The Others on Bravo: The Entertainment Value of the Eccentric Ethnic Character
Keara Goin / University of Texas at Austin
I have argued elsewhere that the Real Housewives of Miami (RHOM) trades on the discourses of what Diane Negra has called “excessive ethnicity,”1 and builds a dichotomy of a new vs. old Miami based on notions of whitening. With the recent airing of the third season, I have been reminded just how often the show’s producers deploy a character’s ethnicity as a way to enhance the storyline, facilitate narrative drama, or spike controversy. Whether it is the secret marriage of the Brazilian Spitfire Adriana or the supernatural beliefs of Cuban-American Marisol (whose mother Mama Elsa I have discussed previously elsewhere), RHOM exploits and Others these “reality” show figures in a way that differentiates them from the more normalized cast due to their “eccentric” behaviors.
In reflection of many of Bravo’s other programs, RHOM is not the only show that capitalizes on the excessive ethnicity of a handful of secondary “characters.” The network’s programming as a whole seems to use the eccentric ethnic character as a formulaic strategy to enhance a show’s entertainment value. With a quick survey of several of Bravo’s programs it is clear that such a strategy has become standard practice on the network. Those that stick out to me most, and those I will go into more detail with shortly, are Asa from Shah’s of Sunset, Grandma Edith from Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles, and Zoila from Flipping Out and Interior Therapy.
Before moving on to discussing these ethnically eccentric figures, I think bell hooks’ “Eating the Other” is particularly useful. In her canonical piece she contends that “the commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes the spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”2 Ethnicity, due to its Otherness, can transfer onto mainstream cultural products different and seemingly more interesting qualities that can be used and then discarded as producers see fit. They gain the value of momentary difference, cool, or appeal without having to deal with the baggage that goes along with hegemonic processes of Othering. In the context of the Bravo network, secondary ethnicized characters function as a splash of difference into the overall narrative of a given reality show. Able to ignite discussion of and attention to their shows in a wider pop cultural context, ethnic secondary characters and their lives are painted as eccentric and therefore something entertaining and inherently humorous.
On Shah’s of Sunset, cast member and self-proclaimed “Persian Pop Priestess” Asa Soltan Rahmati has been set up by the show’s narrative as a figure who the viewer is supposed to find ridiculous. This characterization provides the audience with the permission to laugh at her seemingly outrageous behavior that is rooted in her own interpretation of her Persian identity. Her eccentricity is probably best exemplified through her promotion of a product she created called “diamond water,” which, according to Asa, is infused with the powerful energy of diamonds. The viewer is taken along on her journey, from purchasing a large expensive diamond that she chooses based on “feeling its energy” to the production of the finalized commodity. Seen in the following clip, Asa’s diamond water is just the brightest star in her constellation of Persian eccentricity.
Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles’ (MDL) Grandma Edith, a spunky older Jewish woman, is a Holocaust survivor and former fashion designer. An accomplished figure in her own right, when her grandson Josh Flagg was cast on MDL, viewers were introduced to her as Josh’s grandmother and “best friend.” A constant source of advice for Josh, Grandma Edith speaks her mind and is formulaically consistent with other characters common within the lexicon of Jewish regimes of representation. As an “Old World” Jew, Grandma Edith’s presence in the show works to reinforce her grandson’s whiteness through comparison. The candid and brash comments delivered by a woman in her 90s are reality show gold for Bravo.
However, my favorite by far is Zoila Chavez from Flipping Out and Interior Therapy. This sassy housekeeper is both surrogate mother and thorn in the side of her employer Jeff Lewis, the main star of both shows. Their frequent bickering, punctuated with Zoila’s broken (and therefore subtitled) English, is the crux of much of Flipping Out’s comedy. Even though she is an older woman and a mother figure, the rest of the cast playfully discuss her sex life with her and often encourage her to flirt with men who appear on the show. To top off her and Jeff’s unusual and often inappropriate relationship, as a gift Jeff pays for multiple plastic surgeries and private recovery (while still teasing her through the entire process, of course). In Zoila, Bravo cashes in on both the stereotypes of the Latina mother as well as the Latina spitfire and she has become one of the most popular secondary reality stars on the network.
So far I have used the terms “character” and “figure” interchangeably as the assumption is that when referring to “reality TV” that you are talking about “real” people as opposed to fictionalized ones. However, as Andrew Tudor argued when analyzing sports programming narratives during the Soccer World Cup, “television, it is suggested, tells us stories, even—or perhaps especially—when it tries to imply otherwise, and those stories are constructed from familiar narrative materials and along relatively standardized lines.”3 Reality TV, just like all television programming, constructs narratives that involve characters, whether or not these characters are also real people. And as characters, those figures that are framed within televisual discourses of ethnicity are subject to what producers think will make the most entertaining narrative.
While it could be argued that this is true of US media in general, the Bravo network is an offender par excellence. One just needs to observe the behavior of network executive, and host of Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen and his predilection for racialized/ethnicized catch phrases or subject matters. Not only readily deploying the popular sayings of the network’s racialized/ethnicized reality stars, he also seems to have developed an obsession with certain ethnic/racial cultural phenomena such as “weaves” and “twerking.” I argue that his intention with this type of appropriation from his network’s most popular figures is to imbue upon himself a sense of whimsy, silliness, and cool. hooks would see Cohen as indulging in an appropriative tradition where those “critical of white imperialism and ‘into’ difference…desire cultural spaces where boundaries can be transgressed, where new and alternative relations can be formed”4. Bravo’s strategy to utilize these secondary ethnicized characters as eccentric narrative entertainment is undeniably Othering, turning these Other figures into caricatures intended to keep us laughing.
1. Bravo Network
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- Diane Negra (2001) Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom. Routledge: London. [↩]
- bell hooks (1992) “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press: Boston: 21 [↩]
- Andrew Tudor (1992) “Them and Us: Story and Stereotype in TV World Cup Coverage” European Journal of Communication 7: 410 [↩]
- bell hooks (1992) “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press: Boston: 36 [↩]