It was almost poetic that The Real Housewives of New York City kicked off its 10th season with a Halloween party. The event was a shrill harbinger of the nightmarish season ahead for the ladies of the Big Apple. It also highlighted an issue that’s haunted the entire franchise since its inception: it's lack of diversity.
It all started when Luann de Lesseps—the Housewife formerly known as The Countess—boasted about how much she’s “suffered” since her marriage to Tom D'Agostino ended in a Chernobol-esque disaster after a tumultuous engagement and a whirlwind seven months of wedding bleakness.
Luann arrived to Dorinda’s Halloween party in with a gigantic, two-foot afro that was more befitting of Marge Simpson than the intended diva Diana Ross. Ontop of that, her skin was seemingly darker than it normally is. Yes, that’s right. The woman, who made a career of preaching, writing and sing about class and etiquette actually wore motherfucking blackface in 2018.
Though a stricken Luann took to Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live on Wednesday night and the Twitter-sphere with the unmitigated caucasity that seems to be a requirement of the Housewives to double-down on her ignorance by claiming she was only wearing bronzer and to offer a half-assed “I’m sorry if you were offended” faux-pology.
Unfortunately, this incident isn't just imitation gone horrible wrong. It's actually more indicates far more about the women of the New York cast and the entire Housewives franchise.
First, not one of her castmates dragged Luann on why her look was so offensive, even though their reactions ranged from mildly shocked to absolutely horrified. Carole Radziwill was the only one to really touch upon the inappropriateness in her confessional interview: “I think she’s tone-deaf when it comes to cultural stereotypes, but I think she’s tone deaf anyway.” Though the comment was imbued with Carole’s usual wit, she wasn’t bothered enough to confront Luann about it. Maybe she went home and screamed it into a cake.
Even Bethenny Frankel, who loves screaming obscenities at Luann more than she loves shilling SkinnyGirl products, exclaimed: “That is amazing! I love it!”
The women were more offended that Sonja arrived at the party with her date, Rocco, and didn’t greet the hostess until he left than they were about the racial insensitivity of Countess Convict's costume.
I've spent the better part of my adult life watching these shows, so I know better than to expect it to become an intelligent and civil debate on anything, let alone this country’s dark history of blackface and Jim Crow, but I’m shocked that it was chalked up as just another zany moment in reality TV and not a slap in the face to an oppressed race and an icon.
And I'm definitely not the only one.
When you look at the cast, you can easily see how this happened. These are women are insulated by such problems by their white privilege and wealth. They reside in that magical version of New York City that the cast of Friends, Sex in the City and Girls did--one that contains no people of color unless they are assistants, interns or drivers.
This all boils down to a problem with the DNA of the Housewives: that in 2018, after a damned decade of disastrous dinner parties, deliciously horrific vacations, cheating scandals and nice trips to the Berkshires, RHONY has never had a black housewife or even a black friend of a Housewife. They’ve also never featured lesbian wives, Muslim wives, Latina wives, etc.
Neither has Beverly Hills, Orange County or New Jersey.
(And it gets even more ridiculous when you realize that the majority of the Housewives aren’t even wives at all).
It’s beyond problematic that when Luann needed to feel “liberated,” when she wanted to reclaim her fabulousity and “girlpower” she clung not to Diana Ross visage (who appears in a stripped down t-shirt with wet straight hair on the cover of “I’m Coming Out” the era that she referenced) but a caricature of the “strong black woman."
A devil’s advocate might point out that this is obviously a blaring sign that Luann was struggling emotionally with the aftermath of her divorce. Just two months after this incident was filmed, de Lesseps was arrested in Palm Beach for disorderly intoxication, resisting arrest, threatening a public servant and battery on an officer because she allegedly kicked at least one cop. And as cold as it sounds, I don’t care. People of color, not even Diana Ross are afforded the luxury of a violent, drunken breakdown, especially one that involves law enforcement.
So it just makes Luann’s insulting portrayal of black women even more egregious considering how the police in Florida, New York City and across the country tend to treat even traffic stops with black men and women. On the same day the premiere aired,the NYPD shot and killed Saheed Vassell, a mentally ill man who was carrying a shower head.
Meanwhile, Luann spent one night in jail in a cell by herself, went to rehab, and used the buzz from her incident to launch a “sold-out” cabaret show. She even cheekily alludes to the arrest in the opening of the reality show: “The most interesting people make the best headlines.”
It wouldn’t be the Housewives if the series didn’t in some twisted and maddening way illuminate the issues of this country. But it also reveals what’s wrong with the series that dares to call itself reality by excluding and now mocking an entire sect of the nation. And it’s even more aggravating when you realize that the tropes the Housewives are famous for—the fashion, the shade-throwing, the comedy and Bethenny’s love of 20 year old slang—were cultivated and appropriated by the black women on The Real Housewives of Atlanta and black women in general.
The Housewives have not only made its mark on the way women are depicted on television and has historic implications in the genre of reality television, but I shouldn't have to imagine how much more it could do if the franchises were more diverse. Moments like Luann's blackface would be met with an opposing side...or possible flying fists. Either way, that's damned good television.
Small Screen Girl
I am an unabashed pop culture and TV-aholic with no plans to ever seek treatment. Explore this blog and see just how deep my obsession goes.