“Salons need to integrate,” Mary Schmidt Amons declares. “We have different hair, different needs, but why do we need to be in a different salon?”
It’s a simple enough question—the sort that passes for a philosophical dilemma when the new world of reality TV ponders the old scar of American racism. But Amons does not live in any ordinary corner of televisual reality. Her discourse on salon segregation takes place during the premiere of The Real Housewives of D.C., which makes her a character in a particularly special sort of reality show: The Washington reality show.
Which means that the tragedy of separate-but-equal hair-care has to be put in special context. National context. Capital context. Obama-era context! So she hastens to add that the salon status quo is especially tragic now, in this city, “with our new administration, with the beautiful couple we have leading our country...”
Amons trails off. A mother of five, she seems so uncomfortable around black people that she apparently cannot speak to her sole African-American castmate without exclaiming “Girlfriend” in a ghetto accent. She is drunk. Some part of her brain is probably telling her mouth that she sounds incredibly stupid. Stacie Scott Turner, the aforementioned black housewife, will not look her in the eye.
If the Real Housewives—debuting this week on Bravo—were taking place in any other town, Amons would be presented for what she is: A rich dunce with minimal sense of personal dignity. Her analogues during the show’s New York season weren’t cast as representatives of Wall Street; her Atlantan sisters weren’t portrayed as keys to understanding the corporate culture of Coca-Cola’s new-South hometown.
But in the pop-cultural imagination, Washington is different. Money, as anyone who’s never had to get a mortgage in Ward 3 will tell you, isn’t the currency here. Influence is. Thus Amons and her castmates can’t just be rich and embarrassing. They have to be rich and embarrassing and symbolic, a civics-class primer of our federal city’s hierarchy majesty and might. Amons, therefore, has to be a “Washington insider.”
The specifics of her claim to said title are rather dubious: She claims to be a lifelong D.C. resident yet lives in McLean, Va., which Bravo deems “an interesting little neighborhood.” She claims to be “best friends” with Washingtonian publisher Cathy Williams, yet Williams cannot pronounce Amons’ last name correctly.
In an ordinary season, the exposed social climbing would make for some nice reality world schadenfreude, the stuff Real Housewives always trades in. But the problem for the D.C. version is that the reality humiliations wind up trashing the show’s basic promise. In that single, drunken hair-care exchange, Amons—neither a D.C. resident nor a friend of the Obamas nor a particularly powerful person—utterly undercuts the show’s D.C.-centric opening monologue, in which a fellow housewife purrs, “The currency here is proximity to power.”
By the time she’s done, it’s clear that the buskers in Farragut Square are closer to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. than is Amons.
Welcome to reality TV’s Washington: Wealthy women with Newsweek-grade opinions waxing soporific on the existential significance of a black president on Real Housewives; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dicing things up on Top Chef; twentysomethings pining progressive on the Real World. And absolutely everyone—except maybe Tareq and Michaele Salahi—boring the pants off their viewers.
This is what happens, to paraphrase MTV’s flagship reality TV product, when shows stop being interesting and start symbolizing a wet finger in the wind.
Sometime in those heady days of fall, 2008, TV producers decided that the buzz surrounding the cool young president-elect meant our pokey old nation’s capital was getting hipper and more cosmopolitan. There’s some truth to that generalization, though the connection to Obama is tenuous at best. But now, two years and two high-profile reality flops later, it’s clear that there’s another local truth that the burgeoning population of D.C.-oriented reality producers have yet to figure out: Washington, D.C., is actually Washington and D.C. The latter features a lifestyle similar to that of other reality-worthy cities. But the former—with its white marble and its mysterious corridors of powers—is what these shows try to present.
It’s a classic bait-and-switch. In reality D.C., everyone who steps into a Cadillac Escalade might wind up sharing canapés with Al Franken at a reception for the Finnish finance minister. In real D.C., even Kal Penn-caliber celebs find themselves balanced out by slack-jawed number crunchers, dumpy lobbyists, and disillusioned activists hustling opaque, fine-print agendas.
In other words, despite the establishing shots of the Capitol and the increasingly pathetic cameos from attention-seeking federal-city figures, what reality TV producers have chosen as their locale is not a nexus of power and celebrity, but a nest of normalcy. And as one reality TV producer recently told Esquire when asked about the increase in scripted reality TV shows, “Normal people don’t make good television.”
Especially when their ZIP code seems to turn on the inner civics teacher in even the most down-market reality-TV peddler.