VH1’s reality programming isn't just 'harmless entertainment'
Domestic violence isn’t just verbal or physical assault. Stevie J is a perfect example of how a man doesn’t have to put a finger on a woman in order to abuse her. Chronic infidelity is a form of abuse, as is bullying, name calling, put downs, intimidation and repeated threats of abandonment. Love & Hip Hop, Basketball Wives and its reality sistren consistently portray female cast members as belligerent, sexually manipulative, emotionally unstable and physically violent.
In such abusive situations, it is common practice to blame the victim, with her “character flaws” used as justification for her dehumanizing treatment. Reality TV viewers play this out, delighting in trashing L&HHA’s Joseline and Mimi for being involved with Stevie, buying into the show’s unspoken message: abuse is the penance that black women must pay for actual or perceived personal inadequacies — or even just to be in a relationship.
Those who sit in judgment of Joseline and Mimi don’t understand that one of the consequences of abuse is its effect on a victim’s mental health. The reality is that, women who are battered suffer from a disproportionately higher rate of mental health disorders. Look, I’m not a psychologist, but could it be possible that some of the “ratchet” behavior we ridicule on L&HHA or other exploitive “reality” shows are actually just a symptom of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that often results from being abused? And if that’s the case, why are we laughing at women for having “normal” emotional responses to long-term trauma?
Another thing that is troubling is that black men and women have the highest rates of HIV infection in the United States. Studies show that women who are victims of intimate partner violence are three times more likely to be infected by HIV as women who are not abused. This is directly related to intimate partner rape and the power imbalance in abusive relationships that can cause a victim to be unable or unwilling to insist on the use of condoms. To my knowledge, while it seems like everyone on these shows is “doing it” with each other, there has been rare mention of the word “condom.”
I’m not implying that L&HHA and Basketball Wives are causing the AIDS crisis in black America. However these shows promote the idea that violence, emotional abuse and chronic infidelity are to be expected and tolerated in our intimate relationships. Women and girls absorbing these messages are bound to react self-destructively. And while L&HHA and its ilk are not the cause of the intimate partner violence – the causes stem from a variety of risk factors— they are most definitely contributing to and condoning a culture of misogyny that sanctions the abuse of black women. Whether it’s acknowledged or not, these shows are at least partially responsible for certain health disparities due to their normalization of unhealthy interpersonal behaviors.
After all, when severely destructive behavior is trivialized as entertainment, how seriously can people take it when it is encountered in their own lives?
There are those who say that this form of reality television is simply reflecting a truth that exists in our community. But this position ignores another truth, which is our ability to evolve and manage one’s reflexive response to anger, frustration and power plays. Ultimately, it is the individual’s responsibility to decide whether or not to engage in violent behavior or use a condom. But what reality show stans don’t realize is that the shows they are choosing to watch are influencing their behavior by making light of very serious issues.
Rather than be alarmed when encountering it, viewers are being shown they should learn how to live with abuse. By choosing to broadcast unhealthy relationship behaviors and sexist portrayals of black women, the cable networks tacitly encourage viewers to make dangerous choices. These choices ultimately destroy people’s mental, physical and emotional health.
It’s worth considering that maybe some disturbing trends in the black community (such as our divorce rates and higher rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, intimate partner homicide and HIV infection) will decrease when we stop tolerating or embracing harmful shows like L&HHA and Basketball Wives that promote relational aggression, sexism, infidelity and verbal, emotional and physical abuse as the norm. Black women: if we can’t stop them from producing these shows, we should consider rejecting such vehicles of our own oppression and the cable networks that deliver them.
Sil Lai Abrams is a writer, inspirational speaker, anti-domestic violence activist, Ebony.com’s relationship expert, and author of ‘No More Drama.’ She is also the founder of TruthInReality.org, a grassroots organization committed to changing the way women and intimate partner violence are portrayed on reality television. Follow her on Twitter at @Sil_Lai.