The Real Housewives of Cultural Appropriation

real housewives cultural appropriation

When will cultural appropriation stop being cute to the ladies of Bravo?

Time and time again, the Bravo network has given the Real Housewives women a platform on which they display cultural insensitivity; the latest episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta is yet another example.

In this week’s episode, Tanya hosts a Japanese-themed dinner party that showcases some problematic examples of cultural appropriation. The party starts out innocently enough; the ladies convene on Tanya’s deck where they sip cocktails and scream at each other, nothing out of the ordinary. However, the evening takes a sour turn when Tanya, who earlier in the party had been dressed in casual clothing with her hair down, reappears in the room, this time clad in a kimono, a high bun, and her hands clasped in a prayer pose.

“The geisha has arrived!” Eva exclaims, pointing gleefully at Tanya.

[Related: ‘Real Housewives’ Luann de Lesseps Clears Up All Those Rumors About Her Sobriety]

Tanya asks the ladies, ‘are you ready?’ in a distinctly stereotypical Asian cadence, before bowing and fluttering her eyelashes in a cartoonish manner.

Nobody calls Tanya out on her distasteful parody. Instead, we cut to a voiceover of Porsha endorsing Tanya’s commitment to the theme, telling the camera, “Yes, honey, Konnichiwa!”

Tanya then presents each woman with her own kimono and accompanying fan. The ladies try on their new outfits and proceed to Tanya’s hibachi room, wearing their kimonos all through dinner.

While I don’t think any ill will was intended by Tanya’s actions, choosing to appropriate Japanese culture and, more specifically, choosing to mimic said culture was certainly a misguided choice.

When we talk about cultural appropriation, we are usually talking about white people unapologetically borrowing elements from marginalized cultures, turning items with real cultural significance into “minority as fashion.” Though the Atlanta cast is predominately black, I still find it troubling to watch wealthy women of any race using culture as a party theme.

And this incident certainly isn’t the franchise’s first brush with cultural appropriation. Every time the Real Housewives of Orange County crew heads to a foreign locale, they tend to completely demean the culture of the region they are visiting, including their most recent stint in Jamaica where they felt it was appropriate to don Rastafarian caps with faux dreadlocks attached. In another city, Potomac, viewers watched as Karen Huger threw an “African and Indian” themed party, and cast member Monique Samuels took it as an opportunity to show up in a full Native American headdress. And in yet another iteration of the series, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Erika Girardi and Lisa Rinna visited Japan; Erika dressed as a geisha and picked reluctantly at her authentic Japanese food while being served dinner by actual geishas.

However, the most famous display of cultural insensitivity by a Bravolebrity occurred when Luann de Lesseps from Real Housewives of New York City showed up to a Halloween party dressed as an all-out caricature of who she declared to be Diana Ross. Her ensemble included an oversized afro and a level of bronzer that swung dangerously close to full-on blackface. Luann then proved she learned nothing from the incident by donning a traditional Chinese dress mere weeks later.

luann blackface
Photo: Real Housewives of New York / Bravo TV

Perhaps the most troubling part of the recurring cultural appropriation on the Housewives shows is the absence of repercussions the ladies face from the network itself. Monique and Luann both offered apologies for their culturally insensitive actions. However, aside from prompting those apologies, Bravo tends to brush aside most incidences of casual bigotry. Housewives are never demoted or fired for their actions; rather, it seems like some of the biggest perpetrators are the ones who stick around the longest. (RHOC veteran Vicki Gunvalson, for example, is still a show lead despite telling a Hispanic worker doing home repairs to “no scratchy the woody” way back in season one.)

Look, the lines between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation can get blurry. Sometimes it can be difficult to gauge when well-intended cultural celebration actually comes off as disrespectful. But I think we can all agree that blatantly ripping off elements from another culture and treating them as a novelty is generally just a bad idea, and perpetuating hurtful stereotypes of an already marginalized culture is never okay.

The Real Housewives franchise may largely be considered trashy television, but it’s still watched by millions of viewers who tune in every week. For the sake of its ever-expanding audience, I think it’s necessary that Bravo starts holding its cast members accountable for their actions.

I know part of the reason we love these ladies so much is that it feels so liberating to watch their bad behavior magnified on our television screens. They ignore societal norms in ways that most of us only dream of, and it’s refreshing to see women show their honest selves on television, for better or worse. But if the network continues to let these housewives engage in culturally appropriative behavior consequence-free, they are sending the message to those millions of viewers that this type of behavior is acceptable. And, despite what the network might have you believe, someone else’s culture holds far greater meaning than just being a fun way to spice up a girl’s night in.

Photo: Real Housewives of Atlanta / Bravo TV

Michelle Vincent
Michelle Vincent is a project manager and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling, is worried she won't love her future children as much as she loves her dogs, and is actively recruiting podcast recommendations.