Though there are many reality television shows depicting women of other cultures and ethnicities in a negative light (see Mob Wives, Bad Girls Club, and Shahs of Sunset), Real Housewives of Atlanta and Basketball Wives — and their predominately black casts — have clearly emerged as leaders of the pack. With ratings averaging 3.2 million viewers and 3.7 million viewers respectively, the shows have struck a nerve in American’s conscious, especially among women who feel that they encourage stereotypical imagery of African-American women.
The recent success of the petition to boycott the Basketball Wives franchise shows that disgust with this programming is widespread. But, with ratings that huge, who is to blame for keeping it on the air — and who should be held responsible for ensuring its demise? We often hear of African-American women being perturbed by images from the shows. But, with a Latina, Evelyn Lozada, and a white woman, Kim Zolciak, both being integral cast members of these hits, shouldn’t white and Latina feminists be just as concerned with the stereotypes perpetuated?
“The fact is that [Evelyn’s] actions are interpreted and seen in a negative way for both [African-American and Latino] communities,” Alma Morales Riojas, National President and CEO of MANA, told theGrio. “It is sad that the only way that Latinas are included in many of the shows is to perpetuate a negative stereotype of us and to some degree it is important that [all] minority women join [together] in order to improve our status in the community in general.
“However,” the leader of the national Latina organization continues, “it is important that Latinas assert identification and substantiate our presence as a Hispanic community. Our issues are [effected by] more than race, and in fact, in most cases Latinas are white, so race would not be the appropriate venue. Our issues include national origin, culture, and language, which set us in a very different effort. I am a firm believer in collaboration and unity. I am also of the belief that Hispanics must use and show our own strengths.”
In shifting the conversation towards the more nuanced ground of identity, Riojas reminds us that being white in America makes race a non-issue for some, while still being the biggest elephant in the room. Kim Zolciak might be the poster child of this phenomenon.
The writer simply known as “Kaolin” spoke to theGrio about this. As a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which is typically viewed as a “white” mainstream feminist group, the author of Talking About Race: A Workbook About White People Fostering Racial Equality in Their Lives sees the successful participation of Zolciak on Real Housewives of Atlanta as an expression of white racism. For her, it is also a call to action for mainstream feminists to take a stand against these shows.
“Kim is portrayed as being too busy to recognize something so nuanced as racism, because it is not ‘positive.’ We can surmise, then,” Kaolin says, “that racism for her [does not exist] and viewers who agree can breathe a sigh of relief. Otherwise, how and why would we watch her?”
Yet, “The ability to turn a blind eye to racial stereotypes is a treasure in the white community among racists and this show is really for them,” Kaolin concludes. “The ones who can enjoy the uncouth antics of black women with the knowledge that the white woman on the show is the only one who landed above the fray with the fairy tale ending — that is a stereotype in and of itself,” the author notes about Zolciak’s nuclear family.
Dr. Amber Tillman, Assistant Professor of Communication at Prairie View A&M University, believes that black women instinctively feel shamed by the negative depictions of our womanhood on reality television, whereas women of other ethnicities do not, because of our typically narrow representations. Perhaps this is why mostly black women seem outraged, while women of other races, while included on these shows, do not.
”[Nigerian writer] Chimamanda Adiche reminds us of the dangers of the single story,” Tillman told theGrio in an interview. “When all we have is one story or one representation of us, everything we do is judged by that standard. Because there are so many representations of white women, when a single white woman does something negative, it is not representative of the entire race. We have so few stories that everything we do becomes representative of everything we are.
“The key is balance,” Tillman asserts. “We need to have more stories, more often, and in various forums so that people can begin to see the beautiful complexity that is black women. Adiche also reminds us that stereotypes aren’t untrue necessarily — it is just that they aren’t all that is.”
Tragically, the media’s skewed perspective of “all that is” for black women is having detrimental consequences.
Dea Win, owner and founder of Pretty Girls Rock Dresses™, an organization that motivates women of all ages to embrace beauty, charm, and intellect, shares that the effects of reality television, specifically on young black girls in her region, has been horrific.
“Teachers that called into DJ Ryan Cameron’s radio show [recently] on V-103 in Atlanta said that so many impressionable girls are taking on the negative characteristics of the characters of the reality shows,” Win told theGrio, “including promiscuity and relying on the external, instead of refining the internal — and not loving themselves. One teacher spoke about several of her young girls desiring relationships with ‘ballers’ in hopes of being ‘about that life.’”
Win questions: “I sometimes wonder where would I be if there were Basketball Wives and Real Housewives back in 1996?”
Whereas some people view these shows as mere entertainment, Kaolin sees something more sinister at play and calls for feminists of all races to take a stand. “The goal of RHOA, and shows like it, is to glorify as much cross-cultural confusion, apathy, hatred, rage and ignorance as possible,” the writer believes. “That is why race and ethnicity dialogue matters. In my opinion, NOW has a responsibility to speak out about the negative depictions of black women in media, specifically in reality television. If we don’t, we all pay for it. We really do and so do our children.”
Though the empowerment of women anywhere strengthens women everywhere, the question remains whether all concerned women — regardless of race — will work together to break the shackles of limited stereotypes that enslave many black women in media.
Or is this an uphill battle that we face alone?
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali