Polish and Privilege“RHONY” Illuminates the Class Divide in America

Ramona, left, Sonja, and Dorinda of The Real Housewives of New York City during the Season 9 reunion (Photo credit: Bravo TV)

Ask Bravo aficionados which iteration of The Real Housewives is best, and most will tell you, New York. Despite a few shake-ups over the years, the cast has an electric chemistry; the fashion is consistently absurd; the drama is second to none; and the one-liners are endlessly quotable. (Just watch the trailer for Season 9, and tell me it doesn’t deserve an Emmy.) The second installment in the Real Housewives franchise has been called—with a tinge of seriousness—“exquisite” and “the only good show about women.” RHONY is beautifully unhinged, but it’s also, well, gross. Like other cities in the Real Housewives franchise, RHONY chronicles the personal and professional lives of almost exclusively white, wealthy socialites (in its most recent season, Luann de Lesseps, Dorinda Medley, Leah McSweeney, Sonja Morgan, Ramona Singer, and formerly Tinsley Mortimer) as they navigate business ventures and intercast feuds. The show lets viewers into the world of the ultrarich, who treat each other badly, bask in their often-inherited money, and strive for status and fame.

I find consolation in the fact that these women are electing to exhibit their most cringeworthy moments on national television of their own volition, not because they need the money to survive (as in shows like 16 and Pregnant and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo). But the workers—many of whom are people of color—who enable these women in their opulent lifestyles are ever-present in the periphery: housekeepers making food or packing suitcases for glamorous trips; hotel staff cleaning up after the cast’s night of heavy drinking; hairdressers listening to superficial complaints, nodding sympathetically as if they can relate to the problems of people with too much money and nothing to do. Whether it’s intentional or not, RHONY showcases America’s ever-growing class divide. I love drama, but the filmed interactions with waitstaff, housekeepers, and other working-class employees go far beyond the fluffy dramatics that make RHONY worth watching. These moments are often so painful that I’m tempted to fast-forward. Season 12 of RHONY is chock-full of such scenes.

“I’m not the average person. The average person doesn’t have two residences; they don’t travel all the time. They don’t have my social network and my entreé.” So says Ramona, original RHONY cast member and notorious social climber with an estimated net worth of $18 million. (She’s white, of course.) The women are in the Berkshires at Dorinda’s Great Barrington home, modestly named Blue Stone Manor, when party guest Sam begins inquiring about Ramona’s romantic life and the possibility of her finding love online. “We’re the top one percent,” she responds, incredulous. “You’re not finding that on a dating site.” This small interaction is a perfect encapsulation of how the Real Housewives see themselves and, comparatively, how they view “average people.” When Ramona hosts the ladies at her house in the Hamptons, her castmates call the person hired to assist with meals “the lady helping you” and “your woman,” with the possessive “your” referring to Ramona.

On the show, staff are not often named, but are rather identified in relation to the women who hire them or to the services they provide. It’s a choice, passive or active, that signals ownership and control. This pattern is particularly apparent when the cast travels to Cancún. (The housewives are at their worst during vacation arcs, and I always brace myself for racist comments and the mocking of cultures outside of their own.) Inside the 12,000-square-foot, six-bedroom mansion Dorinda has rented, Ramona marvels at the staff who have lined up to greet the guests. “How many helpers do we have here?” she exclaims. “It’s like servants galore here!” As one may expect, the housewives’ behavior does not improve as the vacation proceeds. The women, who never carry their own luggage, start the song and dance of choosing rooms while the staff haul their bags throughout the enormous house. Once her baggage arrives in its appropriate location, Ramona begins her tradition of instructing an employee (often an uncomfortable young man) on how and where to unpack her clothes.

In the blink of an eye, Sonja is concerningly drunk, naked, and instructing an unnamed woman to do her hair as she splays and slurs. When Dorinda grows impatient as she waits for her castmates to head to the backyard for dinner, she hollers, “The tequila guy is waiting. And the ceviche guy’s waiting.” Eduardo, reduced to “the ceviche guy,” is actually a talented chef, though Ramona finds a way to diminish his skills: She tells Dorinda that making ceviche “is very simple” in order to soothe her worries about the group running late. During this trip, Ramona also complains to a waiter about serving her the wrong kind of wine; in a confessional, Sonja correctly notes that “she’s shitting on the help.” While Ramona is frequently the worst offender (Is anyone surprised that she’s currently shirking COVID-19 regulations? Or that her daughter is berating FedEx employees?), all of the housewives behave as if waitstaff, chefs, and housekeepers are simply part of the decor, or appliances existing for their use, rather than human beings trying to make a living.

