A massive party is being thrown by a newcomer to Atlanta's most exclusive social circles. The scene? A rented mansion meticulously decorated by a small army. The guests of honor? Five gorgeous, outspoken and successful women in costumes representing iconic black women in film. It is the season finale of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and naturally, drama is imminent.
There is much to be said about Bravo's hit reality show, the most-watched in the Real Housewives franchise. To the less patient or perceptive, it might look like any other reality show -- five semi-celebrities alternating between sharply edited footage and post-taped confessionals, their actual realities turned into pop-culture roadkill lost somewhere on the metaphorical highway between the covers of tabloid magazines and the show's seasons. Yet, it could be argued that the ladies of Atlanta are something more than just your average glossy gossip gals. The cast members of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, unlike their counterparts on other reality shows (I'm looking at you Kardashians!) seem less concerned with the meta-narrative of their show that tends to overshadow what they are actually doing in their lives. While Kim and her gang operate on vague constructs of flimsy fame -- fame that crumbles under any substantive query -- the Atlanta housewives manage to leverage their oft-dismissed reality genre into an anything-goes discussion of womanhood, community and race. This makes the show informative when it could have just been exploitative; one comes for the drama, but stays for the experience.
Obviously, the experience is created by the show's cast, and it is important to note who these characters are. The majority of the women here are in fact successful businesswomen outside of the show. And while the mass exposure can't really do them much harm, the ladies will never let the viewers forget what they actually do: Kandi Burruss is a Grammy-award winning singer and songwriter; Phaedra Parks is a successful lawyer with high-profile clients; newcomer Kenya Moore is a former Miss USA who is now involved in acting and producing, and Cynthia Bailey is a former supermodel who now owns her own modelling agency. The person who has arguably profited the most from the show and gained most popularity, however, is NeNe Leakes, the sassy ex-stripper whose zeal for life and take-no-prisoners attitude have helped make her a household name. Not only has she explosively guest-starred on Donald Trump's The Celebrity Apprentice, she's also become a cast regular on Ryan Murphy's The New Normal. Ironically, the only actual housewife in the group is the show's latest addition, Porsha Stewart, replacing Kim Zolciak. In fact, it could be argued that, despite its name, The Real Housewives of Atlanta goes out of its way to represent strong, independent and career-oriented black women, many of them single mothers.
Much like Margaret Mitchell's subversion of the Southern belle trope through the character of Scarlett O'Hara, these Georgia peaches do not mind being less than peachy when it comes to realizing their ambition. Other than the unstoppable NeNe Leakes, the cast member with the most diverse career field must be Phaedra Parks, the self-proclaimed "ultimate Southern belle." Not only is she a successful lawyer, but with her younger husband Apollo as her right hand and confidante, she also dabbles in everything from fitness videos, a funeral business, and designing stun guns. Kandi, on the other hand, has recently complemented her music empire with a line of sex toys called Bedroom Kandi and has also gotten her own Bravo spin-off called The Kandi Factory. In spite of the quirks of its stars, this is clearly a show that values and promotes progress and personal development above anything else. As professor Kathryn Lee Seidel writes in her book The Southern Belle and the American Novel, and as pointed out by Nicholas A. Smith, the Southern belle was traditionally protected from the corrupting influences of a changing society (for instance, the industrial revolution), as "their aristocratic origins assured that the belle would be protected from reality, championed, and wooed as befits a princess in her realm."
These roles are clearly subverted by the Atlanta Housewives cast, to the point where the latest season even featured an intervention by the women when Portia started to struggle with her husband's controlling behavior, including his demands she choose between a career and having children. In fact, Gone With the Wind was directly referenced and made into a much-quoted catchphrase (and now even a song), "gone-with-the-wind fabulous" which seems a curious mix of ladylike demeanor and action motivated by energy, ambition and attitude. Much like the characters of the hit TV show Desperate Housewives, on which the reality franchise was based, the ladies were quick to show solidarity and support, steering their friend towards greater independence.
Apart from advocating perseverance and resourcefulness, and cultivating a sense of legacy through frequent mention of everyone from activist Hosea Williams to Dorothy Dandridge, the show also sports a curious dose of authenticity in a time where reality TV and actual reality seem disparate. Where it could have been frothy and contrived, the Atlanta Housewives seems to have adopted NeNe's slogan of "keeping it real," and even this season's new housewife's attempt at faking a relationship in front of the cameras has been commented on by NeNe as unethical and awful. NeNe, in turn, has never tried to hide her stripper past and her uncensored honesty has made her a fan favorite. Moreover, the ladies are in fact encouraged to deconstruct their own celebrity by the franchise's executive producer, the celebrated Andy Cohen, both in his daily talk show and the fiery reunion specials.
One may ask or wonder what significance a reality show like The Real Housewives of Atlanta could have in a regular person's reality. Well, with the average ratings of three million viewers in the United States alone, some of the housewives' realities, no matter how constructed or edited for maximum effect, are bound to rub off on people's worldview. Certainly, the show plays to the lowest common denominator, and in keeping with the tradition of reality television, it often revels way too much in portraying its characters as shallow, spiteful and sometimes, just plain ugly. It just so happens that in between the fighting, the weave pulling and endless bragging about material worth, the Atlanta housewives shape and touch culture as much as they are its product. It is easy to agree with Cohen when he writes in his autobiography that "while the root of this show is entertainment, it's also laced with social commentary." Take the party celebrating iconic black women in film as an example -- even though it may be slightly ironic that these women are doing it as characters on a trashy TV show that may not always portray them in the most flattering light, the fact remains that they are strong black women themselves. With its fifth season now over and the sixth underway, The Real Housewives of Atlanta is a ripe peach to sink one's teeth into.