My addiction started with good intentions.
I am a scholar who studies representations of black women so it made sense to look for black women on reality television shows. This was not a practice I was unfamiliar with. Watching Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune was always more “appealing” growing up when there was a black person on the show. I remember, even as a child, hoping/wishing/praying that the contestant would not embarrass us. Us being me and them. Us being all black people. It is funny how even as a child I was aware that “their” (other black people’s) representation was my representation and vice versa. It was clear to me that white people did not always know how to tell us apart.
This was no different from my mama’s insistence that I behave well around company and in public. She raised me to believe that my actions were always a direct reflection of her and her mothering skills. I knew that being the daughter that most favored her, I owed it to her to “represent” well. Over the years, studying race and oftentimes being the only black person in the room, I realize that the same premise applies to race in general. Black folk (and people of color generally) are expected to be the individual representatives of all black folk. My mama was right (she always is).
So, this new knowledge that I carried in my pocket made me consistently aware that I was always being watched and judged as a child. I still am as an adult.
Reality television took me by surprise. I had no way of knowing that it would have such a hold on me. All it took was one innocent episode or one night of insomnia and I was hooked. The lure of supposed “reality” appeals to my academic curiosity, my ethnographic voyeurism, and my small town nosiness all at the same time. And while I know that reality television shows are scripted, edited, and manipulated—it is still the promised reality that gets me. I feel invested in characters. I feel like I know them (and their business). And I always, always want to know more!
As both a fan and critic of reality television I find myself fascinated with my addiction—and curious about it. I imagine that it is something more than the undeniable lie of reality that has captured the attention of so many people (for so many reasons).
A few years ago I wrote an article challenging race and gender representations on reality television. At the time it was Flavor of Love that had me whipped. I knew the storyline/s, the characters, their real names, their “new” names, and why they had the names. I was happily duped by the bad acting of a cast who pretended to be infatuated with Flavor Flav. Conversations with friends and colleagues usually began with, “Girl, did you see Flavor of Love last night?” Damn. And just like that I was addicted. Popular culture trapped me in a corner and swallowed me whole. I watched every season…and the follow up shows, and the reunion shows, and the spin offs. Turning the channel did not divert my obsession because on the next channel I found other shows that promised me “regular, everyday” characters who were just like me and looking for something (love, money, fame, purpose), just like me.
My DVR is set to record a reality television show at least every other day of the week and let’s not forget the court shows, the cooking shows, the competitive dating shows and series, the singing and talent shows. There does not seem to be an escape. So what is a solution?
Reality television has been a claim to fame for many black women over the last decade—but not in a good way. Many black women remain nameless and objectified, framed as ignorant, promiscuous golddiggers (think of most of the contestants on Flavor of Love). Other representations suggest that black women are conniving, bitter, bourgeoisie or shallow (Atlanta housewives). Even Omarosa, the intelligent black woman from the original season of The Apprentice was cast as an emasculating bitch (a title she has since embraced and utilized as a way of becoming a household name). Essentially, reality television has found a way to reiterate stereotypes to name and frame black women as mammies, matriarchs, jezebels, sapphires and tragic mulattos.
Black women on reality television becomes problematic when there are clear conflicts between reality and imagination–and when the audience doesn’t know what is real and what is fake. As consumers, we must challenge what we see—compare it to who we are, how we live, who we know, and resist stereotypes. Then, we must insist on more nuanced images of ourselves. We have to refuse to accept that we are what and who other people tell us we are. We also must acknowledge and accept the pieces of ourselves we sometimes recognize in the “real” characters—and interrogate the pieces of ourselves that we want to challenge. Perhaps if we can learn to be critical consumers, watching reality television won’t seem so much like an act of backsliding and I can stop feeling guilty about it.
At any given time, on any given channel, I am lured back to reality shows. One sleepless night and I am hooked again. Shows I refuse, on principle, to watch during their designated times come on at unreasonable hours when I am too vulnerable to resist (Ochocinco: The Ultimate Catch–yes, I am embarrassed to say that I watched it, Fantasia For Real, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The T.O. Show, and recently a show on E called Bridalplasty—yes, it is as bad as it sounds!). When I have to choose between reality television and infomercials, reality television wins.
My best friend turned me on to The Real Housewives of Atlanta a few years ago during a visit home for the holidays. She had every episode recorded and we spent an entire Sunday afternoon watching each episode, laughing and talking in between, but never questioning what the show was offering us. Reality television feels harmless because most people view it for entertainment purposes, but the impact of reality television is far-reaching (i.e., there has been some speculation that the docu-reality series 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom on MTV has prompted some young women to get pregnant on purpose in hopes of being on the show). Entertainment is not harmless, especially for underrepresented populations. It is no coincidence that representations of marginalized groups (including the poor and disenfranchised, people of color, people with disabilities, non-heterosexuals, etc.) are continually scripted as stereotypes. Unfortunately we are oftentimes passive consumers who are unconscious of the underlying meanings of representations. Or we mistake any representation as “good” or “good enough.”
Reality television is problematic and black women, in particular, must be critical of images reflected back to them on television (and movie) screens. If we don’t trouble the representations that are offered to us then we may find ourselves believing that the only options for black womanhood are available in exaggerated extremes (a la Tyler Perry) or sanitized stereotypes (pretty much everybody else). I have been waiting for a real(ity) representation that can rescue me from the need to defend myself or save face. I am still searching.