Bravo TV, Reality TV

#SouthernCharm: Poised for a Feminist Evolution Amidst #MeToo?

My past articles on Bravo television shows have introduced me to fans as well as foes. During my years contributing to Huffington Post (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/sweiss-904) and covering reality TV, I was afforded some perks for a period. However, I was also subjected to lambasting and outright harassment from fans. While this may be hard to believe, there are show enthusiasts who react extremely to matters of reality TV. They go for the jugular and intensely personal when launching an attack on those who craft the columns. So I’ve been hesitant about conducting a deep-dive into Bravo’s Southern Charm and elaborating on what has been brought to my attention from behind the scenes. I also take allegations that have not been 100 percent confirmed with the requisite grain of salt. That said, it’s been apparent to me that a show initially pitched to be centered around Southern Gentlemen (the name listed in the show’s “bible”) has faced growing pains in the #MeToo era.

“He hates me and I know he hates HER too,” one cast member of the franchise, which also now includes Southern Charm New Orleans and Southern Charm Savannah, lamented to me.

It was approximately a year ago and she was making reference to behind-the-scenes angst. I deliberately use the vaguest of terms here because, while I don’t want to discredit the account of another woman, I also was not there. Based on what I was told though, the contentions among select female cast members and their close off-camera confidants was that a particular individual – one calling the shots from behind the cameras – came across as sexist, patting the good ole boys on their backs for their player ways while acting scornful of certain female cast members. The man in question has been described in the most general terms, including: “He has a mean streak,” or the more benign “He can be unpleasant. He can be tough to deal with”, to the overt “He’s an asshole” (the latter expressed to me by one cast member’s close confidant). Because he’s someone in control on set, it’s been tricky avoiding him, although that cast member has related to the confidant that “avoidance” is precisely her tactic of choice.

The cast member who I personally spoke with accidentally overheard him tearing into the other female Charmer by phone. While her knowledge of his regard for that Charmer could be debated, she acutely felt his disdain for her. Furthermore, she took issue with his desire to portray her in a way that made her truly uncomfortable as a feminist, manipulating the reality of events for the sake of “reality” television.

Again, I will state the following disclaimer here: Perception of one’s regard is not always actuality and I received no response after emailing the man in question for an interview.

Because these sentiments fall under the umbrella of “allegations”, I won’t share a name and no, it is not the bemused looking, deer-in-the-headlights-glazed Whitney Sudler-Smith who is both a cast member and producer. Whitney seems to possess an aloof Southern politeness and has been looking wistful in the most recent episodes, as if he’s uncertain he wants to be privy to the meddling into personal lives that unfolds on camera. A source confirms to me that Whitney feels conflicted about being on the show because at heart, he’s a behind the scenes man. His aspirations lie in production rather than being a TV star. His screen time has decreased visibly from Season 1 to the present.

As I watch Whitney squirm, there’s symbolism there for me regarding the Charleston franchise. Here’s a show that launched with the premise of an “all boys club.” As we see, the plan was always to have supporting characters, the women who fawn over these boys…plus the few who give the guys guff (“Wendies” to the Peter Pans) and say it’s time they grow up. The latter (Cameran Eubanks Wimbley in particular) was always a step in the right direction while the former was problematic. In 4 short years however, a seismic cultural shift took place and here we are amidst the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements of 2018. While feminist writers and the more astute critical observers turned Southern Charm over analytically, grappling with discussion points in 2014, they became more vocal in 2017 when an episode brought the phrase “rape culture” to one progressive recapper’s popular column: http://www.vulture.com/2017/06/southern-charm-recap-season-4-episode-11.html.

Brian Moylan of Vulture questioned the aggressive behavior of Shep Rose towards a new female Charmer named Chelsea. It remains debatable whether the recapper (as well as his readers and select viewers) came down too harshly on Shep. Perhaps, again, editing was mainly to blame. When I brought up the episode in question to a network employee several months ago, his terse and defensive response was: “You got some bad information, Shira.”

