I was asked in a magazine interview a few months ago if I thought the representation of black people in reality television was responsible for the deterioration of “the family, brotherhood and sisterhood codes that existed in the Black community.” I wanted to send them this GIF of Kanye West asking “How Sway?”
With the High Priestess of Reality TV and the reason Gifs were invented Tiffany “Miss New York” Pollard entering the Celebrity Big Brother house here in the UK, the ground is fertile and time is right for me to give my two pence on this troubling idea that a genre of TV shows has destroyed “the black family.” Prophetess Crissle of The Read [my favourite podcast] has taught us over the years words mean things so let’s be real; when people say Reality TV has destroyed the black family, what they really mean is black women have destroyed the black family. Black men in reality TV evade the same scrutiny because they exist solely to serve the drama that, at its core, belongs to the women.
Come a little deeper into this quandary with me, bring a life jacket- the water’s deep and some of you cant swim. The real reason black men are not as scrutinised as black women for the state of reality television is because black men are far more widely represented in the media than black women are. Even the Right Honorable Chris Rock recently acknowledged “Black women have the hardest gig in show business,” in criticism of Jennifer Lawrence’s gender based pay gap essay reading her for filth and letting her know “if she was black, she’d really have something to complain about.”
I love reality TV. My mother and I would sit together and watch Flavour of Love and we adored Miss New York FKA Tiffany Pollard simply because she looked like us. There were no other women with our complexion (NW45 if you use MAC) on television at the time and Ross’ girlfriend from Friends does not count.
For years there was this singular prevailing image of black women on reality television; they were the neck rolling, oh no you didn’t, who gon’ check me boos. They were loud and defiant, I loved them then and to this day for that. The problem is because for so long it was the only image of black women on television.
In her TED Talk, High Chancellor of My Feminist Being Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie diagnoses the problem with the single story narrative. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”
The way these women behave in all my trashy favourites Love & Hip Hop (New York, Atlanta & Hollywood), Married To Medicine, Basketball Wives and The Real Housewives of Atlanta is not untrue. These women are their authentic selves, they do not and should not be expected to represent the entirety of black women. But they do because of this singularity that is not their responsibility. Kerry Washington was the first black woman in 40 years to be cast as the lead in a network drama. FOURTY YEARS. Sure, now we have Being Mary Jane, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder but who looked like us on television since they cancelled Trouble? For those of you who don’t know Trouble was the Sky TV channel where people of colour here in Britain could watch shows starring other people of colour. Tiffany New York Pollard. That’s who everyone looked to as a representation of black womanhood.
Someone close to me announced “Mona Scott-Young is a coon” speaking of the creator of the Love & Hip Hop franchises when I told them what I was writing about this week. “She knows how badly black women are seen and she just keeps putting out all this negativity.” It hurt my feelings. Mona Scott-Young does no different to Andy Cohen and his Real Housewives franchise. Yet she and her cast, as black women, are held up to this impossible standard while Mr Cohen is held up as this bastion of all things reality TV based. The internalized misogyny of the statement hurt my feelings because I what I actually heard was “black women should behave and know their place.” I didn’t stay hurt for too long though, I politely read my loved one to filth and broke it down for them as I will now do for you.
When Porscha and Cynthia got into a fight on Real Housewives of Atlanta it became an indictment of all black women. When Brandy slapped Kyle on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills it just is and herein lies my issue. There are so many varied depictions of white womanhood in the media that white women in reality TV are free to behave as they wish without carrying the ills of their race on their back. Black women are not afforded this luxury.
Mona Scott-Young, Shawny O’Neal, creator of the Basketball Wives Franchise, and all the cast members of their shows cannot be blamed for the state of the black family because the state of the black family was not their creation. To say the representation of black people in reality television is the reason for this mythical moral breakdown of the black community is to absolve those truly responsible of their due.
Black women are not a monolith. We are autonomous beings and individuals. But we are treated in the media as a whole who move together, think and act alike and this is an untruth. We are not all seeking to toe the line and walk this “limited pathway to respectability” as Danielle Henderson stated in her article on Fusion. Look, I didn’t know I or any other black woman was supposed to be on this pathway or that respectability was our destination. I just want to be who I am and let other women to be who they are with impunity. Twitter user @Maleintuition21 tweeted “Cardi B represents black and brown women every time she speaks on television” @swindellium responded with a swift and resounding “Cardi B represents Cardi Fucking B.”
Let black women be ratchet if and when we so choose, but also let us be represented in all the different ways in which we exist in everyday life.
What do you think?
Tweet me at @danielledash.