A few TV seasons ago, popular cable network VH1 sold black America on a programming hoax: as penance for their culturally exploitative shows like Flavor of Love and I Love New York, they were going to portray a better image of black people, offering shows like What Chili Wants, Basketball Wives, and Fantasia For Real.
In this, we black people were to be appeased — finally, we weren’t going to be bombarded by tired stereotypes. According to the VH1 exec Jeff Olde, this new programming slate was to build the network’s relationship with black audiences. “We got them in the door with some shows, and now I’m excited about where we’re going and how we’re telling them different kinds of stories,” he told the Associated Press.
More like different cast, same stories. Sure, we’re out of the tacky mansions and ignorant nickname territory, but the stereotypes have persisted and the damage remains.
VH1’s newest addition to their line up is Love and Hip-Hop, profiling a cast of women who have dated or been married to hip hop industry professionals. This show joins the programming slate of VH1’s burgeoning genre, ”(kinda) famous by association” — women we may not readily be aware of, but who have slept with some men that we know.
I understand that reality TV is a breeding ground for strong personalities and particularly catty drama. But besides pushing the “normal” agenda of female backbiting, backstabbing, lies and cat fighting, this new show also helps to establish and reaffirm gold digging. Sleep with a few famous men and you too can be famous!
In fact, most of VH1’s reality show plot lines’ raison d’être is men — most of these women are either on the prowl, recovering from some romantic tragedy, or struggling to maintain with a difficult and indifferent male partner. There rarely is a character who is secure in her singleness, or (gasp!) in a happy relationship. Of course many women can relate to these romantic struggles, but how many times are we going to be portrayed as going after this elusive pot of gold? When these women are still chasing after men, what makes their plight any different from contestants on For the Love of Ray J?
Perhaps the lifestyles these women portray are real… But aren’t there any other stories to tell? Is it far-fetched to wish for a reality show where someone is content in their life, and happy in her relationship? Or better yet, where the most interesting part about a female lead isn’t who she’s been with, but rather what she’s doing for herself and others?
It’d be different if maybe these shows could admit to being a fictionalized portrayal of real life, but with falling in with the “reality TV” label gives viewers the liberty to assume that what they are watching is true. It’s nothing for a black woman to devolve into a cussing match at a charity event, or get drunk to the point of embarrassment, or be content to “hold a man down” and raise his kids, without commitment, while he goes off and does whatever he desires. Thanks to shows like those on VH1, audiences are taught that not only is this acceptable, it’s practically a norm.
To that end, reality TV is probably doing twice the damage of a Tyler Perry play. At least it’s fiction and they’re acting. And at least a black man is reaping the profits. Reality television shows are perceived as “real” and hence more capable of perpetuating lies and stereotypes.
We have to stop being content in just being acknowledged. We can’t just be happy to have a couple of reality shows where we’re not relegated to the projects or the prison. There has to be a balance in portrayal. For every Basketball Wives there needs to be two shows like Run’s House. VH1’s current shows may not be as bad as Flavor of Love but they haven’t progressed much beyond it either.