The Real Housewives franchise, familiar to anyone who finds the fighting in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane a little too subtle, has not historically shown its audience its best side. There was Cedric, the plotting perpetual houseguest, in Beverly Hills; Dwight (above), the bitchy sidekick in Atlanta; and all manner of functionaries and designers busily preparing parties for the wives of New York.
Who would have suspected that New Jersey would be where the revolution happened? The current season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey features Greg Bennett, a bulky, even-keeled 26-year-old who hangs out with the very straight Manzo brothers. His presence has made explicit what's always been the subtext of the Housewives franchise -- that the series' women are playing to a gay audience.
This season, Bennett laughed off a crude joke about anal sex from the series' villain, loutish "Juicy" Joe Giudice, as the cast headed to an ultra-fabulous gay wedding. It didn't make for good drama. "I didn't want to upset my parents by punching someone in the face," says Bennett.
A reality show castmate who doesn't want to upset his parents? We're in a new paradigm. Younger by far than past gay sidekicks, Bennett has inserted himself into the center of the action in the Jersey suburbs. Unlike D'Fwan, the 30 Rock character created to parody the archetypal Real Housewives gay, he doesn't come with a catchphrase -- and he's nobody's sidekick.
"He's a big boy! He backs up his opinions with facts," says Albie Manzo, Bennett's roommate, who himself tends to shy away from the more bombastic on-screen action. If Bennett causes forward motion in the plot, it's in the art of the well-timed question or the perceptive remark that catalyzes discussion rather than bickering. Off-camera, he educated Giudice and his unschooled wife, Teresa, about the difference between gay marriage and civil unions.
Such niceties would have been lost on past Real Housewives gays. Cedric, in Beverly Hills, practically twirled his mustache as he took wealthy Lisa Vanderpump for all she was worth and became a central element of the narrative. His betrayals made him into that common thing, the gay villain. When NeNe Leakes in Atlanta met a new gay friend by the pool, it was an ecstasy of squeals and finger snaps; her castmate Kim Zolciak gets her tresses tended to by high heel-wearing Derek J. These are certain types of gay men: the devious villain, the one-dimensional party-loving pal, the sassy creature of camp. But it wasn't hard to feel as though they all belonged to a different generation -- that in bringing to television wealthy women from around the nation, Bravo was importing their privileges and prejudices about what a gay man could be, onscreen or otherwise.
So what's the difference in New Jersey -- a location, at least within the Bravo universe, hardly known for its embrace of difference? "This group of people come across in a more macho way," says Shari Levine, senior vice president of production at Bravo. "The dichotomy between perception and reality is fantastic. When these opportunities present themselves, we grab them and run with them."
The opportunity, in this case, is that Bennett was already living with the Manzo brothers when filming of the current season started, and thus the production was to feature a gay man who does not kowtow to the reigning housewives. The season also features Rosie Pierri, a lesbian who wept on-air while describing her coming-out process.
For his part, Bennett says, "I do see on other shows [that] the token gay, if you will, plays the part of the shit stirrer or the drama stirrer--that's just not really me."
And Levine avows that there's never been tokenism on Bravo, merely the accurate portrayal of cast members' social spheres. "We look for people who live full and rich lives, who are aspirational in what they're doing, with interesting friends," she says. "Gay friends often go along with that."
Perhaps the change has come from the manner by which younger straight men and women are able to recognize the complexity of gay people and appreciate that they are not simply there to offer fashion tips or instigate feuds. Manzo says he has cut off friends who think it's weird he lives with a gay man, while Bennett says he avoids real-life theatrics: "I like to sit in front of the TV and veg out, and not get involved in nonsense with gay friends. It can get dramatic with groups of guys."
For once, the bitchiness is being left to the women, while gay men can see an avatar on screen, sitting back and living for the drama. But Bennett does have some things in common with the housewives. Of their friendship, Manzo says, "My kids are going to have an Uncle Greg. Or, depending on the mood he's in, an Auntie Greg. He likes to play dress-up."