Bravo TV, Reality TV

#SouthernCharm Kathryn Dennis is “100 Percent Committed to Her Sobriety”

Sometimes you cannot put all your faith into salacious sites and smear campaigns.

Sources quite close to Kathryn Dennis of Bravo’s Southern Charm tell me she is “100 percent committed to her sobriety.” One confidant of the reality star says she is proud of Dennis for the way she has employed strategies like “deep breathing and turning to those in her inner circle to avoid turning to alcohol.”

While a website reported spotting Dennis out on the town and implied from her cheerful chatter (captured on video) that she was intoxicated, the confidant says “it’s positively untrue. You see a normally happy girl out with her friends in that video. She’s being gas-lit right now. There’s always been this tug of war as you’re aware…” At issue: the long-standing custody battle for Dennis’s two children with her ex Thomas Ravenel. The now defunct duo are Southern Charm cast mates, and Ravenel is a notorious former Charleston politician who has courted scandal. Known for demanding drug testing for Dennis, ironically, he has his own past cocaine possession charge on criminal record.

Says the confidant: “The double standards lend credence to the ‘good ole boys club’ that the Southern Charm women refer to in the first episodes of the current season.”

The sources express grave concern about going on record in their names. They are fearful of being dragged  into the smear campaign against Kathryn, alleged to be run by KD detractors and mainly, Ravenel and his new girlfriend.

The tangled web that has been woven is also polarizing fans and foes on the social media playgrounds. Be very wary of defending Dennis on Twitter, but know that in this scenario, you are on the right side of Herstory.

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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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Bravo TV, Uncategorized

‘The Elephant in the Pahhhluhhr’: The Controversy & Intrigue Surrounding #SouthernCharm

(An earlier version of this ran on Huffington Post, June 13th, 2017. The following article is a revised and updated version.)

BRAVO TV, NBCUniversal

When Southern Charm began airing on Bravo in March of 2014, it took a while for viewership to make an impact for the network. By season 2 however, a rapt audience had tuned in to the drama that played out between privileged Southerners while a disapproving matriarch tutted about improprieties and a former Real World star begged the “Southern Gents” to settle down. The show, now approaching its 5th season, is currently popular enough for Bravo to have introduced a spinoff that just aired (Relationshep, about cast member Shep Rose, a ladies’ man looking for long term love – allegedly). The newer Southern Charm Savannah is another offshoot of the original. It premiered on May 8th, 2017 and Season 2 is filming now.

THE ELEPHANT

It is no surprise that shows about privileged white people in the South have garnered criticism and sparked wild rumors to make heads roll (a much-debated Page Six blind item referred to one Southern Charm costar’s “negrobilia,” a prized collection of artwork by black slaves. Of course, speculation abounds that the item was planted by a conniving adversary).

Many viewers have overtly stated in the comments sections of articles about the original SC – set in Charleston – that these people don’t seem to do very much for a living, yet have impressive wealth. The implication isn’t something that needs to be stated outright, though of course it is brought up periodically: Some of the cast members descended from plantation owners who kept slaves.

One female costar from a “prominent family” actually has an ancestor who was an outspoken slavery proponent and advocate. Despite her family name garnering respect in the South, her lack of riches as compared to the wealth of her cast mates, and her unconventionally rebellious ways, perpetually elicit scorn from the above-pictured matriarch. (Photo Source: Reality Tea)
WOKE?
Brought into question about the franchise is the question of: Just how “woke” are these individuals? If you’re not a Millennial or someone who keeps up with the Urban Dictionary, “Woke” is a political term of black origin referring to awareness of social and racial justice issues. The hashtag #StayWoke is a popular one. So where does Southern Charm fall on the Woke Scale?

Sexism and double standards for women have also been brought up by critics in connection with the franchise and thoughts on this vary today. Here we are prior to the start of Southern Charm’s Season 5 (and Southern Charm Savannah’s Season 2): Viewers hone in on specific words used, things left unsaid, issues that are ignored and political sentiments tweeted out by cast members (including a barrage of tweets by cast mate Thomas Ravenel, including one directed at Bravo honcho Andy Cohen that has since been deleted). A contingent has expressed feeling offended by certain cast members’ actions, yet manage to return and tune in each  season…despite protest. This attests to what we observe time and again with Bravo shows and those airing on other cable networks: the compelling nature of material that provokes ire.

A SHOW ABOUT PETER PAN PLAYBOYS

Both Southern Charm and its Savannah offshoot have struck viewers as exuding an “all boys club” vibe. While it is impossible to pin that on production, some insiders (who requested anonymity) have speculated that Haymaker executives (both founders who sit at the company’s helm are male)  http://www.haymakercontent.com/ – who originally packaged the show as Southern Gentlemen – have a “boys will be boys” mentality,

According to writer Amy Feinstein of Inquistr.com:  “Southern Gentlemen turned into Southern Charm when Bravo said that the show needed some women in the cast and not just as accessories and dates for the ‘gentlemen.’ So Cameran Eubanks, Jenna King, and eventually, Kathryn Calhoun Dennis were added in to round out the cast.”

bible thomas SC

The “Bible” for Southern Gentlemen. From Amy Feinstein of Inquistr.com: “Initially, Southern Charm executive producers Whitney Sudler-Smith and Bryan Kestner wanted to do a show set in Charleston that would highlight the life of an upper-crust Peter Pan in the Holy City. They put together a promotional video for a show that would have been called Southern Gentlemen. In the Southern Gentlemen video, Thomas Ravenel and Shep Rose talk about their life before Southern Charm.”

Feinstein is referring to the first season of the original Southern Charm in her quote above. However, viewers had a lot to say about the most recent seasons of that show and its Savannah offshoot.
SLUT SHAMING
On Southern Charm Savannah, Ashley Borders was essentially slut-shamed for golfing in her one-piece bathing suit. While cast mate Louis Oswald played too, his participation was minimized and given little credence by cast mates. Producers often get thrown under the bus for what we see on camera, but how much should we really be blaming on them versus the cast members they spotlight?
The answer to that may be subjective and personal as well as dependent on how real you consider reality TV to be. Despite Season One (of Southern Charm Savannah) airing as recently as 2017, we have a long way to go when it comes to the “blame game” and expectations for women versus men. Additionally, this is maximized by the old fashioned concept of Southern propriety and the notions attached.

While it would be nice for Haymaker and Bravo to bring Ashley back for her “redemption season”, the rumor (based on those who recently spotted the cast filming and captured photos) is that she will not be returning as a full time cast member.

KEEPING UP WITH KATHRYN 

The Twittersphere has often been abuzz with speculation about how Kathryn Calhoun Dennis, the ginger-haired vixen of the original Southern Charm, has been scrutinized for her “bad behavior” (a subjective term) much more so than cast mates Thomas Ravenel and Shep Rose. Neither gent has been depicted as an angel (Shep’s drinking and impulse control were issues brought up last season), but there’s the contention that the “playboys” get away with a mere slap on the wrist. The idea of having children out of wedlock is also likely seen as the most shocking of offenses for a Southern gal, but we have to wonder if matriarch Patricia Altschul remembers that Thomas Ravenel, who she is visibly fond of, fathered Kathryn’s children.

A PROFESSOR TAKES A SOCIOLOGICAL AND ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE

Ned Rinalducci, Ph.D. is a professor living in Savannah and teaching there at Armstrong State University. As a Political Sociologist, he also researches and examines religious and ethnic political movements and cultural identity. He writes on Islam, religious politics, ethnic politics, and ethnic nationalism. Every summer he teaches a pop culture course that focuses on reality television and last year, he assigned his class a show that was filmed in their own city, Southern Charm Savannah.

He explains: “Even before I started watching Southern Charm Savannah, I gave assignments in a summer pop culture class where we examine race, class and gender through reality TV. What we note is that it’s always done in a stereotypical way to really drive the narrative they’re trying to deliver. A large portion of Savannah is actually African American so Savannah viewers said: ‘this isn’t about Savannah. This is about rich, entitled white guys.’”

“The majority of the population here is not represented by this show. There definitely are circles where the social hierarchies are stressed, but most people living here are not a part of that. It is very real though – I have been in Savannah for 18 years and I’ll never be a ‘Savannian’ because I wasn’t born here and my family is not from Savannah. Southern Charm does what so many reality TV shows do: There are story arcs and narratives about characters and the shows exaggerate things like gender stereotypes (we see that with the original Southern Charm, the greater expectations upon women to be proper), social class and race. On some level, this makes people connect to the characters and it’s disconcerting – It’s reality television, but it’s not real.”

