producers to maybe a real friendship between two humans. This was used as a flashpoint for the other Housewives to jump in and pull down the popular new girl. They lost their minds over the idea that maybe these two adult women spending time together are maybe also K-I-S-S-I-N-G?! They alleged that they were having an affair, something that Denise denied, but Brandi leaned into, claiming that yeah, they’re having an intense affair. There were text messages she showed off proving this, but to my eye, they were pretty non-indicative. It seemed like the other wives were looking for a reason to tarnish Denise and the idea that she was not just having an affair, but an affair with a woman was too tempting for them to pass up.

That Denise is married seemed largely forgotten, because the thought that she wasn’t entirely straight seemed to be earth-shattering. Whether Denise and Aaron have an open marriage is not really discussed because it’s much more gratifying for them to ask in gasping shock, “with a woman?” The idea of sexual activity without a man seems to be mystifying to the Housewives. Remember, in the conservative funhouse mirror reality of Housewives, it’s strange for a woman to be queer and despite everyone involved being a grown adult over the age of 35 living in California where they’ve almost certainly interacted with queer people on a daily basis, they act like it’s the most insane thing they’ve ever heard. And that’s the real message being telegraphed here (as it was telegraphed in SATC above): queerness in women is weird and aberrant and other, so much so that it cannot be normal. Having people lose their shit over something so innocuous and commonplace has the purpose of modeling that behavior for viewers. Thus, in its small way, Real Housewives un-normalizes queerness.

And then there’s Kandi Burruss, one of the stars of Real Housewives of Atlanta. Kandi is an R&B songwriter, best known for penning TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Kandi is also notable as a Real Housewife for the simple fact that she actually has a job instead of a string of scam-adjacent sponsored content deals: Bedroom Kandi is her successful sex toy company and she also owns a restaurant with her husband called Old Lady Gang. Kandi is also openly bisexual. Speaking entirely with bias, I love Kandi. Bring us more queer people of color living life out loud on TV, please. And aside from all that, she seems to this humble gadfly to be a decent person. Granted, I see the persona she operates within on TV and that’s separate from who she is as a person, but even seeming like a decent person is pretty notable in a media habitat that casts breezy bigots as a matter of course.

As is often the case with queer people living their lives, this ruffled feathers. Phaedra Parks, fellow Atlanta Housewife and doer-of-many-jobs, had a big issue with this. Phaedra was notable for being both a lawyer and a mortician and for throwing some of the most finely-crafted shade known to the entire Housewives world. She also holds the dubious honor of being called “the worst lawyer I’ve ever had” by former client Bobby Brown. Phaedra decided that Kandi had to be taken down, but in a much more devastating way than, say, destroying her socially or simply lighting fire to their producer-mandated friendship. No, instead what Phaedra did was make up a really wild story in which Kandi, devious queer that she is, conspired with her husband Todd to drug fellow Housewife Porsha Williams, drag her back to their sex dungeon, and rape her.

Accusations of sexual violence, such a classic move for silencing queer people and invalidating their presence. Kandi refuted this pretty successfully, asserting that she takes her sex consensually, thanks. Phaedra was not asked back to the cast after this. It’s fascinating to see viewers remember Phaedra fondly, almost as if her fabricating a story about a castmate being an attempted rapist doesn’t faze them. I wonder how other queer people’s pain strikes them or if it’s equally easy for them to ignore. And I’m sure those people rejoiced when she was brought back for Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip season 2, but I wonder what that says about anyone who can so easily breeze past what she did. Is being shady on a reality show really worth that much or are false rape allegations now just a part of fun drama? It’s funny how flexible that standard can be just to watch a reality TV show. Reality TV is plentiful and cheap; why settle for this?

In April of 2022, Bravo’s underrated Family Karma series featured a much-celebrated wedding between two men and included a heartwarming story about family acceptance and togetherness. I eagerly wait for women to be deigned worthy enough to be queer and respected on Bravo in the same way.

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

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