Setting up elaborate dinner table decorations, organizing beachside picnics, and deflating inflatable slides are all in a day’s work for a yachtie, a term used to refer to a crew member working on a yacht. On Bravo’s Below Deck series, though, they often up the ante.
There’s a swarm of mosquitos hovering around the food as the crew struggles to serve in 90 degree temperatures, for instance. Or there’s an intoxicated guest that invites even more drunk guests on board and requests a 7-course tasting menu for the table, minutes before dinner is meant to be served. Each crew member is abnormally good-looking and single, meaning they fight with one another, make up, sleep, rinse, and repeat, and all in the same day.
Since 2013, the Below Deck franchise has become a reality television phenomenon in its own right, replacing the aging Real Housewife franchise as the relevant mainstay on Bravo. (Its ratings now surpass a majority of the Housewife city franchises.) It’s spawned two spinoffs (Med and Sailing Yacht) and turned some of its crew members into bonafide reality stars. (See: Captain Lee, the soon to be longest-running cast member on the series who now has more than 400,000 followers on Instagram.)
But the series isn’t without its controversial faults. Things came to a head during its seventh season, when crew member Ashton Pienaar punched a window after being rebuffed for attempting to kiss his fellow crew mate, Kate Chastain, without her consent. On social media, Pienaar and the rest of the male deckhands were called misogynists. Each of the guys apologized after the episodes aired, but viewers complained it wasn’t enough.
Lauren Cohen, who appeared on the second season of Below Deck: Med, dealt with sexism first-hand, both on the show and off. She says it’s common in the yachting world for roles to be split along gender-lines, as is the case with the show. Most deckhands (who work on the exterior of the boat) and captains are male and most stews (who work on the interior) are female.
And sexism is rampant in yachting because of these roles, says Cohen. “There’s no HR,” she says. “I’ve been told I need to be a certain size to even get an interview for certain boats or asked to dye my hair a certain color because the captain didn’t like brunettes.” Things are maybe worse because of cameras. Unlike the real world of yachting, producers cast the series and have done little to change those notions of gender roles on the show. (Across the series, there have been just eight female deckhands and one male stew.)
Cohen, 30, says her experience during the second season of Below Deck: Med was tense, largely because of her working relationship with another male crew member. She recalls one confrontation with him that led her to stop actively participating with producers. “Halfway through production, I’m talking to the camera guy, saying ‘this guy’s really about to punch me in the face. Are you going to stop this?'”
The scene, she says, never made it to air. “I completely shut down to the point where I didn’t want to get involved in anything to do with the show.” Cohen says she brought the issue up to leadership on the yacht, but was told to “suck it up,” in more or less words.
Rhylee Gerber, 34, appeared in two of the series’ most highly contentious seasons. In season six, she resisted against her leaders in a spectacularly splashy fashion. The show portrayed her as mostly outspoken, eager to put up a fight at a moment’s notice. She says it wasn’t entirely inaccurate, but editing painted both her and her then leader, Ross Inia, in specific roles. “He also instigated a lot with me,” she says, “and maybe not in a purposeful way, but [for the show], it was best to keep showing my reaction and his calmness. After the show, Ross was literally arrested for threatening a police officer, but everybody wanted to call me aggressive.”
Gerber joined midway through the polarizing seventh season of the show, after another female deckhand quit. She says she joined for a little bit of redemption after her portrayal from the previous season. Things didn’t fare much better, as the season was marked mostly by a vocal division between the men and women on board. After the window incident involving Pienaar, Gerber was glad the scene played out for viewers to see. “It was his true personality.”
Now in its eighth year, there are signs the franchise’s popularity might soon wane. In the last year, both Below Deck and Below Deck: Med have lost their resident chief stews, Chastain and Hannah Ferrier, both of whom in the past have claimed issues of sexism while working with male crew members on the show. (Its second spinoff, Sailing Yacht, was polarizing and may have also tipped the scales as to how and if the show will continue to expand.)
And so, likely bowing to the pressures of staying both popular and progressive, the show has apparently tried to make up for its rocky past. The latest season of Below Deck: Med features the first female bosun in the series’ history, Malia White, who appeared in the show’s second season. Unlike Below Deck, Med also has a female captain, Sandy Yawn. Still, the series can’t seem to get a handle on its gender problem.
In July, crew member Peter Hunziker (who was fired from the show in July for posting an image of a Black woman in chains on his personal Facebook) was reprimanded for sexualizing conversations with another crew member, Bugsy Drake. Drake brought the issue to Yawn, who later reprimanded Hunziker. “It’s not okay in the world, much less on a boat,” she told him.
“He saw women as an object and he treated them like that,” says Gerber of the new season. “If he called me ‘sweetie,’ I probably would’ve taken his sunglasses and shoved them up his ass.”
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