In the opening scenes of the latest episode of Below Deck Down Under, we saw something that pretty much never happens on the Bravo yachting franchise: a producer appeared. For the “fourth wall” to be broken, it was clear something deadly serious was about to happen.
A naked Luke Jones — bosun/leader of the deck crew on the charter season — had just climbed into junior stewardess Margot Sisson’s bunk bed. The crew had returned from a night out in Australia where they had been drinking heavily. Margot was passed out in bed and immobile. Luke did not have consent to get into bed with her, prompting the producer to intervene and tell him to leave. Luke then became aggressive, swore at the production crew and slammed the door, attempting to stay in the room with Margot, before he was eventually ejected.
Earlier in the evening, after many tequila shots were consumed, Margot noted that she was “really drunk” at dinner. Later, as crew members made their way back to the boat in taxis, chief stewardess Aesha Scott told deckhand Culver Bradbury that she was going to “watch” Margot, adding, “I just want to chaperone her a bit.” (In Season Four of Below Deck Mediterranean, where she first appeared on the franchise, Aesha opened up about her own experience of being sexually assaulted while she was drunk).
In Margot’s cabin, Aesha told her, “I don’t want any drunkenness to be taken advantage of. So I’d just like to see you get into bed safely. I’ll get you water… I just saw the way that Luke was looking at you, and I’m feeling very protective.” To which Margot responded: “I am glad that you’re here. I don’t want to go in the jacuzzi. I want to go to bed. All I want is water and bed, no Luke.”
When Aesha left briefly because of a power shortage, then to make herself some food, Luke entered Margot’s room. After the incident, he locked himself in his cabin and was eventually told to leave the boat by Captain Jason Chambers, who was informed of what happened by a tearful Aesha. The following morning, Luke was fired and collected his possessions. He was not allowed to say goodbye to the crew.
— BravoBabe (@thebravobabe_) August 8, 2023
As a watcher of many reality shows in the Bravo-verse and beyond, this was one of the most impactful episodes of reality TV I’ve seen in a very long time. The incident really made me think about what could have happened if the cameras had not been there. Below Deck is a franchise that primarily trades on fantasy and escapism, but the hard reality is that yachting is an industry that is male-dominated and hierarchical, where employment is precarious. The wider industry story of women being vulnerable to behavior like this is one that, until now, has not been told.
The episode was also fascinating in its portrayal of the aftermath of the incident. The next day, a visibly shaken Margot went over what happened with Aesha and chef Tzarina Mace-Ralph. “How long was he in my room for? Do you know?” Margot asked, before confessing that she felt “stupid” for getting so drunk.
“Don’t ever feel stupid. He should feel stupid,” said Tzarina, holding her hand. “Women should be able to be red-hot drunk if they want to be. We should be able to stand naked in a room and not have anyone do anything to us. You know, you were allowed to be drunk, you were allowed to be. It’s the other person’s problem.”
“Women supporting women” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot on reality TV. Usually it’s about some sort of vacuous product launch or business venture. But what we saw here, with Aesha looking out for Margot and Tzarina comforting her afterward, was an example of such substance: Women supporting each other in the face of gendered hierarchies, which are designed to silence them and make them vulnerable. It’s maddening that they have to, but it was deeply moving to watch.
The episode was educational, too, because it also showed the impact of not supporting someone in the aftermath of an incident like this. Stewardess Laura Bileskalne made clear to Margot that she did not agree with Luke’s firing and was disappointed that she didn’t get to say goodbye to him. In a crash-course in How Not to Speak to a Victim, she told Margot: “I just don’t think it’s fair. Anyways, I’m sorry for you, I just think it should be a warning. I’m just sad. I think he just meant it as a joke. He’s a funny guy, I don’t think he meant anything bad. He wouldn’t rape you or anything.”
Laura continued, “He’s a sexual person, I’m a sexual person, you’re a sexual person. We were joking, that thing was probably like, ‘Hahaha, we all drunk.’” After suggesting she would have “welcomed” Luke into her own bed, Laura then blamed Margot for her behavior the previous night: “And it’s not that you said ‘no’ to him the whole night, like he didn’t feel comfortable to come to you. He felt welcomed coming there.”
These scenes were the most astonishing and uncomfortable to watch. Judging by her own behavior the previous night, when she made frequent unwanted advances toward deckhand Adam Kodra — including entering his bed while he was sleeping and applying lotion on his back to give him a “massage,” which was also broken up by a producer’s intervention — Laura did not have the best grasp of sexual boundaries. When Aesha informed the captain of her inappropriate comments, she was also let go. It might not have been easy to watch, but the show at least told the real story of some people attempting to shame women in the aftermath of an incident like this.
Responding to the episode, Margot posted at length on Instagram, thanking fans of the show and also the crewmates who stood by her. Luke’s post took on a more defensive tone. “It doesn’t matter what they think about you because you don’t care,” he captioned a picture of his abs. Laura apologized to Adam and to Margot for not being more empathetic. “I was 29 when the show was filmed, 30 was my life-changer. I am 31 now,” she wrote.
Amid calls for reality TV stars to unionize and campaign for better treatment, could reality TV be about to have its own #MeToo moment? This particular situation seemed to be handled well by production, but in a bombshell legal letter last week, NBCUniversal was accused of exploiting reality starts and, among other things, covering up instances of sexual violence. The two attorneys who sent the letter both currently represent Bethenny Frankel, a former star of The Real Housewives of New York City and two spinoff shows that aired on Bravo. A network spokesperson told Rolling Stone that NBCUniversal is “committed to maintaining a safe and respectful workplace for cast and crew on our reality shows.”
One small silver lining from this episode is that it has sparked a bigger conversation: About how women don’t forget the traumatic things that have happened to them and, although they shouldn’t have to, protect each other when they sense that something is off. The male producer and cast, led by Captain Jason, provided a blueprint for how men can support victims swiftly and unequivocally. Sure, it’s “only a reality show,” but Below Deck Down Under guided its audience through an incident of sexual misconduct and the painful conversations that go along with that in much more detail than I have seen elsewhere. It was reality TV at its very best.
From Rolling Stone US