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Even when “the help,” as Sonja calls them, are named, they’re still regularly belittled, dehumanized, or put in uncomfortable situations. In episode 14, Ben, a man delivering food to Blue Stone Manor, is essentially held hostage by Ramona, who ushers him inside to unbox the meal and chat. A later scene depicts Luann complaining to Dorinda’s longtime housekeeper, Len, who chuckles softly to herself and nods as the countess gripes about not wanting to pay Sonja for a guest appearance in her cabaret show. The housewives’ class consciousness is not unidirectional, however. It impacts how they treat the people they perceive to be beneath them as well as those they perceive to be above them. For example, when the women attend a party at Joe Farrell’s megamansion, where Donald Trump held a fundraiser in August 2019, they immediately notice Ramona’s hoity-toity behavior.

Sonja implores her to act “normal,” as if she were in her own $7 million Hampton house rather than a $40 million-estate. Ramona shoots back with “eight million,” keen to defend her wealth. In a confessional, Ramona explains, “With Sonja, I have to bring myself down to be with her the way she is. With my other [read: richer] friends, I have to elevate myself up.” In an interview, Tinsley identifies this squabble as a clash between old and new money, saying, “Sonja has legit, like, lived the way Ramona is trying to pretend that she’s living right now,” alluding to Sonja’s former marriage to the grandson of Gilded Age tycoon J.P. Morgan. As Luann sings and Tinsley suggests, “Money can’t buy you class.” While Ramona regards Joe Farrell and his friends with near-deference because her current position allows her to see their level of wealth as attainable, new RHONY cast member Leah McSweeney, whose net worth is considerably less than her castmates, views those same people with disgust. 

 

In Season 12 of The Real Housewives of New York City, Sonja instructs one of the employees of the vacation rental in Cancún to do her hair as she gets ready for dinner. (Photo credit: Bravo TV)

“There’s just only so much talking about yachts and déclassé that I can really handle,” she tells producers during a confessional. Before Ramona’s birthday party later in the season, Leah anticipates that it will look something like “a MAGA rally.” Leah brings an interesting perspective to the show in Season 12 because she’s not like the other housewives. She’s an entrepreneur who started her own clothing line using the $75,000 settlement she received after an officer with the NYPD smashed her face into a subway grate during a 2002 altercation. She’s in her late 30s; she’s not a countess or an inheritor of wealth; and she lives downtown (gasp). To be clear, McSweeney is a millionaire, her political views are inconsistent, her opinions about the #MeToo movement are extremely harmful, and she is, of course, white. But, however slightly, she resembles “the average person” more so than her castmates do—and the other women’s treatment of her makes it obvious that they look at her differently. 

The other housewives make unsubtle jabs about Leah’s clothing line, apartment, and status, illustrating how eager the cast are to distinguish themselves from their less wealthy, less “polished” costar. A major subplot of the season centers around the fact that Leah has tattoos, which the other women mock relentlessly. The subtext in all their remarks is that the youngest housewife is low class, “rough around the edges.” This becomes even more obvious when Luann visits Leah’s apartment and the producers ask her what she thinks of her new castmate’s home. She initially struggles to respond before answering, “I love how humble she is.” When Dorinda arrives at the anniversary party for Leah’s streetwear line, she scoffs at the location, calling it a “dungeon, sort of hip hop thing where people look like they’re wearing their pajamas.” The party guests are mostly people of color, making the racist and classist connotations of the comment clear.

I try to enjoy RHONY—and much of the media I consume—but I also view the show with a critical eye. After all, if I were to apply ideological purity tests to every show and movie I watch, I wouldn’t be able to watch anything. The nature of visual media requires us to temporarily suspend our judgment, values, and disbelief. But it’s still worth gauging where to draw the line. When does a show or a film become unwatchable? RHONY tests my limits, but in many ways, New York is actually an indictment of the lifestyles of the very women who star in it. Ultimately, the cast members of The Real Housewives of New York City aren’t the problem; the system in which the show exists is the problem. Extreme economic disparity in America is the problem. RHONY just makes it visible.

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by Rebecca Long
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Rebecca Long is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Boston GlobeVICE, Electric Literature, and others. You can follow her on Twitter at @bex_long or visit her website.