No, ‘Scandoval’ is not the same as ‘the O.J. Simpson thing and George Floyd’

The recent comments of "Vanderpump Rules" star Tom Sandoval in The New York Times Magazine highlight the near-constant ignorance of countless reality stars.

Tom Sandoval of "Vanderpump Rules" is taking heat for comments he made. (Photo by Gizelle Hernandez/Bravo)

To be a reality TV fan is to willfully, and expectedly, watch people “step in it.” By design, it’s a near-constant occurrence. As we demand “authenticity” and “real lives” from our reality stars, we expect, often gleefully, to catch them in fallible moments. No such moment rattled the zeitgeist in 2023 quite like the “Vanderpump Rules” storyline: “Scandoval.”

In case you missed it, the Sandoval scandal (aptly coined, “Scandoval”) involved longtime “Vanderpump Rules” star Tom Sandoval, who cheated on his partner of nine years (Ariana Madix) with another castmate (Raquel Leviss), ex-fiancée of another castmate (James Kennedy). This mind-boggling affair was exposed off camera as season 10 aired on Bravo, with cameras swiftly picking back up in Los Angeles to capture the fallout, including a dramatic break-up scene between Madix and Sandoval.

What followed was an unprecedented resurgence for a show many assumed to be on its last legs. In came record ratings, a never-ending parade of brand deals, daytime talk show appearances, nonstop memes and even two Emmy nominations. Again, reality TV fans love watching people step in it. Sandoval may have stepped a bit too far in it, however, in his recent profile in The New York Times Magazine. In the now-viral piece, “How Tom Sandoval Became the Most Hated Man in America,” he compares “Scandoval” to various pop culture-defining moments like, “the O.J. Simpson thing and George Floyd.” Yes, you read that right.

“I’m not a pop-culture historian really,” the full quote reads, “but I witnessed the O.J. Simpson thing and George Floyd and all these big things, which is really weird to compare this to that, I think, but do you think in a weird way it’s a little bit the same?”

Let’s take a moment to stop and make this abundantly clear: No, Sandoval, a reality TV affair is nowhere near comparable to the murder of George Floyd, one that reverberated through the entire world, awakening centuries’ worth of pain and unspeakable trauma still endured by Black people across the diaspora today. As “Summer House: Martha’s Vineyard” star Jordan Emanuel so eloquently wrote on Instagram, “Comparing slinging d–k to a Black man being murdered in front of our eyes during Black History Month is something I just don’t have words for.”

Other Bravolebrities (Bravo reality stars) have called out Sandoval for his unfathomable statements, including “The Real Housewives of Miami” star Guerdy Abraira, who commented on a @Bravobybetches post and directly tagged Sandoval, writing, “PLEASE reflect on this repulsive statement you made … especially on black history month and take it back,” while demanding an immediate apology from him. The comments are without saying, horrendous, uncalled for and reprehensible. And still, his words do not come in a vacuum.

Garcelle Beauvais and Crystal Kung Minkoff of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” (Photo by Nicole Weingart/Bravo)

Like other institutions and industries across the world, entertainment has been forced to reckon with and navigate a post-2020 landscape, and that includes reality TV. See “The Real Housewives” franchise, which has made strides to integrate its cities with all-white casts (to varied success). For every victorious attempt (take Garcelle Beauvais and Crystal Kung Minkoff of “Beverly Hills,” Abraira and Kiki Barth of “Miami,” who joined their cities and still remain), there have been alarming and often triggering failures (Eboni K. Williams’ addition in the much maligned 13th season of “New York,” and Tiffany Moon in the final season of “Dallas,” to name a few).

While it is refreshing (and absolutely necessary) to see these shows evolve and more accurately reflect the cities they represent, it has made way for challenging content when it comes to the racial dynamics of these shows.

Sandoval’s comment happened to be off the show (and is certainly one of the most alarming we’ve seen), but it follows a trend of white reality TV personalities continuing to “step in it.” Just this season of “Beverly Hills,” we have had to endure watching Beauvais (for her fourth season in a row), explain to her cast yet again how her experience as a Black woman is different from theirs. We’ve sat through as Minkoff literally had to break down the effects of microaggressions and why saying you “don’t see color” is a hurtful phrase. 

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What are we supposed to make of this content, ultimately? These are, as we expect, people stepping in it. But who does this serve? Is it prompting conversations, as entertainment does? Are viewers in homes across the world engaging in thoughtful and moving discourse after tuning into their favorite reality TV series? Are they left changed? Or triggered?

This is not to discredit reality TV’s potential for powerful storytelling. The premiere of season 13 of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” (which followed the women as they navigated the summer of 2020), “The Real Housewives of Potomac” season 4 trip to New Orleans (where the women visited Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation and learned more about the tragedy and horrific nature of slavery), remain some of the most powerful and moving installments in the entire franchise. But these are few and far between.

Sandoval has since apologized for his words on his Instagram stories, writing that his intention behind his comments were to “explain the level of national media attention” his affair received, that the comparison was “inappropriate and ignorant” and that he is “incredibly sorry” and “embarrassed.” Still, the damage is already done, specifically to the network’s loyal viewers. Reality TV, like most genres, maintains a robust Black fanbase. Eager fans tune in every week, boost coverage with viral social media posts, make memes that often launch these personalities into further stardom, and more. No doubt, Sandoval (and many of these reality stars), don’t stop for a moment to think about these fans, without whom they would not have a platform at all. They deserve better.

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