Allies are the real backbone of queer culture.
[cue laugh track]
Just kidding. I hope you weren’t ready to flip a table at that statement, because today we are taking a journey into what allyship looks like on screen. What is an ally, really? Your options are: A) a Lady Gaga billboard, B) someone who tweets out “love is love” or “trans rights are human rights” for clout, C) a politician who “supports us” but then casually allows anti-queer policies to pass, D) the nice lady who yells “HIS PRONOUNS ARE THEY/THEM”.
The answer is actually E) all of the above, but allies are so much more than just that. Allies are everywhere on television, and we as queer people should be incredibly thankful for that, but my personal favorite place that celebrates allyship is none other than the Real Housewives franchise. No other series has done quite as much for representation on the small screen as Andy Cohen and his wide collection of American Girl dolls come to life, many of them dragging their gay accessories along with them to gossip with about their frenemies.
Since beginning my deep dive into the world of RH, I’ve been particularly taken by Real Housewives of New York. One episode especially has never left my mind when it comes to the housewives and how they interact with queer people. Hell, a scene from it was even tweeted out this year with the playful “happy pride month” phrase attached. That’s right folks, in this ongoing celebration of Pride, we’re going to talk about season four, episode two of RHONY, “March Madness.”
Let’s jump back over a decade to the top of RHONY’s fourth season, arguably one of the weakest of the series overall but not without its treasures (from stolen hangers to bumpy camel rides). All of the drama from past seasons continues to boil as this one begins, people try to sweep their mistakes under the rug to start fresh, and the women all come together and vaguely pretend to like each other at the first event of the season. While tensions are still low, Alex McCord announces she and her husband Simon are on the committee for the Marriage Equality March, which will proceed from Manhattan to Brooklyn to support those who want to get married and cannot, and that all of the women are invited to march along with them in their wedding dresses (or a white outfit that is adjacent in some capacity).
It’s a simple invitation that, without the context to come, is actually rather endearing. After all, this was 2010, and the Marriage Equality Act had still not been passed (though the season aired in 2011 just months prior to its signing). Seeing a bunch of straight women — Sonja included despite her attraction to women being alluded to many times later in the series, though she never identifies as “bisexual” herself — band together and set aside their issues for the sake of supporting queer people in their journey toward marriage (which was the issue du jour at the time) was a net positive. Do Ramona and one of her friends insert their own conservatism by toasting and suggesting marching for a small government? Sure. Does Jill take the moment and make it all about her as usual? Also yes. But, y’know, as queer people, we are forced to settle for crumbs.
It doesn’t take long for this to sour though, as everything about this event quickly becomes about none other than the women themselves instead of the people they claim to be doing this for. In the same episode, Jill makes excuses for not being able to attend the march while still being on some sort of honorary committee, and Alex guilt trips her about not attending. But the true magic doesn’t begin until “March Madness” itself.
Sonja Morgan begins the episode by noting she was invited to be the grand marshall and one of several speakers at the event, explaining that MENY (Marriage Equality New York) described her as the ideal opener: light, funny, and “such a gay icon.” Now, to be fair, Sonja Morgan is a gay icon (she’s “raised millions for the LGBT”), and I will admit to having had many a session with my therapist explaining how deeply and painfully I relate to her at times, but I digress. As soon as Alex enters the room, she reminds everyone that she is on the host committee, and the episode becomes a question of whose event it really is. As Kelly aptly puts it: “So is it Sonja’s day or is it Alex’s day? I’m not sure, but I was marching for marriage equality.”
Alex, bless her heart, tries to explain the significance of wearing bridal gowns to this event and is instantly cut off by Kelly, who clarifies they’re really just doing it because it’s fun and campy, while Sonja emphasizes this isn’t a public broadcast, and Luann calls her an annoying infomercial. What follows is a series of inane conversations about dressing up and various women challenging each other about the fact that it isn’t their day, but actually a day to support marriage equality. “She was trying to take ownership of a day that was supposed to be about a cause, not about a person,” Alex notes about Sonja.
This is further proven by the fact that, upon arriving at the event itself, Alex discovers that Sonja has blocked any of the other housewives (and their husbands) from speaking at the event. Simon, who had a speech prepared, has essentially been cockblocked because, as Sonja notes, “it’s about me.” The thing is, as right as Alex and Simon are in their frustration about the whole thing, they do, inevitably, participate in the same game as Sonja does. Everything becomes about them.
For half the damn episode, the women (and Simon) do nothing but argue with each other about who exactly is the problem and who exactly is doing the most for marriage equality and gay rights. Sonja’s speech (if you didn’t click the link above, I implore you to do so now) was something of a disaster, and Simon’s speech, which he recited in private to his friends at home, isn’t much better despite coming from a seemingly more sincere place. Every minute of this fight for marriage equality became something else: a showcase of who, exactly, should be allowed to pat themselves on the back the most.
These are people who have proposed themselves as bastions of selflessness, sacrificing their time and energy and voices for the sake of queer people, but are incredibly selfish in the way they approach it. There is no talk of why any of this matters beyond shallow comparisons to straight life, as it is simply a given that it matters because these women say it does.
To revisit and write about this episode, in some ways, feels like analyzing an ancient relic, something that is so bafflingly dated that it’s hard to imagine we were ever there. Even beyond the absurdity of the reality series itself, there’s something ridiculous about looking back at just a decade ago and realizing that marriage was the sole priority of queer people in charge. It’s easy to laugh at Jill when she jokes that gay people should suffer as much as straight people in marriage, but when you think about it — isn’t it laughable that that’s exactly what people were happy to settle for instead of fighting for safety beyond that?
“March Madness”, as completely unhinged and dated as it is, also reveals something far more depressing and contemporary: Nothing has really changed. Is watching faux-celebrities bicker over who is the best ally not essentially what we do every day now between Twitter and the news? I’ve long maintained that reality television, for all its inanity, is something of a microcosm of American culture. What is Survivor if not just showcasing how willing people are to backstab each other in the name of a prize? What did our last presidential elections teach us if not how much of an impact on the culture someone’s self-aggrandizing behavior can have?
Looking back at the last decade of television, including but not limited to “March Madness”, can actually show us exactly how things still are. To call the episode a perfect encapsulation of liberal bullshit isn’t a stretch, as it is just scene after scene of people in power praising themselves and each other for caring without actually doing a single thing. Think of how that plays into everything in politics designed to be for those who most need it. While conservatives do their damnedest to ensure people will be stripped of their rights, liberal politicians are showing up on Drag Race and doing nothing but telling people to vote.
This isn’t a new observation by any means, but the realm of politics is one in the same with reality television. Everything is about empty promises for the sake of self-promotion, to the point where streaming services are producing just as many shallow hagiographic documentaries about campaign trails as they are reality television. Anyone who even considers criticizing the actions of someone in power becomes the target of criticism themselves. Just like Alex and Sonja accuse each other of being narcissistic about the event, so does every politician who tells us we should shut up, take what we can get, and go back to the polls.
For all the pronouns in bio and tweets that say “trans rights are human rights,” is anyone actually doing anything? Or is it all one big performance? As depressing as it is, this is what ally culture is, and has always been, about. It is people who don’t understand our struggles thinking they have the experience to speak in our place. It is people with power cherry-picking which issues they care about and putting them on a national platform without acknowledging the mountain of other issues, sometimes far more life-threatening, that exist. With all the anti-queer rhetoric, propaganda, and legislature that continues to threaten us, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone stopped fighting over who gets to represent us best and instead actually fought to save us?