My Love-Hate Relationship With ‘Southern Charm’
The Bravo TV series hits way too close to home — and yet I can’t look away
Revulsion is a crucial component of love. Like how a beautiful face needs at least one unattractive feature — a big nose or gap between the teeth — to throw the pretty features into relief.
Bravo’s Southern Charm, which “follows Charleston singles as they pursue their personal and professional lives while trying to preserve their family names,” is in theory more deserving of my dislike than adoration. Charleston is Disneyland for bros, and I hate men. Only a deeply ugly or otherwise lacking person would be so attached to their family name. Yet, I find myself uniquely drawn to the show — despite, or perhaps because it hits so close to home.
Most reality TV shows are foreign to me. I’ve never met anyone like the Kardashians or the women of The Real Housewives of OC, which is part of the allure. But Southern Charm depicts a breed of person I’m deeply familiar with.
The show’s star Shepard Rose III looks like every boy I had a crush on growing up. His mom dresses him. He has a completely entitled and unrealistic view of the world. He considers himself well-read because he’s heard of Jack Kerouac and thinks he’s smarter than everyone because he uses words like “contrite” and “gravitas.”
Watching Southern Charm is like looking into a fun house mirror.
His co-star Cameran Eubanks looks like every beachy-haired, symmetrical-faced girl who attended the University of North Carolina with me. She’s thin but only eats fried food. She can hang with the boys, all of whom secretly want to marry her. By far the most surprising thing about her is that she’s a Scorpio.
Thomas Ravenel, the disgraced former state politician who is no longer on the show due to pending sexual assault charges, is my middle school crush’s first cousin. I know a few people who went to College of Charleston with Craig Conover, who is my favorite character because he quit the law to be a pillow-maker (basically, same), and codes as queer without really knowing what that means (also same).
And as Season 6 comes to a close this week, I find myself more captivated than ever. Watching Southern Charm is like looking into a fun house mirror. The version of me that’s reflected back is distorted and freaky. But because I’m at a theme park, it’s safe to look. The fact that it’s unsettling makes it all that more enticing and difficult to look away, like any good work of fiction. As the grande dame of Southern literature Flannery O’Connor put it: Literary portrayals of the South must “distort without destroying.”
I have a complicated relationship with the South. Both of my parents were raised there — my dad in Georgia and my mom in Northern Florida, which is basically The South. My mom told me that growing up, Catholicism was considered “diversity.” She didn’t encounter a bagel until she was in graduate school. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, amid “hey y’alls,” a pastel color palette, and utter lack of political correctness. I have an aunt named “Peaches” and another who is famous online for being a slutty Republican.
I was raised in Washington, D.C., which I didn’t even realize was below the Mason-Dixon Line until I was 19. While D.C. is an international city, it has a decidedly Southern vibe. My high school friends drank bourbon and listened to country music, dipped tobacco and smoked cigars, dressed up in seersucker and bow ties. They threw around the word “faggot” liberally.
I resented a lot about this culture. Deep in my Marxist phase, I was turned off by the conservatism. Southern fashion was repulsive to me; I preferred black. I despised country music. I would have died before joining a sorority.
But there were some things that endeared me to Southern culture, especially when I visited my family. Southerners are great storytellers, hence their long literary tradition. They are wacky and unpretentious, give the best compliments (to your face), and are very fun to drink with. And their lack of political correctness and disdain for the liberal elite always appealed to the dirtbag leftist in me.
I love the stories, the theater, and, well, the charm, but part of me wants to watch it all from afar.
During my college years at UNC Chapel Hill, my conflicted feelings toward the South intensified. I appreciated that everyone was smart but not outwardly competitive. It wasn’t fashionable to brag about how hard you worked like it was in D.C. My friends there loved pop music and reality TV. I began to appreciate cultural “trash,” which I realized wasn’t trash at all. Like the South itself, pop culture had been unfairly dismissed — written off for encouraging bad things like vanity and artifice without sufficient appreciation for the good parts like its ability to empower historically disenfranchised voices and act as a cultural mirror.
But I also felt like an alien in the South. Campus was a sea of baby blue polo shirts. The girls had round faces and no opinions. Everyone knew each other from this Christian group called “Young Life,” and people went insane for basketball in a way I could never really wrap my head around. I was a vegetarian and a bisexual, two words my peers couldn’t really understand.
I loved UNC and I hated UNC, which is how I feel about most things I adore. After all, perfection is a myth, and you can’t truly love something unless it’s flawed. I maintain that the best television characters are those who at times you want to kiss on the mouth and at others you want fantasize about getting hit by a bus. The same goes for friends and lovers, too.
Southern Charm is scandalous in the way Southerners do best. (I could dedicate a book to scandal in my own extended family, but I’ve been strictly forbidden from doing so.)
Seasons 1 and 2 focus on a tumultuous affair between 50-year-old Thomas Ravenel, the former state politician they call “T-Rav,” and 21-year-old Kathryn Dennis, a “scion” of one of Charleston’s most important families and doppelganger of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. They meet at a party and he knocks her up! Obviously the prospect of having a child out of wedlock is unacceptable in polite southern society. The show’s matriarch Patricia — it’s very Southern to have a saucy matriarch — disapproves vehemently. Her son, Whitney, calls Kathryn “an evil, white trash, hillbilly femme fatale.” Kathryn, in turn, says she hopes he “falls on a knife.”
T-Rav is torn about Kathryn. He’s “very drawn to her physicality,” but doesn’t want to marry her. She’s too volatile. Too unpredictable. In the second season, Thomas invites the crew to a dinner party for a “big announcement.” Everyone thinks he’s going to propose to Kathryn. Nope! He’s running for office again. The group is shocked, especially given that he’s a convicted felon — in 2007, T-Rav was charged for conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine. In his video diary, he says he was not distributing cocaine, he was “just sharing it.” No one can downplay a felony conviction like a Southern gentleman!
Whitney calls Kathryn “an evil, white trash, hillbilly femme fatale.” Kathryn, in turn, says she hopes he “falls on a knife.”
Another thing that’s very Southern about the show is its excessive amount of day-drinking. It’s not like Vanderpump Rules or The Hills where the cast goes out to “hip clubs.” The South doesn’t care at all about “hip.” They get drunk during the day at fox hunts and or seafood restaurants on the water. Occasionally, they wear tuxes and go to galas. No matter what, they’re gossiping with abandon.
Also true to the South, the show is not without racist undertones. The cast is always partying on plantations, and rumor has it Patricia, the matriarch, has a prized collection of “negrobilia,” or art made to stereotype slaves.
There are no people of color on the show, except a side-character named Metul, who is sexualized like a piece of meat. At the recent reunion, Bravo host Andy Cohen brings up Metul’s controlling behavior. In one of the most cringeworthy moments of the show’s history, Shep proposes: “Do you think it’s cultural at all? Cause my dad’s best friend and business partner is Indian and I was, like, telling him about y’all’s relationship… he was like, ‘I understand that, I’m from India.’”
Metul’s girlfriend Naomie looks back at Shep and deadpans, “I mean, Metul was born in D.C.”
Classism also runs rampant on Southern Charm. The show’s central characters all come from old money. Despite their lack of careers, they love to judge Craig — who is not old money — for being lazy. Craig calls out their hypocrisy, yet they embrace their privilege as a luxury they deserve. In a confessional, Craig states plainly: “As long as you have money, then you can literally do anything you want.”
The show is also aggressively heteronormative in a way that’s difficult to stomach as a queer woman — but also deeply familiar. There is one gay archetype in the South, and that is the dandy sidekick to a wealthy matriarch. There are a few of those in the show, but we never learn their stories. They are less people and more props. There are no gay women on the show. As far as this world is concerned, romance requires a man.
It’s confusing to be both an insider and an outsider within a subculture. I have blonde hair and blue eyes and Southern parents. In some ways, I am that Carolina girl. But at the same time, when I confirmed my Grandmother’s suspicions that I had a girlfriend, she quite literally screamed in my face. Since my first understanding that who I am could seriously repulse Southerns, I’ve been nervous to visit my family. It puts me on edge. I love the stories, the theater, and, well, the charm, but part of me wants to watch it all from afar.
Luckily, Bravo lets me do that.