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The Housewives, in happier times.
The Housewives, in happier times.

Pop CultureSeptember 17, 2016

The story behind the racist explosion on next week’s Real Housewives of Auckland

The Housewives, in happier times.
The Housewives, in happier times.

The Spinoff was granted an exclusive preview of next week’s racism-scarred episode of The Real Housewives of Auckland on Friday. Here Duncan Greive discusses the shocking moment, and the fallout within and without of the episode.

This morning the Herald on Sunday reports that one cast member of Real Housewives of Auckland calls another cast member “n*****” on Tuesday’s forthcoming episode of the Bravo series. The Spinoff was granted an exclusive preview of the show last week, and can confirm that incident takes place essentially as described in the story: Julia Sloane refers to Gilda Kirkpatrick treating Michelle Blanchard like her “boat n*****” in an exchange which takes place on a launch. Sloane is pākehā, and is referring to Michelle Blanchard, who is English but whose mother was born in Jamaica. The aftermath of the incident consumes the entire 45-minute episode.

We viewed the episode on Friday afternoon when representatives from the channel and the production came up to The Spinoff office to screen it for my colleague Alex Casey and me. The pair of us watched in horror and awe as the word instantly shattered the benign silliness of the show, and the huge tensions it unleashes grip the entire episode from frivolous beginning to its impossibly tense conclusion.

As we are to this point the only media to have viewed the episode, I think it’s worth explaining in detail precisely what occurs. The six core cast of Housewives are on a day-long boat trip off Port Douglas in the tropics of North Queensland. It begins with the familiar goofy dramady which has been the show’s signature: Louise and Anne drinking champagne in the cabin, talking nonsense and seeing a shark.

Up at the bow Gilda Kirkpatrick, Julia Sloane and Michelle Blanchard are sitting on a squab in the blazing sun. Already there have been ripples of racial tension on the trip: Blanchard and Kirkpatrick are the only two people of colour in the cast and share a villa with Sloane. When they arrive at the villa, Sloane demands the best bedroom “because I’m blonde”. The moment hung in the air. Blanchard and Kirkpatrick exchange glances. Then it passed.

On the boat trip that subcurrent rears up under a brilliant blue sky in one of the most viscerally powerful moments of recent New Zealand television history. Off camera, whilst the crew are elsewhere, Sloane says to Kirkpatrick, “Gilda! Don’t let Michelle be your boat n*****!”

We arrive in the immediate aftermath, as Blanchard’s still absorbing what the fuck just happened. She’s apparently misheard Sloane as having referred to her as a “house n*****” instead, a distinction Sloane will grimly cling to throughout. “Never, ever use the word n*****!” she says, still sat alongside Sloane, whose face is frozen in fear. Shockingly, Sloane’s not finished.

“Michelle was helping Gilda onto the sunlounger when I made a terrible joke,” Sloane recounts in a later ‘in the moment’ interview. “I said something to Gilda about Michelle not being her boat n*****, but it came out wrong.

“It’s an old boating term. I should never have said it.”

This absurd line of defence is also run by her husband in the Herald on Sunday piece. “Lorimer said it was a term he and his wife used occasionally in a tongue-in-cheek way when sailing,” the story says. “It wasn’t intended to be racist”.

It’s as if that particular vile slur is somehow less offensive due to its relative obscurity and nautical origins. And shows that even now, months after the incident, the pair still believe the main problem with the phrase was context.

The Housewives, in happier times.
The Housewives, in happier times.

While still shocking, this scene is really just a prelude of what’s to come – the television equivalent of that awful glassy pause between a mushroom cloud erupting in the distance and the explosion which knocks down everything in its path. The boat breaks along ethnic lines, the way it will remain for the rest of the episode. Upstairs, Kirkpatrick attempts to console Blanchard, who starts to feel the full force of the moment. “In England, or New Zealand for 18 years, no one’s ever called me that,” she says. There’s something profoundly ugly about it taking a bizarre creature on a reality TV show to make that finally happen.

Click here to read an interview with Michelle Blanchard about the incident

Somehow, things get worse. Sloane is aware she’s done something appalling, but in her shock reveals concern only for herself – she simply wants things back to the way they were, betraying a childlike understanding of the power of words. It’s as if she’s never met a problem money couldn’t solve, and doesn’t have any idea how to respond to it.

Unfortunately she’s being counselled by Angela Stone, perhaps the single worst person to perform that duty. She advises Sloane to “be the bigger person” and approach Blanchard. Which is shatteringly dumb from both a moral and practical perspective. Sloane, still deprived of what sense she ever possessed, walks upstairs into the depths of Blanchard’s fury.

Blanchard: Someone needs to tell you you’re not funny. You’re not fucking funny.

Sloane: I didn’t come up here so you can just yell at me like this because I didn’t know what I was saying and I really didn’t mean.

