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Bravo fired one Housewife over racism. What about the others?

Bravo fired Jennie Nguyen over racist social media posts, but it sure seems like bigotry is a feature, not a bug, in the network’s Real Housewives machine.

Jennie Nguyen, appearing on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen.
Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This week, Bravo fired one of its Real Housewives. The network announced via Instagram post that Jennie Nguyen, a rookie appearing on Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, would no longer be a cast member amid accusations of racism. Earlier this month, screenshots of Nguyen’s deleted Facebook posts with anti-Black and anti–Black Lives Matter comments were posted on Reddit and have since made social media rounds. On January 20, she admitted the posts were hers and apologized via Instagram post, but it wasn’t enough.

In its Instagram post, Bravo said, “Moving forward, we will work to improve our processes to ensure we make better informed and more thoughtful casting decisions.”

Nguyen’s firing was seen by many fans as the right thing to do, but the termination raises questions about where Bravo draws the line.

If Jennie’s past comments are grounds for firing, what about someone like Ramona Singer who was, according to tabloids, investigated by Bravo for making a racist comment about fellow cast member Eboni K. Williams? Singer was also recently on a Housewife spinoff show where she feuded with and cursed at castmate Kenya Moore and repeatedly called her “Porsha,” who is Moore’s Atlanta castmate. (Both Moore and Porsha are Black.)

What about Singer’s castmate Luann De Lesseps, who appeared on the show in a blackface costume in 2018? (De Lesseps has denied that she wore blackface.) And where was Bravo when Tiffany Moon, an Asian American cast member on The Real Housewives of Dallas, complained about overt racism against her, including by one of her castmates, Brandi Redmond, who filmed herself mocking Asian Americans in a 2017 social media post?

I’m not privy to Bravo’s Housewives employment calculus, but the abhorrent and frequently bigoted behavior from some of its Housewives seems more like a feature of its design than a bug. The Real Housewives franchise exists because Bravo casts women who possess an embarrassing amount of wealth and a mortifying lack of shame. The latter allows the women to hurl drinks, insult each other’s husbands and loved ones, and mock each other’s financial situations on television season after season. As Bravo has found, chronicling the intersection of affluence and shamelessness results in cast members who exhibit a wide range of awful behaviors, including racism and bigotry.

Creating unhinged Housewife entertainment while making sure all of them are “good” people could mean the impossible task of dismantling its own machine, Bravo is finding out.

Why Housewives’ bad behavior doesn’t stop with Jennie

Some of the cast members may not fully realize it, but Bravo’s Real Housewives aren’t exactly aspirational. For years, the network has done an impeccable job of not giving the game away: Is being a Real Housewife an honor or a curse? A status symbol? Is it a glimpse at glamour or a clown show? It’s unclear, thanks, in part, to the “Bravo wink” in which the channel expertly walks the line in celebrating, mocking, and cashing in on its various Housewives. In this way, they’ve managed to get dozens and dozens of well-to-do people to sacrifice their privacy and dignity for our entertainment.

They’ve built a perfect machine for humiliating the rich while still allowing them to feel like winners. It’s a voluntary Hunger Games for aspiring socialites.

I’m an ardent supporter of Salt Lake City, Beverly Hills, Potomac, Atlanta, and New York City, and I dabble lightly in Orange County and Miami. If I’m tuning in, it’s because I enjoy witnessing mess. While I appreciate that these women live in lavish homes and drink spicy margaritas at fancy restaurants, I am really here for the chaos of Dorinda Medley drunkenly telling a house of feuding Housewives that she “made it nice,” Karen Huger and Gizelle Bryant making fun of each other’s clothes and age, and Jen Shah fleeing from the Feds outside of Beauty Lab + Laser.

Each of these shows operates on the implicit reassurance that despite obscene wealth, people cannot buy themselves out of being silly. Each show produces its own petty dramas, alliances, and rivalries. The result is a wildly entertaining, low-effort escape, which is especially welcome when the real world seemingly produces a new, fresh horror to terrorize us daily.

There are times, though, when the franchise can’t avoid the very big things happening in the real world. New York City dealt with the 2016 election; Beverly Hills had episodes where Me Too and Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing were discussed; and over the last year, multiple shows featured Housewives dealing with the pandemic. Recently, too, there’s been a push for Bravo to reflect the racial reckoning that’s been happening in the US. Bravo shows like Southern Charm and Vanderpump Rules faced criticism for cast members’ racist actions, and the latter fired cast members over them.

This all raises an existential question for Bravo, however. When you examine the lives of very rich people, you’re examining privilege and wealth that are byproducts of racial inequality, and a system that’s inherently exclusive. It’s not really a surprise then that some of those people are going to exhibit bigotry. Omitting that aspect of wealth or pretending it doesn’t exist, as perhaps Bravo has been doing with some of its Housewives, seems egregious in its own way. But to continue to platform racists isn’t right either.

