DESPERATE

The Perils of the Black ‘Housewives’ of the Potomac

Alongside the usual fights and parties, the latest Bravo Housewives franchise comes freighted with unspoken questions about race and privilege.

01.18.16 3:00 AM ET

If you are a follower of the Real Housewives, the latest iteration of Bravo’s franchise of drinking, bitching, and one-upmanship does not break any mould.

The Real Housewives of the Potomac is like New York, Atlanta, Orange County, New Jersey, and Beverly Hills, featuring a group of women, living astonishingly empty-seeming existences that we are supposed to feel are glamorous and something to aspire to.

Like the Atlanta group, this one is all-black and biracial—which raises the first, and as yet unanswered question of why is a show set in Potomac with all black or biracial women?

There may indeed be a group of upper and upper-middle-class black women in the Potomac area, and D.C. suburbs.

But one of the women in this show says that they are in the minority themselves. Yet the show isn’t mixed, and even with its race nucleus acknowledged, neither is it an examination of why the women float in their own petty, bitchy universe.

It’s not as if they don’t socialize with white women: The latter are shown to be fellow guests at a party, gossiping and smiling flutteringly.

So, why conceive the show as an all-black show, without examining the mechanics of race and exclusion as part of the narrative? Is this enclave-within-an-enclave self-selected and sustained on the part of the women, or cruelly imposed upon them? Or both? Or neither?

Since the failure of its D.C. and Miami series, Bravo seems incapable of casting a mixed Housewife show. With Potomac, peel back the familiar parade of fast retorts, anguished close-ups, and glamorous frocks, and you seem to have a show conceived to show a collective of women fighting with each other for social supremacy, using all the insidious mechanics of exclusion and stigmatization that racism itself—at least in part—operates by.

First, there is Gizelle, who proudly tells us her father was one of the first black members of the Texas House of Representatives. Her husband was a cheater, she has twin daughters, and the only book of etiquette she obeyed was her own, she says.

There is something oddly Stepford about not just Potomac, but all the other places where the “housewives” bloom like algae. They bang on about manners and etiquette and infractions of these things, and then invariably end up ripping out each other’s hair extensions, and speaking over each other to try to voice the best punchline or putdown to a confrontation.

One must know where to sit at a party, but—two hours in—if you want to push someone into a pool, feel free.

The Gizelle intro was clear: She was going to have an “etiquette” storyline.

Katie, meanwhile, “loves the white boys,” and “the Jewish boys” in particular. She is from a “famous family of philanthropists,” and is conservative, so her family does not like her being unmarried—her squeeze, the white and Jewish Andrew, doesn’t want to rush into that.

For Katie, not being married “is not a good look.” She couldn’t imagine why Andrew wouldn’t want to marry her; what wasn’t there to love, she asked kittenishly.

The non-kittenish response from this viewer was: Maybe he wants more from the relationship than just to feel like a fetishized romance object, and wants to make sure the relationship has a proper foundation.

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Just a guess, Katie: You’re welcome.

Robyn said she was a free spirit, a PR person doing unspecified PR-y things. She was ready to throw out her wedding dress after getting divorced from her husband, Juan. However, Juan and Robyn still lived together, slept together, and raised their children together, and so he was naturally surprised to return home and find her wearing her wedding dress, as she had been egged on to do by Gizelle.

Interspersed with these introductions were pictures of the Potomac River, tennis and golf clubs, and mansions.

The mansions, I think, are supposed to look luxurious, but really look like gated prisons. And like other Housewife franchises the women lurch listlessly from one mansion to another, gossiping in ways that seem wholly artificial. The question that persists is less who are these women, but what do they do?

Potomac seems especially bizarre, as we know at the outset the black women are an enclave within an enclave, and so the real question already is—do they circulate with the white women we see as peripheral, and if they do not, what are the mechanics of racial exclusion, whether imposed or self-electing, that operate here?

No time for such deep-and-meaningfuls, kids, because next it was time to meet Karen. Karen is married to Ray, “the black Bill Gates,” whose job and role remained undefined. Karen appears to be a mega-snob, and mega-materialistic—ironic, as she herself is a farmer’s daughter. It’s not that money is everything, she says, but she has yet to meet a happy poor man.

After 19 years of marriage, she said she “had to keep it coming.” She said she was aware other women were ready to move in for her husband, and she was ready to take on all comers at the palace gates.

Karen spoke with the airy tones of the grande dame, and Gizelle said she was “the diva”: Diana Ross and Patti LaBelle rolled into one. Karen said something about wanting to pass the reins on to the next generation of black women, as if she was the queen of some kind of principality, preparing to elect her heir or heirs.

Despite the thick fog of absurdity around her, Karen’s surname, I noted, was “Huber,” just like Mrs. Huber—the hideously nosy neighbor of Desperate Housewives.

Karen seemed much more keen to exclude other black women, and judge them, than help them: one of those kinds of people who, after gaining entry into whatever tier of society they have aimed for, quickly pulls the drawbridge up behind her.

Gizelle admitted to being “a little judged” by Karen, and so the first animosity of the series was sown. This began when Charisse, whose sports manager husband didn’t live at home (and was widely suspected to be more than practically absent from their marriage as she claimed), threw a birthday party for Karen, and Gizelle occupied the “center seat.”

This was, apparently, simply not “done” in Potomac.

How exhausting it must be to live there—I’m so glad to be living in New York, where I will gladly take any of the ladies to the Malibu Diner at 23rd and 7th, where the only manners infraction is to be rude to one of the staff, and where the “done” thing is to eat one’s bagel either chatting amiably to a companion, or deliciously silent on your own with book or newspaper.

This rumbling resentment over the center seat issue—Karen was still kind of center, depending on the camera angle—exploded, as every Housewife confrontation tends to, at a party, in this case a crab boil at Charisse’s.

First, there was outrage that Gizelle had bought her hairstylist. “Who on earth walks around with the help at a private event?” queried Karen, with withering disgust. There was a reference to Gizelle’s behavior being appropriate “in the ghetto, not the Potomac.”

Then Karen told Gizelle how offended she had been at her sitting at the center of the table at her birthday do, presenting her with a list of Potomac etiquette rules, which were as asinine as you would expect them to be. If Gizelle ever came to a function of hers, said Karen, she should be mindful of the rules.

With the awareness of themselves as a minority came the very opposite to awareness and empathy around surmounting restrictions and ridiculous, hurtful “rules.”

Instead, the women gleefully practiced all the tricks and traps of superiority that makes other people’s lives miserable. How much fun to be the oppressors in heels, wigs, and full makeup! What wonderful progress.

A portmanteau of scenes from future shows showed the usual—rows, raucous parties, supposed luxury and excess, something screechy and fleetingly cataclysmic, orchestral music swelling to a bombastic smash.

There is nothing new in the Housewives of Potomac—just the usual confected bitching in brightly colored dresses, even if it raises more off-camera questions about race and privilege than it intends.

At the end of the hour, all squawking and scrapping abated, the same question gnaws through the glitter: Who would aspire to this? Do we want any of our young people, especially our daughters, to aspire to this?

These are the eternal Housewife questions, whatever the city. Why this enclave within an enclave on the Potomac has been chosen as the latest Bravo petri dish for them to be enacted is, as yet, a mystery, and already an intriguing one if not for the reasons its producers intend.