VH1’s reality programming isn't just 'harmless entertainment'

A few weeks ago I wrote an opinion piece for theGrio.com on how viewers of reality television shows like Love & Hip Hop Atlanta were actively supporting VH1’s and executive producer Mona Scott-Young’s racist and misogynistic assault on the image of black women in America.  Given that L&HHA was the most popular show on cable among black women aged 18-49 this summer, I knew there would be some who would defend this form of “entertainment”; after all black women comprise the majority of its 5.5 million viewers.

Commenters on various Internet news websites cited capitalism, personal apathy, and the shameless exhibitionism of show cast members as reasons why we should give VH1 and black female executive producers such as Scott-Young and Basketball Wives producer Shaunie O’Neal a break. These reasons for some seem to justify putting out television programming that attacks African-American women and decimates black love on a weekly basis.  And, it’s a damn shame that any black woman in a position of power would feel comfortable exploiting her sisters in her quest for the almighty dollar. But in my opinion the two larger issues that need to be addressed are:

1. The fact that cable networks think it’s acceptable to perpetuate racist and misogynistic stereotypes of black women, and

2. That black women feel comfortable watching and defending these networks’ stereotypical programming.

While we can argue our personal views on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the show genre from here to eternity, what is difficult to refute is the emerging research showing the negative effect these modern day, real-life minstrel shows are having on the health of black women and black relationships. This is why we must address their continuing media dominance now.

Studies have shown that reality programming like L&HHA has an adverse effect on the emotional development of girls and young women. Young women who frequently view popular reality shows are more likely to embrace stereotypes that depict women as sexual objects. They also tend to equate a woman’s primary value to be based upon her physical attractiveness. I get that there has always been an association between beauty and hypersexuality in entertainment. Who can forget Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown? But before reality shows became our most popular form of television programming, there was a more diverse group of black female archetypes for our young women to mimic on television.

Now, whether we like it or not, reality television is playing a part in the way our girls and young women are conceptualizing their femininity, sexuality and how they handle relationships.  And it’s not just girls who are being affected.  A recent study has shown that reality programs like L&HHA increase aggression in adult female viewers. Sure, some who would argue that bullying and other forms of relational aggression are just a part of normal female-to-female interaction, but come on — it’s not a normal response for a woman to jump over a table and try to rip another’s weave out over a difference in opinion. Yet, shows like these are re-socializing women who should be less impressionable due to age that this is normal.

Much of the violence between women on L&HHA stems from envy and jealousy for male attention, a bitter irony.  Of all the racial groups in America, black women are the most frequent victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and intimate partner homicide.  Our teenage girls have the highest rate of dating abuse among high school students.  Given the causal link between media consumption and behavior, it isn’t a stretch to say that recent increases in incidents of intimate partner violence are due in part to people mirroring behavior that they are seeing on popular television.

One thing that is crystal clear to me as a survivor of domestic violence and a five-year public advocate against it is that show producers and networks don’t know what constitutes abuse — and neither does its audience.