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Vanderpump Rules and My White Guilt

It all started back in 2015. My friend’s dad had a thing for Bravo reality television and I would sit around her house, secretly stoned, watching Below Deck, Apres Ski, and Vanderpump Rules all day. I was hooked, and later that winter I found myself hankering for a hit of the drama. Vanderpump Rules was on Hulu, so I started watching from the beginning.

Five years later and the guilty pleasure was still alive and well in my own soul. I followed every new season, when I was unemployed I spent $22 of my precious savings on a season pass to watch the latest season on Google Play. I watched as Stassi grew up from the high and mighty princess (still can’t resist throwing out a reference whenever someone says “It’s my birthday!”) to a somewhat more down to earth woman who was in a stable relationship and building a pop culture empire between her podcast and her NY Times Bestselling book. I watched this last season and I thought to myself “look at her go. I never would have guessed that she would be the most rational person sitting at this table.” Out of all of the characters, Stassi was the one that I most wanted to see succeed.

Then on June 7, I see a post from her come up on my Instagram feed. A black background featuring white writing.

I’m pretty sure I commented on this post, not having any idea what it was about. I said something along the lines of “this is how you stand up and take accountability!” June 7 was 13 days after George Floyd was murdered. I had been processing my white guilt for less than two weeks and to be honest, I was drowning in it. I saw this post as something to aspire to, a way that I hoped I would respond if someone called me out for being racially insensitive.

Then came the google news alerts (because of course, Vanderpump Rules notices come straight through to my lock screen). Stassi hadn’t posted something tone deaf ten years ago, she didn’t make a small error. She and Kristin Doute (another now-fired cast member) had called the cops on Faith Stowers, a black woman who had made appearances on the show, when they saw an article in The Daily Mail about a black woman who had been committing robberies. The black woman in the article photographs looked nothing like Faith. The only thing they had in common was that they were black. They didn’t just stop at the cops, they called the military (Faith served eight years for her country) and later tried calling the cops again for another charge they made up against her.

This opens up a whole conversation about my beloved guilty pleasure, one that I’ve been avoiding having with myself. So now that you have the intro, I’m going to get into it.

First of all, I want to break down the phrase I keep reading. “Faith Stowers – Vanderpump Rules’ Only Black Cast Member – Speaks Out”

“Only Black Cast Member” – But is that even true? To get into that, I’m going to dive into Season 4, the season where Faith is touted as a cast member like a token black friend that white people use to claim that they’re not racist.

I barely remembered Faith. I remembered her because of James’ rap (self-proclaimed “White Kanye” managed to write one successful hook because that stuck in my head for awhile). I remember that she slept with Jax, but as I follow the story of her truth that’s been coming out recently, I keep seeing articles that say she was “Vanderpump Rules’ only recurring black cast member” and “series regular, Season 4.” I spent weeks with secret shame, faulting my own colorblindness for not remembering this woman when she was a “series regular”. I sink myself in with excessive snacks and get ready to make it through the grueling Season 4.

I despise this season. I despise Kristen, who I consider to be highly manipulative to the point that it’s not even fun to watch her because you know that she’s going to pull all the strings and then play the victim. I despise James, who’s abusive rhetoric towards women makes me legitimately angry. I have to watch Brittany and Jax get close for the first time and I am powerless to save her from her future. I also have to watch Lala, who I consider to be a bad ass, confident woman, get shamed mercilessly for being comfortable with her body and sexuality.

But I have a mission – Find Faith.

In twenty five episodes she makes 42 appearances, most of which are establishing shots of SUR. She has sixteen lines, and I don’t mean “storylines” – literally sixteen lines in twenty-five episodes. “Lines” is generous as they are mostly “How is everything?” And one time her entire role in a scene is to say “Whaaa?”

When she’s introduced she spends her first few scenes getting quizzed by Lisa and she is always unprepared and made to look ditzy, like she can’t keep up. Around the middle of the season, they all go through server training and they flash back to when she looked like an idiot. She was always forgetting where a table was or made to look like she knows nothing about wines or fine dining.

I made it to Episode 8 before I started day drinking. I was wading through the darkest moments of my guilty pleasure, trying to find out more about this woman, and she was barely in the show. I was astounded that Bravo had used her to add a little diversity but never gave her any of her own stories. When she does have lines, it’s in a conversation with another cast member, usually Lala, about something that is happening to them. Her entire role is as a satellite to the main story. I just read about the “black best friend” theme in media and I was sick at watching it play out in front of my eyes.

