“All social rules and all relations between individuals are eroded by a cash economy.” –Karl Marx
A few years ago, a New York Times column by Alessandra Stanley commented on the relationship between class consciousness and reality television. Stanley observed that the role of class was the major distinguishing factor between scripted shows and reality television. Stanley says,
“The more reality shows mimic fictional series in tone, look and format, the easier it is to see where they differ: class consciousness. Sitcoms and dramatic series drum up tension by assaulting social barriers. Most reality shows take them for granted and leave them untouched.”
Contrasting scripted shows like The OC and Gossip Girl (both of which pit middle-class underdogs against upper-class elites) with the classless alternate dimensions of reality shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills, Stanley went so far as to conclude simply: “the classes don’t collide on reality television.”
Even today, nearly a decade after Stanley’s observations, the reality TV landscape remains noticeably fragmented along class lines. It’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills next to Party Down South; Keeping Up with the Kardashians over here and Teen Mom over there –and never the twain shall meet.
But for an exception that proves this rule, consider Bravo’s Southern Charm. This long-underrated reality show focuses on a group of friends who live in Charleston, South Carolina, and has for its past two seasons provided a fantastic, if chilling, depiction of precisely the way that social stratification shapes and undermines our interpersonal relationships, locking us into a destiny that even love and friendship seem powerless to conquer.
The first season revolves around the troubled love life of one Thomas Ravenel, a wealthy Charlestonian with family roots dating back to the 1600’s. His good looks, lush plantation, and southern drawl already make him something straight out of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, and that’s even before we get to his deliciously controversial past. The “baggage” that Thomas walks around South Carolina with is that he is the disgraced former state treasurer. While in office, he sullied himself and his prominent family name with cocaine distribution charges in 2007.
After spending a year or so in federal prison, Ravenel emerges from the darkness to reestablish his political career, redeem his family name, and find love.
After a few on-camera failures, Thomas sets his sights on the young Kathryn Dennis. Kathryn appears to be just another redhead party girl in her early twenties, but just so happens to be a direct descendant of John C. Calhoun, Vice President of the United States under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Thomas is fascinated with Kathryn, referring to her multiple times as the “scion” of one of Charleston’s most important families. Thomas sleeps with her, and few weeks later the two are drunk in the middle of a 24-7 pharmacy, shambling through a pregnancy scare.
By season’s end, these two modern descendents of Charleston’s gentry, one a convicted felon in his mid-fifties and the other barely old enough to drink, have a baby together.
Meanwhile, season one also follows the broish hijinks of Shep Rose, an endearing goof in his early thirties born into wealth and effortless physical attractiveness, and his friend Craig Conover, a hard-working law student from a middle-class Delaware family. Shep and Craig get drunk and chase girls daily, butting heads only when it comes to sexual territory (incidentally, the two fight most vehemently over their entitlement to Kathryn Dennis, making her the objectified center of the show’s masculinity matrix).
Things really get interesting in season two, when Thomas prepares to embark on his political revitalization proper, and Craig becomes increasingly enamored by the lifestyle of privilege –both sexual and financial –that Shep seems to preside over.
Thomas and Kathryn now live together with their baby daughter, but Thomas is checked out of the relationship. While Thomas is preoccupied with a frankly ridiculous run for the United States Senate against entrenched Republican Lindsey Graham, Kathryn is increasingly marginalized and shunned. It becomes clear that if Thomas is to distance himself from his deeply problematic (politically speaking) reputation as a felon and womanizer, Kathryn just does not fit into the campaign’s equation. It’s strongly hinted at, and sometimes expressed literally, that particularly if you’re running for national political office in South Carolina, appearing in public with a girlfriend thirty years your junior, with whom you’ve just had a baby “out of wedlock” isn’t the best image. In other words, Thoams’s relationship with Kathryn sends the wrong message.
But the problem with Kathryn isn’t just about age or family values, it’s about class distinctions. It’s about the fact that Kathryn wears a bright pink bra beneath a translucent white shirt to campaign events; mispronounces or misuses words in casual conversation; waves her index finger in the air when she’s angry; and generally doesn’t possess any of the refinement or “good manners” that are expected of young aristocratic women of the American South.
