Pop Culture

The Tacky Charms of Southern Charm

There’s a passage in the opening of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt’s 1994 treatise on Southern manners undone, where Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams delivers a withering critique of Southern aristocracy. “Blue bloods are so inbred and weak,” Williams says. “All those generations of importance and grandeur to live up to. No wonder they lack ambition. I don’t envy them. It’s only the trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile—the fine furniture, the paintings, the silver—the very things they have to sell when the money runs out. And it always does. Then all they’re left with is their lovely manners.”

On Bravo’s Southern Charm, the money’s still plentiful—it’s the lovely manners that have seen better days. The schadenfreude, however, is strong. The cast, who come from Chahhlston’s best and oldest families (as they constantly remind us), have struggled mightily the past six seasons to live up to those good names. (Season seven launched October 29.) From infidelity to racist gaffes to assault charges and a lot of drunken tantrums, the show has, at times, felt like a spinoff of Cops set on a plantation. All the pinkies-out posturing in the world can’t hide the fact that these people don’t act right—at least, not the way descendants of the landed gentry should.

Disgraced former South Carolina state treasurer and cast member Thomas Ravenel—there’s a bridge named after his father—was busted for selling cocaine in 2005, and faced assault and battery charges before leaving the show in 2018. He impregnated his girlfriend, young socialite Kathryn Calhoun Dennis (a direct descendant of seventh vice president John C. Calhoun) who temporarily lost custody of her two children due to drug use, and has a hankering for public screaming matches.

There’s the meddlesome gossip Cameran Eubanks, a 10-generations-deep Charlestonian and den mother to the group, who confronts rumors her husband is cheating with a hairdresser. There’s aging frat boy Shep Rose III, a human keg stand apparently so committed to drinking, he has a ranking system for his blackouts. He hails from the Boykin family, for whom a town and the state Spaniel are named. (He also claims a relative of his was the inspiration for Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby.) He doesn’t have to work, but it’s clear he wouldn’t even if he did.

The show also features various Yankees and interlopers whose presence exposes the moneyed hierarchy, such as Craig Conover, a Delaware transplant and sewing enthusiast who is accused, with his pastel popped collars, of Southern cosplay. California transplant Ashley Jacobs is so cartoonishly vile that you’re sure she’s there just to prove outsiders are rarely worth the trouble. Virginia-born Whitney Sudler-Smith, a filmmaker (and executive producer who also conceived Southern Charm), just started a midlife-crisis rock band (called Renob, which is boner backwards—classy). His icy mother, Patricia Altschul, rounds out the rich bonafides.

Altschul’s money comes from her three marriages, at least one to a wealthy New York finance type. But it’s clear that for the show’s purposes, she is a stand-in for the Old South. That means she enforces social graces with advice to the men and women on how to act (proper), dress (modestly—nothing “shored up to the Mason-Dixon Line”), when to marry (immediately), and how to save face after a social scandal (smile, nod, then pretend you heard the doorbell ring). In one scene, Altschul—who floats about in caftans swilling martinis—haughtily observes that Kathryn Calhoun Dennis is a shameless strumpet who “doesn’t have a proper education,” only to turn around and pronounce the l’s in guillotine.

Delightful as the show is, it kind of makes you wonder why any of these people would agree to appear on it—especially when they’re from the South, where “don’t air your dirty laundry in public” is practically monogrammed on the cocktail napkins. Perhaps they’re actually the well-to-do outcasts of the true elite: A New York Times piece notes that word of the show’s debut incited a panic among the ruling class. “You’d have to leave town,” one elder Charlestonian (whose family has been there since the 1690s!) warned a relative who was thinking of joining the cast.

Yet this show is also an accurate window into affluent Southern life. Men with names like Whitney and Shep host elegant dinner parties with women with names like Landon and Cameran. They day-drink for sport, eating crab in seersucker and Lilly Pulitzer. They go fox hunting and skeet shooting, play polo, and say things like, “When in doubt, get the bourbon out,” or, “A white tablecloth means we shouldn’t talk about such things.” But they also shoot fireballs, shotgun beers, and call each other “beta bitch.”

It’s also an accurate window into the racism of the South. Bravo removed scenes and episodes of Southern Charm after backlash over their casually oblivious tours of family plantations. One removed scene featured Ravenel’s father, Arthur Ravenel, dissing a $5 bill because it has Abraham Lincoln’s face on it. Old, white Southern wealth is always ugly under the rug, but the people who benefit from it usually have the sense to pay someone to clean that up. On Southern Charm, they lift it up and film it.

When Southern Charm debuted in March of 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t yet entered mainstream discourse. (Michael Brown would be killed in Ferguson, Missouri, months later.) Confederate statues were still years away from removal—Calhoun’s statue in Charleston only recently tumbled after a city vote. And we were six years out from seeing South Carolina’s neighbor Georgia turn blue this election, after a years-long fight of tireless advocacy from Black progressives.

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