When it comes to the saturated world of reality TV, manufactured drama drives a show’s direction. Not all of them are defined by authenticity and serendipitous on-screen moments like the early days of the genre. The genesis of reality is defined by shows like The Surreal Life, which struck TV gold by simply letting famous people be themselves in a garishly decorated mansion (seriously, who could’ve predicted the pairing of Brigitte Nielsen and Flavor-Flav?). Personally, I have been chasing the dragon ever since, and no show on the air right now is as objectionably perfect as Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules.
If you’ve never watched, the series follows the staff of SUR (Sexy, Unique, Restaurant), a West Hollywood eatery owned Real Housewives of Beverly Hills mainstay Lisa Vanderpump. It works for a few reasons, and they culminate into an incredible cocktail of drama, humor, and scandal. Specifically the cast’s deeply personal relationships with one another outside of production, their conventionally good looks, their mysterious ability to afford gigantic LA apartments, $50,000 weddings, and regular travel with service industry jobs. That said, while a perfect show in the context of trash TV, Rules has never centered any sort of diversity during its now seven seasons.
Enter token trans cast member, Billie Lee - 34, SUR hostess.
When Billie joined the cast, I was excited and terrified of how production would handle her story. For context, she had no bonafide personal ties to the show’s core cast and at first seemed like an experimental addition. Lee’s casting was an obvious play at tokenism that featured her journey and story as a transwoman in a weirdly apathetic light, at least in contrast to the messy story arcs of the main cast. Predictably, producers handled Lee’s first season with kid gloves, most of the time working hard to highlight her sameness with regards to her cis counterparts. I really didn’t think she would be a returning cast member in the show’s 7th season, but thankfully I was wrong because at the end of the day we all need someone to highlight just how much OG cast member Katie Maloney SUUUUUCKS.
Katie has always been a “mean girl”, and at one point I may have felt pain for her when she revealed her struggles with PTSD, and I may have rooted for her when she married sleepy-time hottie Tom Schwartz (I’ve changed my mind on that since then). This season Maloney is unchained; no longer is she stressed by feuds with castmate Lala Kent and drafting ultimatums to force her long-time boyfriend into a marriage and prime-time special. She’s so free that she isn’t bothered by complaints brought forth by Billie Lee that put her precarious allyship with trans folks on full display.
If you’re not caught up, last week’s episode saw Maloney successfully oust SUR resident DJ James Kennedy from his Tuesday night gig for fat shaming her on the job. Instead of moving on—after rightfully holding James accountable—and using the incident as a teachable moment for those watching the show, Katie decided revenge…would be better. Her and the Witches of Weho took over his Tuesday night—which was co-hosted by Billie Lee—for a “Girls Night In” themed soiree. During the planning, Katie and crew chose not to include Billie, which of course was captured on camera. Taking to social media, Lee unleashed a series of posts calling out the girls of SUR for not including her in the planning and promotion of the event. Comments and retweets ensued, and finally the drama that I hoped not to see burst through the screen.
When confronted by critiques of their behavior, the cis cast members of Rules fired vitriolic statements at Lee. In their minds, the implication that they may be transphobic or have transphobic tendencies which needed to be unlearned was tantamount to any of the call-out tweets their trans colleague posted regarding her calculated exclusion from a “Girls” themed event.
The conflict has lasted two episodes so far and recently climaxed with a screaming match between Billie and Lala at Scheana’s housewarming party. After Lala abandoned the exchange and dismissed Bille for rightfully pointing out her privilege as a cis woman, resident voice of reason Ariana Maddox used her confessional interview to say what every queer person watching the episode was thinking, “You can’t be an ally to a trans woman if you’re going to speak over her every time she tries to tell you how she feels”.
Most of what the cast does to appear not bigoted has the efficacy of wearing a safety pin on the front of a t-shirt, so it was a refreshingly “woke” moment for the series. It will be interesting to see what happens with Billie’s story and whether or not it will be a focal point of the reunion. For a channel that can attribute a lot its growth to queer audiences, it’s hard to trust that Bravo will treat this conflict as an important lesson on the fragility of convenient allyship.
Stars Maloney and Kent had no issues embracing Billie when she first joined the cast and was a silent trans fixture. They loved her when she participated as an object meant to propel an implied narrative that the other stars are rowdy but well-rounded people. Yet when Billie asserted that her story is not the equivalent of a girl scout badge for cis folks who wish to be perceived as allies, Katie and Lala failed to rise to the occasion. Instead, they dismissed her, called her a “psychopath”, and demonstrated the grossest misunderstanding of gender identity by taking offense to the word “cisgender”. Their confessionals proved to be nothing more than sloppy wipe down jobs of their on-screen behavior. Meanwhile, production pushes edits that seek to exploit Billie’s explosive reactions, which may very well be the result of trauma from living a trans experience.
The show has always been good, but this was an extremely low point, even lower than Kristen Doute hooking up with the show’s principle sociopath, Jax Taylor following a bout of insecurity. What has always made Vanderpump Rules resonate is that its stars exhibit the confused, messy, sometimes irrational behavior typical of young working people seeking to build a life close to the show’s millionaire matriarch, Lisa. Everyone’s trying to make it while pulling shifts at SUR, and those stories are relatable to most demographics because the cast of Rules make trying look fun.
However it’s in danger of giving way to a trans-villain storyline, which is proving typical of reality shows that cast trans women to “shake things up”. We’ve seen the trope on VH1’s Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta with D. Smith, who ended her season as an incredibly unpopular cast member. Additionally, Empire’s Amiyah Scott opted to discontinue working with the producers of Real Housewives of Atlanta citing fears that her edit would have the same fate. So what’s a reality TV junkie to do? The take here for those who aren’t fans the show but still want to get something out of this exhaustive two episode recap, would be to either be an ally and listen or don’t. Allyship isn’t something you should handle loosely, because having queer and trans folks in your life can be truly enriching if you take the time to pay attention. Further, the lack of trying can be damaging in ways you would never consider. Being silenced by someone who claims to care for you can breed seeds of trauma. If you don’t see yourself ever properly rising to the call, then stick to what you know. Avoid treating gender non-conforming folks like magical gateways to “wokeness”. Unless of course you plan on paying them for their time, like Lisa Vanderpump herself.
Zaida J. is an Atlanta writer, DJ, and self-described transgender loud mouth.