As we watch Thomas and Kathryn grow distant, we’re left with the sad impression that no matter how much she loves Thomas and how much she gives to their relationship, she’ll always be the wrong girl for him.
But of all the characters in the show, it’s a guy named Whitney that embodies and antagonizes classist resentment the most. Whitney is a walking, talking product of unimpeded privilege and failed oedipalization, a pompous and creepy dilettante who meddles in his friends’ relationships and judges the fuck out of everybody he knows. As Thomas’s friend and (severely under-credentialed, if unofficial) campaign advisor, Whitney begins his own internal campaign against Kathryn, actively trying to convince Thomas to outright leave her.
His stated problem with her is emblematic of how instrumental class is to this story, the prime mover of the show’s drama. It’s not that she’s young, or unfaithful, or even that she represents any particular threat to Thomas’s non-existent political viability. It’s that, as Whitney puts it, Kathryn is “an evil, white trash, hillbilly femme fatale.”
In other words, descendant of John C. Calhoun or not, Whitney affirms with the most casual cruelty that Kathryn is quite simply, now and forever, “below” people like him and Thomas.
At the same time, Whitney and Shep begin making Craig’s career their business. Having just graduated law school, Craig spends season two engaging in what might sympathetically be called an extended vacation. He works as a law clerk of some sort at a local firm, but acts as though his real job is partying. He indeed makes a minor mess of his life, drinking to extreme excess, procrastinating on bar exam studying, and ultimately losing his job. As a result, Shep and Whitney continually confront him with sanctimonious lectures and unsolicited advice, insisting that he grow up, stop partying, get serious about his career –as if those were things that either of these wimpy bluebloods had ever done in their entire lives.
Craig resents these condescending harangues. He seems to acknowledge that it is not so much that Whitney and Shep are wrong, or even that their advice is necessarily anything but well-intentioned. Rather, it’s that two independently wealthy adult children are simply the wrong people to be giving advice to someone like Craig. Not only have they never really had to work a day in their life (paying someone to move your money around doesn’t count as work), but both of them are irresponsible, sexually amoral, functional alcoholics too.
The big difference between Craig and them, the bitter pill, is that Whitney and Shep were born rich, and Craig wasn’t. Shep himself tries to explain this to Craig repeatedly: being rich means you can do things other people cannot do, and being not rich means you must do things that rich people don’t have to.
In one of his confessionals, Craig describes it well. Dejected, he observes simply:
“I mean it really all comes down to money. As long as you have money, then you can literally do anything you want.”
The reader will agree that this is both the commonest of sense and the saddest of truths.
What’s interesting, and even vaguely romantic, about Craig and Kathryn –Southern Charm’s reluctant representatives of America’s embattled middle class –is the vague sense we get that they’re somehow “made for each other”; that in the end, they’ll find each other because they understand each other in a way the others cannot.
Craig starts the show pursuing Kathryn, but, you guessed it, loses out to the three rich guys. At one of Thomas’s dinner parties, things turn hostile between Craig and Kathryn, when each accuses the other of being low-class:
It’s an unfortunate exchange, particularly because it shows how members of one social class will shame and climb over others of that same class when it seems like they’re on their way up. But Kathryn and Craig end up good friends by season two, each sensing a camaraderie in the fact that they’re just different from the Charlestonian nobility. No one knows exactly what happened the night Craig and Kathryn got “lost” and spent the night on the beach together, but suffice it to say they have a connection.
The second season ends on a depressing note that reinforces the brutal principle of “class is destiny.” We see Thomas definitively reject Kathryn, sending her running down a pier pathetically shouting after him. Craig leaves Shep and Charleston behind, concluding that it’s not the place for him to become the man he’s meant to be.
We’re left with the sense that the attempt by Craig and Kathryn to integrate themselves into the high society of Charleston was ill-fated from the beginning, that no matter how well they do in life they’ll always have a new-money, parvenu vibe that sticks out like a sore thumb and alienates them from people like Thomas, Whitney, and Shep. But if the misery, loneliness, and frivolity of some of Charleston’s best is any indication, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.