When Bravo does try to address these issues, it often creates a new kind of mess, with women of color being either terrorized or shown to be as racist as their white counterparts.

The lack of diversity of certain Real Housewives shows has been an ongoing topic of conversation. The New York Times pointed out in 2019: “If less than half of the city is white, why is 100 percent of the cast of The Real Housewives of New York City white?” Similarly, Beverly Hills and Orange County came under the same scrutiny, though demographically they are less racially diverse than New York City.

My more cynical side questions if putting women of color on these predominantly white shows is a victory at all. If we’re supposed to laugh at these shows and consider some of these women trashy punchlines (e.g., Ramona Singer has been shown accidentally defecating on floors as if she were an untrained animal), is it really a win for diversity if you show women of color acting similarly?

There’s probably an argument that true equality is showing that women of color can be as rich and as vapid as their white counterparts. There’s also a case to be made that women of color should be allowed to cash in and ride the channel’s publicity wave too. But as the shows prove again and again, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Potomac and Atlanta — which feature Black casts — have been the channel’s most fun and entertaining shows, and Bravo has leaned on their star power. A testament to said power: Nicki Minaj, a longtime fan, hosted part of the most recent Potomac reunion.

However, cast members on Potomac and Atlanta have spoken about the internal and external pressure of representation — how they’re constantly thinking about how they represent Black culture and Black womanhood in ways other Housewives do not seem to contend with. And when Housewives of color get flack from fans on social media for the everyday bad behavior we’ve come to expect of anyone on these shows, the criticism often has an overtly racist bent.

Monique Samuels, a former Housewife on The Real Housewives of Potomac.
Heidi Gutman/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Monique Samuels and Porsha Williams — both Black women — had physical altercations on their respective shows that were framed negatively (Samuels did not return to Potomac). At the same time, Bravo glorifies physical blowups on the predominantly white New Jersey and treats the time Beverly HillsLisa Rinna threatened Kim Richards with a broken glass as an iconic moment.

Jennie is being fired for racist comments while filming is reportedly occurring — a first in Bravo’s history, as firings tend to happen discreetly between seasons. Yet, there have been many other Housewives, most of whom are white women, that have been acting this way for years with impunity.

In response to the real-life racial reckoning and growing pressure to diversify its casts, Bravo added Eboni K. Williams to New York, Tiffany Moon to Dallas, and Garcelle Beauvais and Crystal Kung Minkoff to Beverly Hills. Some of those additions fared better than others.

Beauvais and Minkoff have already had more than one instance in their short tenures in which they talked about inequality and racism with their castmates in ways that seemed, at least on screen, organic or natural. They were also sometimes shut down by fellow castmates who, for example, claimed to not “see color.” While fans sided with Minkoff and Beauvais in these moments, the show has seemingly put them in a position of educating their castmates about racism — something that’s way more fraught than typical Housewife fare like fighting over a dog named Lucy Lucy Apple Juice or whether or not they felt like a fellow cast member’s constant tardiness was a deep character flaw.

Inserting women of color into the predominantly white circles Bravo created can feel like Bravo is trying to tidy up its past mistakes.

Williams and Moon felt less like traditional Housewives than they did people specifically placed by producers in their respective shows to call out existing bigotries in the cast — which isn’t fair to either of the women. Their appearances also didn’t sit well with some fans, who sided with the existing Housewives that Williams and Moon were questioning, and who blamed Williams and Moon for “bad” seasons.

After Williams’s season of New York, Bravo paused the show and did not have a reunion. Similarly, after Moon’s season of Dallas and amid reports of poor ratings, Bravo put the show on indefinite hiatus.

Bravo’s stroke of genius with Real Housewives was finding wealthy women willing to behave like classless monsters on camera. Fighting, screaming, manipulating, cheating, and even engaging in federally prosecutable crimes have all been net positives for the series. Now that the network and its production companies have found a limit with Nguyen, fans are reasonably raising questions about former and current Housewives’ behavior. (Kelly Dodd, an Orange County Housewife, did not return to the show after its fifth season after problematic behavior and a history of racist remarks, but Bravo did not issue a statement like it did with Nguyen.)

If racism on social media is the uncrossable line, does that mean everything that happens on screen — but not on social media — and isn’t as wildly and overtly racist as Nguyen’s Facebook posts — is acceptable?

Nguyen’s firing from Salt Lake City may be the end to the current controversy, but it also puts the network in a strange situation of applying ethics to a machine that it fine-tuned to be as unethical as legally and socially possible. Watching it unfold in real life is a lot different, and it could prove to be messier than the show Bravo airs.