Keeping It Real: Black Women & Reality TV

My addiction started with good intentions.

I am a scholar who studies representations of black women so it made sense to look for black women on reality television shows.  This was not a practice I was unfamiliar with.  Watching Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune was always more “appealing” growing up when there was a black person on the show.  I remember, even as a child, hoping/wishing/praying that the contestant would not embarrass us.  Us being me and them.  Us being all black people.  It is funny how even as a child I was aware that “their” (other black people’s) representation was my representation and vice versa.  It was clear to me that white people did not always know how to tell us apart.

This was no different from my mama’s insistence that I behave well around company and in public.  She raised me to believe that my actions were always a direct reflection of her and her mothering skills.  I knew that being the daughter that most favored her, I owed it to her to “represent” well.  Over the years, studying race and oftentimes being the only black person in the room, I realize that the same premise applies to race in general.  Black folk (and people of color generally) are expected to be the individual representatives of all black folk.  My mama was right (she always is).

So, this new knowledge that I carried in my pocket made me consistently aware that I was always being watched and judged as a child.  I still am as an adult.

Reality television took me by surprise.  I had no way of knowing that it would have such a hold on me.  All it took was one innocent episode or one night of insomnia and I was hooked.  The lure of supposed “reality” appeals to my academic curiosity, my ethnographic voyeurism, and my small town nosiness all at the same time.  And while I know that reality television shows are scripted, edited, and manipulated—it is still the promised reality that gets me.  I feel invested in characters.  I feel like I know them (and their business).  And I always, always want to know more!

As both a fan and critic of reality television I find myself fascinated with my addiction—and curious about it.  I imagine that it is something more than the undeniable lie of reality that has captured the attention of so many people (for so many reasons).

A few years ago I wrote an article challenging race and gender representations on reality television.  At the time it was Flavor of Love that had me whipped.  I knew the storyline/s, the characters, their real names, their “new” names, and why they had the names.  I was happily duped by the bad acting of a cast who pretended to be infatuated with Flavor Flav.  Conversations with friends and colleagues usually began with, “Girl, did you see Flavor of Love last night?”  Damn.  And just like that I was addicted.  Popular culture trapped me in a corner and swallowed me whole.  I watched every season…and the follow up shows, and the reunion shows, and the spin offs.  Turning the channel did not divert my obsession because on the next channel I found other shows that promised me “regular, everyday” characters who were just like me and looking for something (love, money, fame, purpose), just like me.

My DVR is set to record a reality television show at least every other day of the week and let’s not forget the court shows, the cooking shows, the competitive dating shows and series, the singing and talent shows.  There does not seem to be an escape.  So what is a solution?

Reality television has been a claim to fame for many black women over the last decade—but not in a good way.  Many black women remain nameless and objectified, framed as ignorant, promiscuous golddiggers (think of most of the contestants on Flavor of Love).  Other representations suggest that black women are conniving, bitter, bourgeoisie or shallow (Atlanta housewives).  Even Omarosa, the intelligent black woman from the original season of The Apprentice was cast as an emasculating bitch (a title she has since embraced and utilized as a way of becoming a household name).  Essentially, reality television has found a way to reiterate stereotypes to name and frame black women as mammies, matriarchs, jezebels, sapphires and tragic mulattos.

Black women on reality television becomes problematic when there are clear conflicts between reality and imagination–and when the audience doesn’t know what is real and what is fake.  As consumers, we must challenge what we see—compare it to who we are, how we live, who we know, and resist stereotypes.  Then, we must insist on more nuanced images of ourselves.  We have to refuse to accept that we are what and who other people tell us we are.  We also must acknowledge and accept the pieces of ourselves we sometimes recognize in the “real” characters—and interrogate the pieces of ourselves that we want to challenge.  Perhaps if we can learn to be critical consumers, watching reality television won’t seem so much like an act of backsliding and I can stop feeling guilty about it.

At any given time, on any given channel, I am lured back to reality shows.  One sleepless night and I am hooked again.  Shows I refuse, on principle, to watch during their designated times come on at unreasonable hours when I am too vulnerable to resist (Ochocinco: The Ultimate Catch–yes, I am embarrassed to say that I watched it, Fantasia For Real, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The T.O. Show, and recently a show on E called Bridalplasty—yes, it is as bad as it sounds!).  When I have to choose between reality television and infomercials, reality television wins.

