The ‘Vanderpump Rules’ Scandal Reminds Us Reality TV Is Impossible Without Immorality
Something strange just happened at Bravo. The network, which prides itself on celebrating progressive values, dropped some of its biggest stars over admissions of racial insensitivity. It makes sense to cut politicians and business leaders and people who claim the mantle of moral authority over moral failures, like racism. It make less sense on reality television, where participants are typically depicted as moral failures, and where the ugliness of racism has been usefully exposed on a mass scale, dating all the way back to the “Real World’s” groundbreaking first season.
“Vanderpump Rules” is arguably the best reality show in the history of the genre, with the possible exception of “Jersey Shore.” This scandal basically ends it. The show was winding down anyway, but it’s pretty much over now that two of its key original cast members have been cut.
With protests over the horrific killing of George Floyd gripping the country, Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute were dropped by Bravo this week, shortly after issuing apologies for their past treatment of Faith Stowers.
Stowers, one of the show’s two recurring African-American characters, recently revealed that Schroeder and Doute reported her to the police in 2018 despite little evidence of wrongdoing. “There was this article on Daily Mail where there was an African American lady,” Stowers said during an Instagram Live interview last week. “It was a weird photo, so she looked very light-skinned and had these different, weird tattoos. They showcased her, and I guess this woman was robbing people. And they called the cops and said it was me.”
Stassi and Kristen released statements owning up to the allegations and apologizing profusely. Their behavior deserves no defense, by their own admissions. Bravo confirmed Tuesday they would not be returning to the show, along with two new cast members that were a) terrible and b) forced to apologize for past indiscretions of their own earlier this year.
Reality television is a circus of immorality in which naturally skilled idiots are conducted by clever producers. Its music is a cacophony. “Vanderpump Rules” is compelling TV precisely because it showcases the depths of people’s depravity. Stassi and Kristen have literally hit their fellow cast mates. They’ve schemed to destroy their enemies. They are not presented as morally admirable people. That’s the point.
If the show gave them a platform on or off Bravo to promote racism, they would be well-worth firing immediately. But because reality TV exposes the worst of us, it can actually expose racism and sexism and bigotry. There is an important distention between documenting something and endorsing something that is lost in today’s media frenzies. Documentation can sometimes also function as an endorsement. It’s hard to make that argument about “Vanderpump Rules,” on which only a tiny fraction of obsessive viewers find protagonists.
Reality stars constantly face serious and unserious accusations of bigotry. They’re bad people! They say stupid things! It’s why they were cast on reality television. Holding them to the same standards as politicians will essentially force Bravo out of business. Lest we forget, it was her defense of an allegedly racist Halloween costume on the “Real Housewives of New York City” that ended Megyn Kelly’s NBC career.
The housewives have been accused of offenses not entirely different from Stassi and Kristen’s behavior. Will Bravo drop them, or is the network just trying to save face in the middle of a tense and heated political moment? Will it now fire Jax and Brittany over their pastor controversy? (No.)
In 2013, The Root published a compelling retrospective on the infamous “Kevin and Julie” fight from “The Real World’s” first season, then two decades old. Here’s an important excerpt:
In the context of Gentry and Powell’s personal life, it was a random argument of “he said, she said,” but for viewers, the scene provided a rare glimpse through the lens of blackness and whiteness. As progressive as these artsy 20-somethings thought they were, no one was above his or her own inherent biases, including Powell.
The “Julie and Kevin” episode aired shortly after the Los Angeles riots. For black viewers, the spat wasn’t about a thrown candlestick but a resonating truth: Whites can remain clueless about the struggles of black or brown people and still fruitfully exist in America. But as people of color, we need to fully understand whiteness in order to function and thrive; it’s lesson No. 1 of being a minority in America.
Realty TV’s wild denizens often find themselves facing the music and atoning for their bad behavior. It’s part of the process. They are habitually and shockingly immoral. Done correctly, their shows underscore the badness of their behavior, rather than depicting it as a virtue. You gasp and laugh because they’re bad, not because they’re good.
It’s perfectly reasonable to reject that premise and argue that we’d be better off without reality television because its documentation of immoral conduct promotes it. But if that’s Bravo’s approach, they’ll have to go out of business, and Stassi and Kristin’s detractors will have to swear off the genre. You can’t have reality television without bad people, and bad people are going to do bad things. (Authentic atonement, it should be noted, is often a more constructive solution to these scandals anyway.)
This is hardly the biggest problem we find ourselves confronting right now, but it’s worth considering as an example of how easily our standards shift in tense political moments, how hollow corporate appeasements often are, and how all presentations of immorality must not be treated as endorsements, lest we scrub our pop culture of opportunities to learn from conflict.