Bravo's Southern Discomfort

I'm all for good, old-fashioned, reality-show drama, but "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" is downright antebellum.

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You know you need a reality check when, on the one show meant to highlight the lives of women such as yourself—young(ish), glamorous and black—it's the white chick with Mattel hair that you end up feeling sorry for. (Or better yet, sympathizing with.) And the women with the airbrushed smiles and the loud mouths seem like tragic lampoons best suited for Harriet Beecher Stowe's great-great-great- granddaughter’s best seller, Aunt NeNe's Crib. Before it got foreclosed on, of course.

I'm all for good, old-fashioned, reality-show "dramer" as bonus housewife Dwight would call it, but when it comes to new millennium typecasting, Bravo's The Real Housewives of Atlanta is down right antebellum. Consider last week's episode, which grabbed 2.7 million viewers: The scene was at the French American Brasserie, also known as FAB. NeNe "I am the Joneses" Leakes and Sheree "Seven Figures" Whitfield have somehow lured Kim "I Brought A Helmet" Zolciak into an "intervention" that devolves into a screaming match with more bleeps than actually words.

The punch line was simple: Sheree's a "f***ing liar," Kim's "a f***ing liar" and "trailer trash" and NeNe "cannot run in heels." Outside of FAB, the drama continued. Sheree attempted to "shift" Kim's wig and defended her own fake tresses as "weave, boo." (Sheree’s two-faced endearment is reminiscent of the record-breaking season opener, when the former Mrs. Whitfield warned a wayward party planner—"who gon’ check me, boo?"—NeNe seemed more devilishly amused by the situation she instigated than embarrassed. But she did make note that the fracas occurred in "a very nice restaurant, which was filled with people." What she failed to mention—or maybe even realize—was that they're also on a very popular television show, which is watched by millions.

Last week's catfight reminded me of a scene from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. In the first chapter, the novel's nameless narrator has just graduated from high school; he delivers a class speech on submission being tantamount to the Negro people's advancement in society. He is subsequently invited to give that same address to a prestigious audience of white civic leaders, but when he arrives he is told that he must first participate in a "battle royal" boxing match with a group of nine other black boys. "... I suspected that fighting a battle royal might distract from the dignity of my speech," he tells the reader before he is blindfolded and made to pummel his classmates. "Everyone fought hysterically. It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else."

Now let's be clear: I don't mention Ellison's work to in any way elevate Bravo's Real Housewives franchise to the level of great American literature. Nor am I equating NeNe, Sheree and Kim's voluntary "battle royal" to Ellison's narrator's forced gladiatorship. On the contrary, where "the battle royal" highlights dangerous vulnerability in Invisible Man with Real Housewives, it highlights dangerous voyeurism. Here you have the "prestigious" black characters playing the part of the blood-thirsty audience—ready to dive into a pointless fight blindfolded. As Kim told Sheree, "Grow up! You're a f***ing 40-year-old woman."

And to be fair—despite her claims to the contrary—Kim's probably pushing 40, too; despite being cast in the “good white girl” role, she ain't no angel. (Kept woman to a rich married man, etc., etc.) Real Housewives offers up a rarely seen look into the lives of "really wealthy black women," as Bravo executive Andy Cohen told Essence magazine this month. If that’s the case, then shouldn't the "really wealthy black women" behave—I don't know—a bit classier than the seemingly unemployed white girl with the dime-store wig and two-story townhouse? Doesn't fighting a battle royal distract from the dignity of the show? Apparently not, since tonight’s episode will feature the “extended” version of wig-gate.

Lisa Wu Hartwell, perhaps the housewifey-est of them all, doesn't seem to think so. She told Essence in May, "It’s just unfair that people pass judgment and call our show ghetto, but when they talk about the women in Orange County or New York or New Jersey shows they call it entertainment." Unfair? Maaaybe. But since when did black women ever get a fair shake of the stereotype stick? Shouldn't classy, not trashy be the rule and not the exception? Last week, a friend of Sheree's commented on one of her "designs"—calling it very Michelle Obama-esque. I died a little inside.

It's true money doesn't buy class or couth—and you can't get either on credit. But I suspect that when Bravo first announced it would start filming the franchise in a city that boasts an established old guard of African Americans, folks were expecting the show to be more Cosby than Maury. But with the paternity tests, sidewalk brawls and who’s-my-daddy drama, Real Housewives is about as far from The Cosby Show’s Brooklyn brownstone as you can get.

At least there’s one “housewife” on the show with a semblance of sanity—and class. (And “housewife” is a term the network’s been playing fast and loose with since the show’s inception.) Singer/songwriter Kandi Burruss. Sure, her fiancé, AJ, has "a few" baby mamas and more than a few kids (four and six, respectively). But despite her possibly questionable choice in a future husband—supposedly all of AJ's businesses don't file taxes—Kandi has become my favorite. In the episode when Kandi argued with her mother about the number of children and other women that came along with her four-carat diamond engagement ring, she stood up for herself and to an extent, all single mothers: "Yeah, he got a lot of kids, but to me he's trying to man up and do what he gotta do. I don’t like to see when a man can just cut off his child. You being a single parent, you know." I cheered her on from my couch.

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