Beyond love it or hate it, the only valuable appraisal of anything — especially in entertainment — is what can it communicate about yourself and the community where you were brought up. But avoiding that extreme gut reaction requires introspection rather than prejudice, empathy instead of assumption.
With that said, let’s talk about Southern Charm, Thomas Ravenel’s arrest for an alleged assault, and the climate of masculinity in America. Because whether or not you enjoy it, Southern Charm stands as a product of its environment — one that should not be beyond reproach.
I’ve been writing about Southern Charm for the past three seasons, which means I probably put more thought into the show than an average viewer. Regardless of your TV habits, it’s likely that you’ve noticed that Southern Charm manages to elicit strong reactions, even — or maybe especially — from those who have never seen the show. There is, of course, a passionate contingent of locals who feel the show betrays the image of Charleston. The question is why does a show that isn’t taken very seriously, even by diehard fans, draw such ire? The answer is a bit multifaceted.
My guess is most of it comes from a basic prejudice against reality television in general, especially Bravo’s never-ending lineup of Real Housewives shows that, in truth, offer more flash than substance. No one is really denying that. But there is more to the animosity that many locals feel toward Southern Charm.
That’s likely because Southern Charm portrays certain aspects of Charleston’s upper crust that they’d rather see left alone. Maybe entitlement and opportunity correspond — and there is a reality show that makes that harder to ignore. But at the heart of all this, Southern Charm exhibits a certain strain of toxic masculinity that many find distasteful, yet still can be readily observed across town on any given night.
Allegations of sexual assault swirled around Ravenel as the last season of Southern Charm aired. Bravo announced the network would launch an investigation, but that didn’t stop the weekly release of new episodes. Ravenel’s new relationship with a doting young woman became one of the main storylines. He’d repeatedly joke to the camera about slipping morning-after pills into her food. He’d drink and yell. Sneaking out for a night with his fellow male cast members, Ravenel would joke that the worst part of being in a relationship is “You can’t date.”
In recapping episode seven of this season on May 17, I wrote “The problem with this is not that Thomas thinks this is a funny — and true — thing to say. The problem is that everyone else at the table throws their heads back laughing along with what is a truly disturbing way of thinking. The conversation then veers in and out of being your usual gross discussion of sexual scorekeeping — all the while, Thomas looks like a Winklevoss twin that was left out in the sun for too long. As with most talk of this nature, there is more heat than light. And the world is a darker place for it.”
Now juxtapose this with what Thomas’ girlfriend is told in an episode that aired the following month. Looking for advice regarding her struggling relationship, the young woman is told to just go along with Thomas’ wishes.
“Just lie back and think of England,” says Patricia Altschul, sharing what she explains to be her mother’s favorite expression. Of course, this sort of learned behavior is baked in over generations, but you can’t ignore the fact that it’s reinforced day after day in modern life.
Taken as just a few unsavory moments on a television show, these still seem bad, but they are easy to ignore. That becomes harder when the man at the center of these scenes is arrested for alleged assault. And that’s why many people in Charleston hate Southern Charm.
Yes, it is often trashy, but there is no shortage of that on TV or in real life. The problem is that Southern Charm broadcasts a side of Charleston that many would rather ignore. It’s easier to forget that there is a violence and entitlement among men that, yes, exists even in your hometown.
This week the nation watched as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding her teenage sexual assault that she says was perpetrated by Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. In her testimony, Ford smiled and kept an agreeable tone as she was questioned regarding the most painful moment of her life. This is because women aren’t expected to raise a fuss. Just lie back and think of England.
Later in the hearing, Kavanaugh’s temper boiled over as he professed his innocence. Much of the questioning directed against the nominee regarded the boyish jokes from his high school yearbook, jokes that alluded to sexual conquests and over-drinking. Repeatedly, Kavanaugh spit senators’ questions back at them. Everything had started as a joke, but no one was laughing.
Looking back at Southern Charm and what it says about Charleston, hating the show for what it says about the city is a misplaced effort without also speaking out against the real-life issues it glosses over.
If you think the worst aspects of the show misrepresent Charleston, picture this: If you sit at police headquarters long enough, you’ll eventually see a young woman walk in, led by her advocate. I’ve seen it happen before. At first, you don’t notice them. Over time, a pattern emerges.
The young woman will sit, her head down and body curled in on itself, as she waits to meet with a detective. She won’t be wearing any makeup. She’ll probably be wearing a baggy sweatshirt and yoga pants, while her clothes from the night before sit wadded up somewhere in an evidence bag waiting to be examined. Meanwhile, other women just like her will choose not to speak out about their assaults. They’ll walk through life wounded, holding their insides together for years before ever choosing to spill their guts. They’ll smile politely. Laugh along with jokes they don’t find funny. No need to make anyone consider the negative. This is what polite society looks like.
Advocates at People Against Rape can been reached by calling (843)-745-0144. Donations can be made at peopleagainstrape.org/donate.
Dustin Waters is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He has recapped three seasons of Southern Charm for Charleston City Paper.