Blanchard: You didn’t know what you were saying? Of course you knew what you were saying! Don’t sit there and tell me you had no idea what you were saying. You’re a grown ass woman.

Blanchard throws champagne in her face, and then the empty flute at a wall. Kirkpatrick is in tears, her season-long serenity finally ruptured. The scene descends into chaos until Sloane finally takes the hint. Eventually they dock, breaking again into two racially divided groups until a climactic dinner at the episode’s conclusion.

In the context of the show, Blanchard’s reaction feels entirely proportional. While Sloane doesn’t appear at any point to realise the true gravity of what she has said, to both Blanchard and Kirkpatrick it seems self-evident: that no matter how much money they might possess, to Sloane they’ll always be different to the pākehā women on Housewives.

It’s the most confronting scene, far more so than the nominally similar bullying of Joe Irvine on last year’s X-Factor NZ. We’re hit in the face by the harshest reality in seemingly the most unlikely of places: reality TV. Sloane’s thoughtless piece-of-shit non-joke shocks you from your slumber, reminding you that 100 years ago the idea of Blanchard and Sloane being around one another as equals was near-impossible. And Sloane’s reaction to Blanchard’s rage – a kind of wounded confusion, squirming to portray herself as the victim – shows just how close to the surface all these toxins remain.

One thing has changed: the way a network deals with a moment like this. A few years ago this would have been cause for pure elation by the production. Teased mercilessly: “the most shocking television moment of the year”, with increasingly revealing clips staggered over the course of the series and the week prior.

We’re living in a different era now. The social media era has led to a sea change in how an event like this is managed at a corporate level.

We at The Spinoff had a sense that there was something different about this episode from the start. Previous episodes had been supplied to us as password-protected streams ahead of airing so as to allow Alex Casey to put together her power rankings.

This time the episode was brought up to us on a laptop by publicists from both the show and Bravo at a brand level. They sat with us as the episode aired, and frankly talked through their worries and their intentions. Plainly they were terrified, and I believe them when they tell me that the Herald on Sunday story was not part of the plan.

Perhaps most tellingly, they have decided not to run advertising during the episode, and discussed how best to manage its inevitable fallout with the Human Rights Commission. The level of fear coming from Bravo, MediaWorks and Sloane – who has taken on a PR company as reputation management, the first smart thing she’s done in a while – is palpable, and rightly so.

But the way the incident is handled within the show is, to my mind, near-perfect. There was no way to paper over its happening – the idea that it should have been cut out is ridiculous, on viewing. And seeing the very real pain it causes play out so viscerally displays the profound power of what we dumbly call ‘casual’ racism in a way that little else could.

It also speaks directly to the numbing idiocy of those who continue to offer rote academic critiques of reality television – because this television moment, as awful and uncomfortable as it is, will dwarf anything our richly-funded drama producers will come up with this year. You literally couldn’t make this up: if you did it would be either self-congratulatory or deeply racist in and of itself. Which is precisely why this critically derided format, despised by so many smug aesthetes, retains a near matchless power to reveal things about our nation we’d rather not know.

Blanchard, Kirkpatrick and Sloane, just prior to Sloane's comments.
Blanchard, Kirkpatrick and Sloane, just prior to Sloane’s comments.

Towards the end of the episode, when an uneasy truce appears to have been declared and after several moments of near sublime scriptless comedy, we return to New Zealand. Sloane is still in a fugue state, desperately trying to swallow the word. She invites Blanchard out to dinner, in the time-honoured Housewives style, to properly apologise.

They assemble to Euro, that fading symbol of bleakly flashy ‘90s Auckland. Blanchard turns on a transcendent performance: poised, quick-witted, toying with her prey. Sloane, so used to being indulged her errors, is bemused to find Blanchard entirely unwilling to forgive her, nor acknowledge that her anger was unjustified.

Sloane bristles at one point: “no one else would have reacted that way,” she says, wretchedly, before adding “stop lecturing me” in a way which feels incredibly charged: a flailing attempt to make Blanchard into the ‘angry black woman’ that has been a gross trope in reality TV for too long.

Not here, not now. Things reach a kind of calm, and Blanchard shows a resigned mercy. “It’s such a good thing to be able to forgive,” says Sloane. “I didn’t say I forgave you,” Blanchard flashes back. Sloane responds with a weak smile. Even after all this time she’s still unable to move from contrition for the act to true understanding of what it all meant.

When this episode airs, I think she’ll understand.

Here is an interview with Michelle Blanchard discussing the incident. The Human Rights Commission recently launched ‘That’s Us’, a campaign aimed at raising awareness of and combatting racism in New Zealand. We have a collaborative content series forthcoming, and suggest you check out the site as it speaks directly to many of the issues raised by this episode.

Keep going!