“Last summer, I had my students really examine how race, class and gender were depicted on Southern Charm Savannah. They looked at signs of Southern culture and discussed whether it seemed authentic. My wife, who is a true Southerner, saw part of an episode where Catherine hosted a bridge party in the hopes of embracing an old tradition. She said to me ‘Nobody plays bridge anymore!’ I thought that was funny because my own mom, a Northerner, actually plays bridge!”

A PERSPECTIVE ON SOUTHERN CHARM FROM A BLACK, GAY AMERICAN MALE

Troy McEady of the podcasts Emotionally Broken Psychos (he has co-hosted with Molly McAleer) and EBP’s The Smush Room (which he alone hosts) admits that being a black, gay American male does not prevent him from watching Southern Charm and Southern Charm Savannah. McEady feels that bigotry stares you in the face with Savannah, whereas on the Charleston show there’s an “underlying sentiment.”

He elaborates: “Kathryn comes from a long bloodline of people that owned huge plantations in the South. We’ve been watching Charleston long enough that we’re almost used to it – as gross as that is to say. It’s not overt, but it’s still uncomfortable. With Savannah, they used it in a sort of ‘cutesy’ way last season. Catherine (not to be confused with Kathryn of Charleston) talks about how it’s uncouth to discuss where money comes from, but we know where that money comes from – owners of large plantations. It’s a weird thing to lightly dance around – because it’s embarrassing.”

One Savannah character from last season (who is likely also not returning — based upon cast trip photos that recently surfaced) used the Yiddish “S word” to joke around with Daniel. McEady observes: “In that case, it was social awkwardness and social unawareness when it comes to race. This is also a character who needs to be more self-aware. The statements came across as boldly racist. However, it was almost less offensive coming from him because he seemed not to possess the appropriate thought processes.”

McEady adds: “I’m hoping that things turns around with Southern Charm Savannah. It feels like those characters were uninteresting for the most part. The things Bravo used as filler (in Season One) were there because there wasn’t much to show. I’m not surprised that there’s an upcoming Season 2 because Bravo decided to give it another chance, but I doubt there will be a Season 3 unless there are major changes. Personally, now I’m invested so I’ve got to watch regardless. Unless they shake up the cast in some way, these people are uninteresting – with the exception of Ashley…and perhaps Daniel. While watching, I actually had to remind myself what was happening in terms of story lines. There didn’t seem to be too much there.”

THE “SWEET SPOT”
When it comes to that question of being “woke,” McEady has some thoughts on the entire franchise:“Bravo has found this sweet spot with Southern Charm – or what they think of as a sweet spot – to address the racism and sexism. ‘Let’s make it not seem so inappropriate that Thomas comes from a family of slave owners by putting cutesy music behind it.’ Patricia, the matriarch, comes across as a sexist woman. She dismisses what the men do and how they treat women while requiring women to be prim and proper. I really don’t think any of them are terrible people but it seems some (particularly the younger cast members across both Southern Charms) have been sheltered and are clueless.”
BRAVO HAS CONSERVATIVE VIEWERS TOO, OF COURSE
Fortunately for Bravo, there are many conservative viewers who are not harping on political correctness and are less sensitive about issues of concern to liberals (AKA “Snowflakes,” a beautiful phenomenon of nature that is supposed to be an insult?). Southern Charm Savannah‘s viewership was significantly smaller than the original, yet it still managed to rise steadily from week to week and it may be in part to those who are unfazed by things that “trigger” others.
LET’S ALL BREAK BREAD AT THE DINNER TABLE
“We live in a political climate where everybody has a voice,” says McEady, “You can relate to something and learn something about a black person without being a black person… Everybody has sat at a dinner table where someone of an earlier generation said something that resulted in flying tableware. There is a lot of weight added to things that people say today. It’s very heavy and it is scary to speak your mind – You just have to use discretion.”
And perhaps, that is where the viewers come in as well, the many “voices” weighing in via social media. Southern Charm is akin to that awkward Thanksgiving dinner where we all sit down hoping we can effectively see one another’s  perspectives. It is the reason why many of us keep coming back to the table. The right amount of controversy sparks discussion while an excess turns people away. Haymaker knows just how to walk this tightrope so we stay tuned in.
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