When she does have a conversation about herself, Scheena talks over her for the entire scene (all hail the white woman tears). She has exactly one scene in SUR that’s not an establishing shot and she isn’t made to look like a fool. When she and Lala take their tops off in Hawaii, there’s a big fight that night about the fact that Lala was topless. Faith is barely an honorable mention in that giant fight scene. She doesn’t make an appearance at the reunion and she isn’t shown in any coffessionals. When I looked into that, I found an article where she said that she didn’t get to film any confessionals because Bravo said that was only “for the main cast”. That doesn’t hold up Bravo – because Lala wasn’t a main cast member yet, Stassi wasn’t in the first half the season, and if that’s not enough for you Michael Shay gets to film confessionals and he is arguably the most boring man to ever be in reality television.

Faith’s entire role in the show is so muted that there is no way that this wasn’t intentional. I try to slip my 2015 goggles on and see why this wasn’t problematic at the time, but I can’t. Because 2015 was only five years ago. It was 150 years after slavery was abolished and they couldn’t muster up a single storyline for a black woman. Not one that they thought would be worth showing.

I wanted to write this article because ever since I heard that Stassi was fired, I’ve been struggling with my own white guilt. I agree that she should have been fired, and it makes me sick that what she and Kristin did could have led to Faith being killed. That’s what no one is saying right now – that when the cops come to call on a black person, they’re less likely to live than a white person. They should be fired because what they did wasn’t a prank, it was heinous.

I truly believe all of that, but yet part of me is bummed. I’m bummed because I wanted to see Stassi succeed, I wanted to get her book and learn to be confident about the basic bitch inside of me. She’s been cancelled now, and even though I know she deserves it, I’m sad that she’s cancelled. I’m sad for her, I’m bummed for myself. It’s how I feel about J.K. Rowling. I’m upset that people I have previously enjoyed are ruining their media for me, for the world. All the basic bitches like me have been cheering for Stassi to get her shit together for eight seasons, and we’ll never get to see it now.

I want to speak to other white women now, because I think you might have been feeling the way that I feel about Stassi Schroeder about a lot of things right now. All the sudden, things that we’ve considered harmless or holding no ill intent, they’re not ok anymore. We can’t say things that we used to say, we have to start doing things differently, and we can’t support things we used to love. It’s really confusing, and we need to acknowledge that. If you loved someone and one day you found out that they had a bunch of bodies buried in the backyard, you can’t love them anymore and you know that. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

The thing we need to realize is that a lot of the things that we love have been subtly normalizing racism for a very long time. And a system that supports normalized racism has a whole bunch of black bodies in the backyard. Muting black voices, promoting whiteness as beauty, and calling the cops on an innocent black person – all of these things can and do result in a systematic genocide of black people. That is the ugly truth that we resist acknowledging because it makes us really uncomfortable and a lot of us aren’t used to being this uncomfortable, especially about racial issues.

There are a lot of arguments out there against “cancel culture”, and honestly, cancel culture sucks for the consumer. It sucks because House of Cards was a good show, because Harry Potter means a lot to a lot of people, because James Franco is cute. It sucks to enjoy someone or something one day and the next day you find out the whole time you didn’t see it for what it was. In a way, we have to deal with that loss.

But there’s a reason that cancel culture started trending along with the Me Too movement. Every woman identified with being put in a compromising position, feeling that our safety was in danger if we denied a man something that they wanted. Women wanted to erase every powerful man who had perpetuated a culture that put us in danger. I find it interesting that authors and actors are bonding together to decry cancel culture now that we want to harness its power to protect black lives.

We need to learn to process these things with ourselves without drowning in our white guilt. We need to understand that it’s ok to be bummed about losing these things as long as we also understand the importance of calling out our favorite television shows, actors, and authors when they uphold a system that puts our fellow human beings in danger. I started this piece as a way to process my own feelings about Stassi being cancelled, but what I discovered in rewatching Season 4 is that Vanderpump Rules has a serious reckoning that can’t be avoided by firing a few problem characters. The show as a whole needs to take accountability for its lack of diversity and the fact that when it did employ a black woman, she was muted to the point of obscurity.

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