Are blacks to blame for the popularity of reality TV?
At this point, most black people with an Internet connection have heard the news that the Oxygen network has a new reality show in the pipeline that revolves around G-Unit rapper Shawty Lo and the relationships he has with the ten mothers of his eleven children. The public outcry in response to the press release announcing that All My Babies’ Mamas would be added to the network’s Spring 2013 lineup has been swift and appears to have been effective. Several petitions on Change.org were posted in the aftermath, the most successful one being from bestselling author Sabrina Lamb, which as of press time has gained over 33,000 signatures in just a few days.
Through a spokesperson, Oxygen President Jason Klarman issued a tepid response to an email from the New York Chapter of the NAACP requesting that the show be canceled. “[W]e are highly attuned and sensitive to your concerns and our diverse team of creative executives will continue their involvement as the special is developed,” his statement read.
Yet, over the course of a few days and in the face of increasingly louder voices of criticism, it seems that Klarman may have done an about face on the show. On Monday according to the Associated Press, Rod Aissa, Oxygen’s programming head, met with network television writers to discuss new shows such as Find Me My Man, Too Young to Marry? and Fat Girl Revenge.
Which show was missing from the presentation? You guessed it: All My Babies’ Mamas
Still, this show is just a speck in a dust storm of devilment. Over the past several weeks networks have been steadily releasing their upcoming programming schedule. Out of the 46 new reality shows slated for the spring, 45 percent are comprised of an exclusively white cast, 28 percent are predominantly black, and 26 percent have multicultural cast members (including Kimora Lee Simmons’s show and the Dominican cast of Washington Heights). Black Americans make up 13.7 percent of the U.S. population, but we are represented in almost 30 percent of the new reality shows, many of which perpetuate some of the most damaging racial stereotypes.
Take the TLC network (which ironically stands for The Learning Channel) that recently began airing The Sisterhood, a reality show featuring the wives of preachers that one reviewer said, “is nothing more — or less — than the Real Housewives of Atlanta, but co-starring God.”
TLC also seems to be hell bent on making a mockery of black spirituality with another show, Best Funeral Ever, which essentially highlights the intersection of grief and materialism with over the top homegoing services with perhaps no point other than to make black people appear to be flamboyant, materialistic, shuck and jive-loving coons even at the end of their lives.
The underlying message most of these shows send about blacks is that we’re shallow, impulsive creatures lacking in self-control without any vision of life that doesn’t include vacations (or funerals) they can’t afford, slanging rhymes, having too many children, and shopping oneself into bankruptcy. But I digress.
I understand that not all forms of reality television are bad. But this article isn’t about Tia & Tamera or R&B Divas. Yes, this is a historic time in television history, with Kerry Washington being the first black woman to star in a network show since Diahann Carroll in the ’70s with Julia. Yet in spite of this achievement, we cannot believe this one show can ameliorate the fact that, although we comprise a little more than a tenth of the U.S. population, roughly half of all reality shows on TV are made up of all black or partially black casts whose behavior reinforces damaging stereotypes.
In the decades since the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the imagery of black people in media, particularly on television, has changed considerably. Now, I’m not a sociologist, but it is my guess that the materialism and “success at any cost” mindset that pervades modern popular culture today is likely a reaction to the economic uncertainty and hopelessness that is the true reality for many black people.
As a single mother who has struggled against many of the same systemic issues that affect our community (should I list the issues? I think we know them…) I understand the need for escape. Let’s face it: life is hard. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise deserves a serious double side eye. This entertainment is a form of escape.
The “overnight success” stories of individuals who are as a whole largely without any real discernible talent are the driving force behind the most popular shows such as Love & Hip Hop and Basketball Wives. Reality show “stars” present what appears to be an attainable, glamorous lifestyle to a group of women who may not have the wherewithal or resources needed to carve out a financially stable life for themselves realistically.
But, in the process of enjoying this escape, we are ignoring the emotionally abusive and disrespectful behavior of male cast members such as L&HH’s Stevie J that reinforces the idea that a black man’s power is best expressed through unbridled and unprincipled sexual behavior, as just one example of these show’s many horrible messages.