ATLANTA – There are many definitions of a mistress. For the cast of a new wannabe reality TV show, The Real Mistresses of Atlanta, it defines women willing to do just about anything for fame.
If Mistresses makes it to a television network, it will join a growing list of reality shows filmed in and around Atlanta: shows such as VH1’s Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta and WEtv’s Braxton Family Values.
What distinguishes these programs is the fact that they all feature an ensemble of feisty black women. With this come regular bouts of catfights, bickering, and nasty confrontations between grown women of color.
Amidst all the drama is a growing chorus of disapproval about how these productions portray black women, with online petitions even pushing for mass boycotts of some shows. Those spearheading the campaigns say cast members are mere pawns in the game of reality television and that the shows are demeaning and exploitative.
Now, attention has turned to how these reality shows depict Atlanta, a city famously known as the black Mecca. Not only is Atlanta home to affluent, middle-class blacks, but is the number one tourism destination for African-Americans, according to the 2004 Travel Industry Association report.
Critics of the “reality” genre fear that everything unique about “Hotlanta,” from its complex of historically black colleges to its uninterrupted succession of African-American mayors, is now being eclipsed by dysfunctional images churned out by black reality dramas.
“They represent Atlantans as more materialistic, narcissistic, and less thoughtful or socially conscious than we are,” said Dr. Robert Franklin, president of the world famous Morehouse College.
“Most of the images are imbalanced, frivolous and misleading,” he said. “One wonders if the subjects of these programs know anything about the serious institutions like the Atlanta University Center and individuals like John Wesley Dobbs that changed Atlanta and America, and are truly worthy of public attention.”
“As an African-American woman I wouldn’t want anyone to judge the women of Atlanta by reality TV, which is just a snapshot,” said former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin. “We come in many different shapes and sizes, women like Coretta Scott King, Spelman woman, Agnes Scott women, elected officials, businesswomen as well as housewives.”
The growth of reality television shows in Georgia has in part been fueled by attractive tax incentives that came into effect in 2008. Statewide, there has been an influx of film and television productions across all genres.
For TV networks, though, reality television is an attractive programming strategy. The format is relatively cheap to make compared to quality scripted dramas, and often attracts younger viewers, an important demographic for advertisers.
“It’s all about money and an effort to increase viewers,” said Sidmel Estes, an Atlanta native, who works as a media consultant in the city. In fact, many of these reality-based shows do pull in huge audiences.
“There is nothing real about these shows,” said Estes. “From what I’ve heard from people who work on them, they are scripted to be sensationalist. But they are giving Atlanta a bad name because people think this is what the place is like. None of these cast members are involved in, or give anything back to the community.”
“It’s embarrassing that my hometown is being portrayed in this way,” she adds. “I find it completely offensive. I’ve seen enough to know I won’t waste my time watching any of these shows.”
For Steve Klein of the legendary King Center, program makers should focus on making shows that highlight the unique and rich tapestry of Atlanta.
“It would be nice to see a program that upholds the inspiring things about Atlanta,” he said. “There are so many extraordinary positive people and worthy initiatives in the city. Why not make a show about that?”
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti