Tag Archives: representations

Confessions of a Reality TV Junkie

18 Aug

What began as morbid curiosity and harmless voyeurism has turned into somewhat of an obsession.  Reality Television has become a habitual part of my nightly routine and something that I am not particularly proud of.  As I spent the weekend clearing out my DVR, which was full of reality tv shows I missed while being out of town, I realized that perhaps I have a problem.  Why else would I secretly watch rerun marathons of Real Housewives of Atlanta all damn day when I have already seen the debauchery?  Why else would I DVR Basketball Wives and mentally if not verbally take sides about who is “in the circle?”  Why else would I be so invested in who wins the challenges and/or prizes at the end of Food Network Shows that there is often a tightening in my belly before the announcement (Chopped, anyone, lol)?  Why else would I have done a happy dance at the re-emergence of Project Runway?  I do believe I have a problem!

As a feminist, I find it troublesome that so many of these shows represent women in problematic ways.  And while I have written about the nebulous position of being a critic and fan, or what Henry Jenkins calls an “aca-fan,” I feel the need to justify my over-consumption of other people’s “made for television” lives. 

Truth is, I don’t always watch these shows for “research” or entertainment.  Sometimes I watch for the same reasons I recorded The Jerry Springer Show when I was a college student.  I watch for the temporary escape from my own life and the reminder that no matter how bad things are (in my own life) they could always be worse.  I watch so that I can get on my proverbial high horse for 30 minutes to an hour and judge someone else’s life without being judged in return.  One of the appeals of reality television is the one-sided view.  I can watch someone else’s life, make claims about how I might have handled a situation better or differently, complain about the choices or representations, challenge the authenticity, participate in virtual and actual conversations about the characters with other consumers, and then turn off the tv.  Reality television makes me feel better about myself and it allows me to have conversations with other viewers or track comments online, laughing and/or nodding and/or shaking my head at other takes on what I saw with my own eyes. 

Despite the fact that I am disgusted and oftentimes troubled by the ways in which Black women on these shows represent themselves and treat each other, and the ways that women are characterized and caricatured in general, it does not keep me from turning on the tv and shopping for a show.  And since reality television is not going anywhere, I feel the need to justify my continued fixation.

I do, however, try to temper my addiction.  I don’t watch Big Brother or Dancing With the Stars, or any reality shows featured on network television (hm… could it be they are not scandalous enough) and I always critique and discuss what I see/think/feel in order to emotionally justify my curiosity.  I mean am I just that damn nosey?  Am I a masochist?  Is my life so routinized that I get off on other people’s drama?

I have decided that while reality television has its evils, it is not the devil.  I think that reality television shows offer important social commentaries about the hegemonic bullshit that oftentimes goes unchecked or unnoticed.  For example, The Bachelor(ette) and all of its various versions demonstrate the problematic notion of a fairy tale, both through its unrealistic portrayals (including the embedded classism, racism and heterosexism of the show/s) and un-happily-ever-afters.  And it is also contentious that the Real Housewives franchise includes many single, divorced or never-married women who are simply bourgeois, rich, privileged, and attention-starved.  (I am continuously confused by the titles—Basketball Wives should perhaps be called Basketball Exes…but I digress).  What I am getting at is that I think reality TV offers a platform for interesting opportunities to have conversations about issues that we should be talking about anyway, issues that influence the female image. 

Take Teen Mom, for example, the spinoff of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant.  I found the latter show by accident but was immediately immersed into and fascinated by the documentary of 16 year old girls who are unexpectedly expecting.  The show chronicles the lives of young girls who negotiate the very REAL issues surrounding teen pregnancy, from contemplation of abortion and adoption, to the realities of motherhood, unsuccessful relationships with the fathers of their children, challenges to their relationships with their family and friends, domestic violence, intergenerational privilege or poverty, etc. I remember watching the series and feeling impacted by the reality of it all.  My initial impression was that this show would discourage young girls from having unprotected sex (a good thing) and garner public attention and discussion about how to care for young girls who find themselves in the undesirable position of being unexpectedly pregnant (another good thing—the call for care, not the unexpected pregnancy).  The general response, however, is varied, and some people feel the show encourages risky sexual behaviors.  I read some time ago that some girls were trying to get pregnant so that they could be on the show L.  Perhaps the drawback of any reality television show for young and impressionable young women is the illusion of fame as a permanent or positive position.

When I realized that they were doing a follow-up series, Teen Mom, to follow the teen mothers on their journeys through parenthood I began watching religiously.  I watch for a few reasons.  First, because reality television has conditioned my interest and fascination with characters to be more ongoing (16 & Pregnant chronicles a different girl every week while Teen Mom follows the same group over a longer period of time).  I also watch to see if the criticisms of the show are fair, if it really glamorizes teen pregnancy or offers a realistic purview into the sacrifices and struggles that are inherent in the everyday life of teen mothers.

I realize that my perception as a grown ass woman who did not face teen pregnancy is one that is limited by my own experience(s).  While I have never been pregnant, I witnessed teen pregnancy from the outside looking in.  When I was a teenager I knew many girls who found themselves pregnant and had to make difficult, permanent adult choices when they were barely past puberty.  And that is a feminist issue worth troubling—unlike the more superficial points of many reality shows.

So, while I cannot justify all of my reality-television watching, and I confess that I need to wean myself away from my hours-long binges, I hope to utilize some of what I learn and see to initiate conversations about social issues and not just good gossip.  VH1’s catch-all phrase, popularized during their hot-ass-mess Flavor-of-Love days, “watch and discuss,” prevails here.

Nene vs. Star: Black Women & The Vulnerability of Anger

9 May

The first season of The Apprentice brought with it an impressive black woman (Omarosa Manigault) who deconstructed her brilliance to pacify an audience that seeks (if not requires) black women to fit a particular prototype on television.  Omarosa embodied what Patricia Hill Collins would designate the black lady, a black woman whose intellect and success make her difficult to like and love.  I find it fascinating that no matter what a black woman does and who she is (smart, beautiful, independent, etc.) —she is ultimately made to feel undesirable and unwanted–even and sometimes especially from people (who look) like her.

I was seduced to this season of The Celebrity Apprentice (though I loathe Donald Trump for various reasons, which I will not detail here) because of my intellectual and personal interest (read curiosity) of black women’s representations on reality television.  The unprecedented inclusion of four black women on a reality television show on network television lured me in, especially because I was interested to see how they would be depicted, how they would interact (having such vastly different backgrounds and demeanors) and what roles they would play with each other.  The season started with Dionne Warwick, LaToya Jackson, Star Jones, and Nene Leakes.  As weeks went on I was repeatedly surprised that the black women were surviving because reality competition shows, like horror movies, may start with black bodies but they are generally the first to go.  Nine weeks in, three of the four black women remained in the competition.  Perhaps it was their charm or ability to play the game, or more realistically their entertainment value and lure of black audiences, but the black women held it down, on the same team (until they were ultimately separated, first LaToya who came back to work with the men’s team, and later Nene being switched with a male player following an altercation between her and Star), week after week.  The complications, however, began immediately.  These women were angry and/or vulnerable characters. 

Dionne Warwick was often portrayed as bossy and overbearing, giving out attitude but not allowing rebuttal because of her age. Star Jones, the consummate professional, masked her anger and deception behind articulate interviews and rolled eyes.  Nene Leakes…well, she is famous for being the aggressive, angry black woman on RHOA, which is undoubtedly why she was cast on the show.  Her anger, however, has seemed to be so much a part of her personality that she can turn it on and off like a faucet, cursing you out one minute and hugging you the next.  LaToya Jackson, soft-spoken but determined (having persuaded Donald Trump to re-hire her on the other team after being fired), did not represented the angry black woman but rather the victim.  She never seemed able to fully defend herself, speak (up) for herself, or take a leadership position (it was heartening when she returned this week, ever so briefly, to do just that).  LaToya’s emotions were mostly reactionary and non-threatening.  It is difficult to categorize her as “angry” in comparison to representations that are so utterly distinctive and destructive, but her representation was problematic nonetheless.

While Dionne and LaToya were both targets (Dionne because of her age, and LaToya because of her perceived lack of skill), the last several episodes focused on the animosity between Nene and Star.  Nene and Star were perhaps the most popular and controversial characters on the show given their well publicized beefs with other women, Nene on RHOA and Star from her abrupt departure from The View.

Still, interestingly, while continually battling each other verbally, the women also came to each other’s defense occasionally.  Their on-again, off-again black woman friendship reminded me of Audre Lorde’s essay Eye to Eye, which discusses the problematic relationship black women often have with each other, resenting and needing one another equally.

It is ironic that at the end of Sunday night’s episode, both Nene and Star (and LaToya) were absent.  Nene quit, a exaggerated response to hurt feelings (because Star did not want to be her friend), while LaToya and Star were both fired.  Somehow, in one felt swoop and three hour episode, all of the black women were gone!

I find it interesting that the only one of the three that left the show with dignity and integrity was LaToya.  She negotiated her way back for a chance at redemption, and while her team did not win, she did not play herself while playing the game.  With Nene and Star, however, they both fell into stereotypical scripts on their way out of the door, reinforcing, it seems, the inability for black women to “just get along.”   

I believe that Nene’s façade of being the “big bad bitch” is simply a front.  She seems to use her bullying and aggression to hide her insecurities.  Many of her rants, which were odd given her behavior, seemed to be about her desire for friendship (with Star, with Dionne, with LaToya) and forgiveness with/from black women.  Nene seemed sincerely disappointed and hurt that Star was not willing to forgive and forget the reprehensible and threatening things she had said and done to her previously.  She was also clearly emotionally distraught when Dionne Warwick confronted her and she seemed to genuinely embrace LaToya, the most impressionable of the group, luring her into a faux friendship after saying deeply hurtful things to and about her.

I believe Star’s façade of being the “professional black lady” is also a disguise.  While her credentials are impressive, she oftentimes used her intellect to manipulate others and limit their potential.  Her unwillingness to lose shaped her character as one that was vindictive, uncaring, and unemotional.  She relished, however, in the praise and accolades of other contestants.  Perhaps she has become so invested in what other people think about her, and being the most impressive black woman in the room, that she can’t help but sabotage or resent another black woman’s potential.

Nene and Star’s characters remind me of so many black girls and women I have known in my lifetime.  Those who used the angry black woman façade to keep people at arm’s length.  Those who refuse to acknowledge another black woman’s (beauty/strength/potential) worth in fear that it will outshine her own.  Women who use anger and disdain to cover their need for friendship, love, acceptance.

Nene and Star’s departure, I believe, represents a much larger issue that feels just below the surface of the episodes that have featured their dysfunctional relationship.  Their anger (and ability to anger each other) led to their downfall.  Anger, while it may feel enabling in the moment, is really disempowering.  Their anger made them vulnerable.  And perhaps the anger was never about their issues with each other, but about their issues with themselves.  Perhaps what they saw in each other reminded them of their own flaws and faults.  Perhaps Nene saw her own lost potential in Star’s success.  Perhaps Star saw the potential to be cast stereotypically in Nene’s behavior.  They were afraid of each other because of what the other represented—another black woman–or simply themselves.

I wonder how many times black women misunderstand each other.  How many times we miscommunicate or miss communication with each other.  It is impossible to be guarded and open at once, but we are essentially and undeniably sometimes vulnerable and angry at the same time.

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