The employee’s implication was that Moylan had sized up the situation incorrectly in his analysis.  Furthermore, he seemed to be cautioning me, I should not be weighing in on a recapper’s analysis in my own Huffington Post column (although at that point, it was too late: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/boys-will-be-boys-and-so-we-have-relationshep-bravo_us_5a10d636e4b0e6450602ebb0) and perpetuating myths. Regardless, the editing certainly welcomed opinions and observations. If those sentiments were entirely unwarranted, show editors should be fired rather than writers blamed for their scrutiny of what aired.

This season, I have softened my judgement of Shep without discrediting Moylan’s recap or negating what Chelsea may have expressed. I just feel that now, at the start of Season 5, he is showing a more sensitive, compassionate and considerate side. Perhaps it is remorse, regret…repentance (?) for the debatable debacle of last season. Or maybe he is a more “woke” individual today…That said, the key word for last season’s conundrum is “editing” and the questions are: Can we trust our perception of what went down on camera? How much of what transpired wasn’t included and was anything “left on the cutting room floor”?

In the case above, it also became an issue of potentially not believing a woman’s account of feeling violated. We never want to discredit a woman’s feelings in this regard, so the issue of what was shown versus what wasn’t (potentially) only complicated matters.

This type of thing always opens up the floodgates for heated argument. Bravo and Southern Charm’s production company Haymaker can be angry at me for exploring things and feeling perplexed, but ultimately, they’ve left a lot open to audience and journalistic interpretation. It should be known that I remain riveted to the show. I find the drama compelling. But yes, an integral aspect of what keeps me rooted to Southern Charm is waiting for the women to flip the script.

That brings us again to the current season of the “OG” Southern Charm (Charleston). The overall feel during Season 5 is different right off the bat. Only two episodes have aired and the women have used the phrase “girl power”. They are banding together and supporting one another. Naomie wants JD to know that any poor treatment, disrespect and disregard for his wife’s feelings is completely intolerable. Chelsea underscores Naomie’s sentiment emphatically. Kathryn is finally surrounded by the feminist allies that have eluded her in previous seasons. In the aughts of the franchise, tut-tutting about her single mom status and turbulent romantic life (no thanks to the much older, complicated and controversial playboy Thomas Ravenel, who excels in getting away with shit while making Kathryn – the mother of his babies – out to be the crazy one) was her all-too-familiar backdrop. I always silently rooted for Kathryn, also notably the youngest cast mate. To have your missteps highlighted on a show focused on Southern propriety, while you are essentially coming of age, is no easy feat. The one ray of sunshine for her (and me) has been the constant of Craig, a male cast mate and friend who has remained faithfully in her corner since the beginning.

Now his ex Naomie and their friend Chelsea are exuding supportive sentiments. In an era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, I can’t help but wonder if this wave will rise higher and higher until we achieve a feminist crescendo. I wonder if a certain member of production who was so enamored by Whitney’s original pitch for Southern Gentlemen, is now realizing how we (the viewers) need to hear more from the women. I wonder if he senses how much we desire Kathryn to have a voice and feel emboldened in a way she hasn’t in the past. I wonder if he knows how much we’d like the “boys’ club” to get a rude awakening to the changes being made around here. Here being this nation in the modern day.

There is the juxtaposition of the prim and proper, good ole fashioned, traditional South (with its plantations that some cast members have no shame referencing and alleged Nigerobilia in a parlor room) with the current American political climate. Both republicans and democrats alike account for #MeToo and more generally, the landscape of modern feminism. Regardless of party affiliation, it is impossible to ignore how the U.S. is changing in this way. For years, it’s been a curious fact to me that a cable station watched predominantly by women and gay men hosts Southern Charm. Today, I’d like to think that the Hospitality so notable in that geographical tip of our nation, compels producers to honor Bravo’s demographic.

This will sound trite, but it’s also true: We’ll have to stay tuned and see.

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2 thoughts on “#SouthernCharm: Poised for a Feminist Evolution Amidst #MeToo?

  1. I hope this is not another reality ploy because it is certainly great to see these women feel empowered, and for them to articulate what the viewers have seen all along: that the men get passes for lousy behavior, while the women are excoriated for it.

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