Reality TV and the changing image of the African-American ‘leading lady’

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After the closing of Women’s History Month, examining the image of black women in media, and how it has evolved over time, may shed light on how black women will continue to make historic inroads in the future.

In the poem Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, the poet writes: “You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies,/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” Many of the historical lies told about black women have been wrought through negative images in media. Yet, we have also “risen” through the same means, through positive images that inspire us to achieve.  These dueling images — the destructive and the empowering — are engaged in a fierce battle even today through our most powerful mechanism of media dissemination — TV.

The current popular depiction of black women on television is caught between two extremes. On one hand, you have an emotionally complex, intelligent and self-made woman in the character of Olivia Pope on the wildly popular ABC show Scandal.  (While there are other, less sophisticated characters on scripted shows like The Game and Meet the Browns, they for the most part are ignored by black media.  Meet the Browns, despite being a Tyler Perry production, is never a trending topic on Twitter.)

At the other end of spectrum, there is the gimmicky, low-rent version of Olivia Pope, mostly seen on “reality” television. From the perspective of superficial appearances, this black woman seems to operate from a somewhat similar privileged segment of society. This woman also lives in a finely appointed home, dines at the finest restaurants, and wears designer clothing. However unlike the fictional business woman of Ms. Pope, the “crazy black reality show chick” generally cobbles together her ostentatious and opulent lifestyle via a usually dysfunctional relationship, whether past or present, with a man of financial means.

Such a formulaic presentation of black women on TV is lucrative. The numbers are in and the people have spoken.  Married to Medicine, for instance, the latest network reality show to feature another slice of Atlanta’s endless supply of black female subcultures, is a bona fide hit. It debuted to Bravo’s highest ratings for a reality program that wasn’t spun off from an existing show, with a solid 1.9 million people tuning in to this newest feat of cable programming focused on drama and cat fights.

Attention seekers willing to expose themselves and their families before millions of people, coupled with the low production cost of reality shows, has led to an explosion in the number of “unscripted” cable programs featuring black women as “leading ladies.”  How did this prevalent image of black women develop alongside that of the elegant, accomplished black woman, such as Pope?

Historically, the term “leading lady” has been defined as a woman who carries the title role in a fictional, scripted series, and she is often a role model.

In 1968, on the heels of the Civil Rights movement, the legendary Diahann Carroll starred in the ground breaking series Julia as a professional black woman, showing that a new age of positive representation of African-American women in television seemed possible. And she was not alone. Who can forget hardworking, earnest Florida Evans on Good Times?  Or the rise of clean-cut, authoritative women such as Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show? The entire cast of A Different World gave the planet various black women of nuance, and characters that showed social promise.

And Oprah Winfrey’s rise to prominence?  These were all amazing examples of the rise of the image of black women. These women signaled that television audiences were finally ready to accept, and even embrace, black women who were empowered, strong, and proud.

Soon the ’90s ushered in the “girl power” era.  Black women knew how to get what they wanted without wielding their sexuality as a weapon. Black women were more aggressive and vocal than they had ever been in the past (aside from Blaxploitation film characters in the 1970s such as Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones), yet their behavior was directed towards something more significant than handbags, vacations, and shoes.

Sisterhood was the overarching theme, and the archetypes were more balanced.  Black women were seen as daughters, providers, fighters, mothers, sisters, friends. We had Living Single, MoeshaSister Sister. Some of these shows weren’t deep, but at least there was variety — and wholesome fun.

However, this was to change rapidly with the advent of two new entertainment genres that initiated a cultural shift towards the prevailing image of black women as emotionally damaged, hypersexual, predatory Jezebels who are unapologetic for their aggressive, manipulative and occasionally violent behavior:  hip hop music and reality television, beginning with MTV’s The Real World.

Fast forward to today. Shows like Love & Hip Hop have been instrumental in the warping of television’s black leading lady through the consistent use of harmful historical black female stereotypes such as the “Jezebel” and “Tragic Mulatto.”  Today, here are Angelou’s “bitter, twisted lies” with which we are being written into history.