My best friend turned me on to The Real Housewives of Atlanta a few years ago during a visit home for the holidays.  She had every episode recorded and we spent an entire Sunday afternoon watching each episode, laughing and talking in between, but never questioning what the show was offering us.  Reality television feels harmless because most people view it for entertainment purposes, but the impact of reality television is far-reaching (i.e., there has been some speculation that the docu-reality series 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom on MTV has prompted some young women to get pregnant on purpose in hopes of being on the show).  Entertainment is not harmless, especially for underrepresented populations.  It is no coincidence that representations of marginalized groups (including the poor and disenfranchised, people of color, people with disabilities, non-heterosexuals, etc.) are continually scripted as stereotypes.  Unfortunately we are oftentimes passive consumers who are unconscious of the underlying meanings of representations.  Or we mistake any representation as “good” or “good enough.”

Reality television is problematic and black women, in particular, must be critical of images reflected back to them on television (and movie) screens.  If we don’t trouble the representations that are offered to us then we may find ourselves believing that the only options for black womanhood are available in exaggerated extremes (a la Tyler Perry) or sanitized stereotypes (pretty much everybody else).  I have been waiting for a real(ity) representation that can rescue me from the need to defend myself or save face.  I am still searching.

rboylorn

14 thoughts on “Keeping It Real: Black Women & Reality TV

  1. Wow. This was so interesting and the whole time I was thinking wpeeps wrote it because she is all over the latest and greatest reality shows. So see you are not alone.

    Maybe ya’ll can set up a support group chat for those moments when you feel like the shows “just be callin’ [you]” (New Jack City reference). Maybe there is a need for a reality TV support group for all my sisterfriends who say they get caught up even when they know the representations are far-out. This support group doesn’t necessarily have to be about curbing the indulgence, just unpacking the experiences and envisioning better options.

  2. I don’t watch reality television shows, with black women or without, (wait, DWTS counts as reality TV I think) but I think you missed an opportunity to really discuss the impact of those images on the impressionable young girls in our community, how those negative depictions impact the black female community as a whole and how we are treated and perceived by the majority, both men and whites.

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  4. The author is better than me.

    It is because of my studies in sociology that I can’t watch “reality” shows anymore.
    Hell, I have a hard time watching a movie without going into a diatribe to myself (or whoever is with me at the moment) about the ideology (usually hegemonic) of the movie.

    What I find interesting about reality television (with white or black characters) is not how they are represented on the shows but how they are subsequently represented on the various media outlets that report on those shows.

    Turn on any entertainment show, weekly gossip mag or internet site dedicated to entertainment news and you see the representation of the characters in these shows realized.

    So, it is to say “Hey, if you didn’t get who to root for or who not to root for, who the bad guy/girl or good guy/girl is, or what one dimensional viewpoint to be looking at with this character, WE (as the media outlet) will tell you”.

    Interesting stuff…

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  6. If you’re interested in the “dark side” of reality tv, you should check out Jennifer Pozner’s new book, “Reality Bites Back: the Troubling truth about guilty pleasure TV”. It’s got so much on how Reality TV warps our conceptions of women, POC, and anyone with a brain. Also talks about who makes money off even the worst shows, and why you see the same trash replayed all the time while the good shows get yanked after one season (advertisers: they still get tons of money for playing crap shows no one actually watches, they call them time fillers). So interesting!

  7. As far as the impression that it leaves on children, I wondered about that as my 7 yr old nephew updated me on the latest episode of Housewives of Atlanta…(in his baby voice)…”yeah auntie, they were sitting at the table, then she was like “‘prove to me your a real doctor’ and then HE was like ‘prove to me your a real WOMAN!’” Wow, a child is giving me highlights on an adult program. What happened to just watching scoobydoo. I wonder how his view of Black women is being shaped while he watches these characters on TV. Compared to actual Black women in life.

    • Thanks for this wonderful blog post!

      Reality shows, especially those involving black women, are definitely my guilty pleasure. Just this morning in fact, I got side-tracked by new episodes of Basketball Wives and Brandy and Ray J. Even though I inevitably am critical of what I see, it’s almost like a curiosity to “see how the other half lives” and also to stay abreast of the images of black women that are circulating in popular culture.I’ve always felt like I learn a lot from others’ experiences, so perhaps reality TV is also a vehicle for that. And sometimes I see lessons of “how not to be.” Like all the arguing on Football Wives; I just can’t get into that one.

      Admittedly, I even got hooked on the Omarosa dating show, because it was the first time a black woman to my knowledge had been the protagonist of a dating show. The Bachelor has NEVER had a man or woman of color as the protagonist (if that’s the right word), and the black women who come on as “contestants” usually get voted off very quickly.

      Sometimes I feel like the time I spend watching these shows represents hours that I can never get back, and that I’m losing brain cells. But then again, when one is in this life of thinking, reading, writing, teaching etc, is it so bad to have a somewhat escapist entertainment outlet?

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