PhotoBravo / NBCUniversal
Bravo recently launched a new franchise in their hugely popular Real Housewives canon, and it dropped like a hospital-smelling bomb onto the reality TV landscape. Since cast bios and teaser clips hit the internet in the weeks leading up to the November 11 premiere, Bravo superfans have been losing their minds over the strange and fascinating details of the women of the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. Many of them Mormon or former Mormons excommunicated from the church, the series brings the same petty drama and lavish lifestyle intrinsic to the Housewives brand while adding insight into a religion many may not understand. Two episodes into the new franchise, and it’s become abundantly clear we are going to be on a wild ride.
There are accusations of someone or something smelling like hospital (it’s still unclear). Cast member Whitney Rose is married to her former boss who’s 18 years her senior and with whom she had an affair at age 23, leading to her excommunication from the church. Fellow cast member Mary Cosby is married to her step-grandfather per orders in her grandmother’s will (what?!). Watching RHOSLC is like being a cat with a darting red laser light—you’re barely processing one nutty thing before another pops onto the screen. And based on what the women have illuminated in their confessionals and conversations, viewers have been led to believe that Mormon culture is racist (Jen Shah converted to Islam after learning about the historical exclusion of Black people within the church), bigoted (Heather Gay says she spent her life trying “not to drink, smoke, swear, love rap music, love Black men, love homosexuals” based on Mormon values), stringent on achieving God-like perfection and thus intolerant (Whitney’s dad Steve’s battle with addiction made him a pariah), and maybe a little scandalous (a big swinging community? Say more!).
The insights the women on the show share about the prejudice found within Mormonism has been surprising to many viewers—which is to be expected, considering the community is notoriously insular and largely confined, but not limited to, specific regional pockets. The series has served as a window into a space that keeps up appearances, and is rarely explored so publicly, making RHOSLC a compelling and often gasp-inducing viewing experience.
As you might expect, many Mormons are not happy with the show’s depiction of the church. In a review in the Deseret News, a church-run local newspaper, the show is criticized for making “false assumptions” and being “littered with inaccuracies about the church,” including its size (16.5 million members, not 6 million as the show states) and the “entire vibe of the area”: “There’s also a lot of alcohol, a ton of sex talk and some mature language, which is fitting for any Real Housewives show, but not for a family or church audience.” (The review didn’t mention cast members’ accusations of the church’s racism and intolerance.)
On Twitter, some have condemned the show as painting the church in a false and negative light; one woman tweeted at Rose and Gay, “I know your not members now that’s fine but what bugs me is your saying Mormons believe all these things we don’t believe in. At least get your facts right. Or are you purposely making things up to try to bring the church down? [sic].” Another wrote, “If you think you’re getting a real and fair portrayal of Mormons from #RHOSLC, just remember where reality TV got us with Trump. Racism doesn’t start or end in Utah folks, and apparently neither does religous [sic] bigotry.”
But where the true beef has been boiling is among Mormon influencers and bloggers, many of whom have been outspoken about the series’ depiction of Mormon women. Mormon influencers have some of the largest communities within the lifestyle space, due in large part to the community’s attention to beauty and aesthetics (Salt Lake City has a higher rate of plastic surgery per capita than Los Angeles, per a study by Utah Valley University), and the kind of brand they cultivate is crashing up against the drama Bravo encourages.
As BuzzFeed News reported, after the show premiered, one Mormon influencer, Brittany Maddux, posted on her Instagram Story, “I’m actually livid about the housewives. NOT OFFENDED but livid at the worlds double standard. It’s okay for them to BASH a religion & share fake information and it’s ‘entertainment’ but HEAVEN FORBID it was another religion or race or group of people because that would be prejudice, bullying, an etc. [sic].”
An interesting tension here is that Bravo actually tapped top Mormon bloggers/influencers like Kathleen Barnes and Emily Jackson to do sponsored posts around the show, and they’ve had to answer for their co-sign. Jackson, for example, was hit with negative comments on her IGTV post, one of which read: “Can you not defend and say more about the terrible way they portrayed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because you are sponsored or do you just choose not to?” She then walked back on her initial support of the show, and responded to the comment with, “I wanted to keep it light hearted but I wasn’t happy with what they said about the church. It was upsetting. I chose to focus on the good for this short re cap [sic].”
In an interview with VICE, popular Mormon blogger and influencer Charlie Scott (@truthfullycharlie) said she was “extremely disappointed” in the way their church and beliefs were portrayed. “I have been taught to love and accept everyone,” the 24-year-old influencer from Louisville said, noting that the idea that divorce is not an option in the faith is false, explaining that both her and her husband’s parents are divorced and that Mormons would never “never encourage someone to stay in an abusive or unhappy marriage.”
“I don’t judge any of these women for their feelings towards the church and I would never judge their choices,” said Scott, noting the conservatism of the area. “I do believe Utah Mormon Culture is completely different than the Mormon culture in other states. I believe the gospel itself is perfect but the people in our church are not. Perfection is not attainable in this life, contrary to what was said in the show. Everyone makes mistakes and can be forgiven for those mistakes through repentance.”
She does agree that cast member Lisa Barlow, who owns several luxury Tequila brands, would be judged for being Mormon and selling alcohol (which practicing Mormons are expected not to partake in), but believes it’s no one’s place to judge how anyone makes their income. “Everything should be between them and God,” she said.
It’s clear that Real Housewives of Salt Lake City is striking a nerve among the influencers who have long held to the church’s standard of cultivating and presenting a pristine image, one that follows the path outlined in their doctrine. Reality TV, however, is built to show a heightened version of life, and Real Housewives especially showcases the gaudiest, most extreme version of the lives of the wealthy. Neither narrative quite allows for the idea that there can be multiple realities experienced by different people.
For his part, executive producer Andy Cohen told the LA Times that the series isn’t supposed to be an exact reflection of Mormon life. “I think there will be a lot of people who say this doesn’t represent Salt Lake City or the Mormon church,” he said. “It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to represent a certain group of friends in that area.”
There’s long been criticism on how the Housewives franchises depict different demographics featured on the show, especially when it comes to Black women. Several franchises are adding their first Black cast member, and RHOSLC is injecting even more diversity by featuring a Tongan and Hawaiian muslim (Shah), a Black pentecostal preacher (Cosby), and women of a faith not often seen on television.
It’s clear that the Mormon religion and the culture around it is complex and complicated, and that the women on the series are wrestling with their place as “Mormon 2.0” (what Barlow calls herself), or as former members, or people living within a world where the church impacts the local way of life. So far, the show has been an often stunning view into the mechanisms of Mormon culture and the seemingly unfeasible expectations of perfection that are required of members of the church. That those in its orbit would be uncomfortable with that is just yet another reason why it’s so juicy.
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