The Real Housewives of (“the New”) Miami—Revisited

January 7, 2013
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A few months ago I examined the re-launched Real Housewives of Miami(RHOM) series, part of Bravo’s immensely popular Real Housewives franchise, in another Antenna post.  Now that the season has officially ended with the airing of the second part of the cast’s explosive reunion special, I would like to return to this text once more.  Originally, I suggested that the show’s articulation of a “New” vs. “Old” Miami was, in actuality, a reflection of a process of whitening and a distancing from a notion of Cubanness that was seen as excessively ethnic (see: Negra Off-White Hollywood 2001, “excessive ethnicity”).  The reunion show proved to be no different—whether it was the application of the trope of the self-sacrificing Latina mother, the spitfire Brazilian bombshell being asked questions solely about her temper, or the references to the stereotypical Latin lover telenovela star boyfriend—Bravo continues to both trade on and abject the discourses of Latin “spice.”  I do not deny that the white members of the cast were not subjected to ridicule as is de rigueur for reality TV as a genre.  However, when these white women “misbehaved” or behaved in an “unattractive” fashion it was credited to drinking too much or dealing with personal issues.  For the Latinas, their behavior was attributed to their nature; implying that there is something inherent to Latina subjectivity that makes them behave in a non-normative (read: non-white) manner.  Excessive ethnicity, symbolically written on these women’s bodies, seems to be what makes RHOM different from the rest of the franchise.

While I originally situated this excessive ethnicity firmly within Mama Elsa (whose eccentricity did not disappoint us in the reunion), as the season progressed viewers were introduced to another figure that served the same purpose: Freda.  As the long-term maid of one of the show’s original cast members (Lea Black) this season was, surprisingly, the first time viewers saw any of this woman who is supposedly an integral part of the Black household.  What makes her entrance significant is not that she was absent from the first season, she is significant because she is a representation of Cuban latinidad that is not only based in African descent (a topic that warrants its own essay) but one that further aligns “Old” Miami with a racialized and excessive quality.  Freda is framed as both superstitious and highly religious and her unglamorous body and lifestyle was set is stark contrast to the aesthetically enhanced housewives.  In one scene, Lea (shown with both hair and makeup done, nicely dressed, with the required high heel) exasperated from calling for Freda, huffs up the stairs to her room where Freda is content to ignore her so that she may read her bible.  Lea speaks to her in broken Spanish, making a comment about Freda’s habit of listening to “that religious” music too frequently.  As just one of the many examples of the patronizing manner in which Lea interacted with her, Freda seemed entirely out of place among the cast.  Lea, who talked to her as if she were a child and suggested that she was responsible for styling Freda’s untreated natural hair, treats her domestic worker of many years more like a helpless rescue puppy than an employee.  The fact that Freda cannot (or chooses not to) speak English further Others her and suggests that she is truly a remnant of a Miami that is slowly fading away.  While there are numerous other examples of “Old” Miami’s excessive ethnicity throughout this season, it is the appearance of Freda that stands out most.  I contend that RHOM used Freda as a narrative device in order to make the primary cast members appear more beautiful, eloquent, and, well, white.

While Freda was the figure in the show most marked by difference, the same narrative device was deployed in the story arc concerning Daisy, Lisa Hochstein’s maid, who is one of the other housewives.  Daisy is treated by Lisa as though she were her sidekick and to reward her for being such a loyal friend, has her plastic surgeon husband give Daisy the ultimate makeover.  There is an observable affection towards Daisy from Lisa, but yet again, it is more similar to the affection doted on a pet than a companion.  While such a connection is comical, that is part of its cover.  Shari Roberts (see: “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” 1993), in her analysis of Carmen Miranda, suggests that such comical displays of excess render ethnic subjectivities as harmless and operate as what she terms a “spectacle of containment.”  Therefore, I assert that Freda, Daisy, and Mama Elsa are all deployed within the narrative framing of the show in order to let the producers continue to utilize discourses of the Latin spice while at the same time containing that spice within the bodies of a handful of figures with excessive ethnicity.  Such containment provides the means for a simultaneous indulgence and rejection of what is depicted as “Old” Miami while at the same time heralding the emergence of a newer, brighter, and whiter Miami.


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