“The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” Is Culturally Sensitive Trash

THE NEW YORKER By Doreen St. Felix February 8, 2021


The most promising character at the start of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” which débuted in November, is not one of the “housewives” but one of their children: Meredith Marks’s son, Brooks, who, in oversized sunglasses and a puffer coat, presents himself as a ready-made meme. Meredith, a jewelry designer, tells us that her son has taken a break from his studies at New York University to support her as she navigates a tough spot in her marriage. The twenty-one-year-old Brooks, an aspiring fashion designer of limited skill, seems to be a student of the “Housewives” phenomenon; he is fluent in the show’s tropes, acting as Meredith’s confidant and stylist. Here is a thoroughly modern, weirdly affecting image: the savvy, gay son protecting his sad, subdued mother, with whom he shares a pink pout and a hunger for insta-celebrity.

 But how quickly the presumptive fan favorite fell from grace! In the third episode, Meredith invites Jen Shah over for margaritas. A Muslim Polynesian living in a white Mormon stronghold, Shah is doubly outcast, and so she fights hard for the spotlight. Her vibe is confrontational and campy; Brooks finds her uncouth. While sitting on the couch, Shah gets excited and girlishly kicks her heels in the air. We see Brooks seethe in a corner, and, in a cut to a confessional, he exaggerates the scene, saying, “I’m feeling really uncomfortable. Her vagina’s in my face.” After the episode aired, fans voiced their displeasure with him on social media, branding the incident “Vagina-gate.” Ultimately, it was Shah who barrelled her way to the spot of protagonist.

 Am I applying too much analytical pressure to the situation? Well, yes. This is how to enjoy reality television these days. Brooks’s mistake, or, rather, his miscalibration of the etiquette of the genre, fascinated me. It wasn’t the fakeness of the budding feud that rankled viewers; “Housewives” is, constitutionally, a soap opera, and it is fuelled by petty offense, manufactured from the slightest of slights. The issue was the artlessness of the fakery. Brooks’s jab, a callback to the witty white-male cruelty that thrived in the aughts, now directed at a woman of color by a member of Gen Z, felt like an anachronism. He was reaching, and, in that crucial moment, he flopped.

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