TV Commentary for Vibe
Article: “The Cruelest Mirror”
Publication: Vibe Magazine
Date: April 2010
If the squawking housewives, ex-crack addicts and love triangles all make us cringe, why do we the people still tune in to Black reality TV?
We love to hate The Real Housewives of Atlanta. So says the stats: 2.7 million viewers during the season two premiere, easily outpacing Bravo TV’s more established Orange County and New York franchises by over a million viewers. What makes RHOA so special? The outbursts? The sketchy financial status of four out of five of the women? The wigs? Yes, yes, and yes. But also, because they look like us. The truth is grim: the landscape on the small screen is so uniformly pale that many of us desire to see any content geared toward a Black audience, even as we give it the side-eye.
African Americans are all over reality TV, and not because they’re on the road to Obama status. Keyshia Cole and her filter-less relatives, Terrell Owens the narcissistic athlete, and Tiny and Toya, with their aspirations to surpass baby-mama standing, have all landed shows that bank on stereotypes. The massive success of Flavor of Love spawned an entire industry of spin-offs: I Love New York, Real Chance at Love and For the Love of Ray-J—worlds where Champagne and Jaguar are the names of contestants, not prizes.
Still, we need representation. After making gains in the ’80s and ’90s with series like The Cosby Show, A Different World and Living Single, diversity on television took a tumble. It’s no secret that TV—and Hollywood for that matter—has been whitewashed since pre-satellite days. In that tradition, the 2009 Emmy nominees of color only amounted to a handful, and one of them was animated (Samuel L. Jackson, for Afro-Samurai.) Cleveland Show got next?
Part of the reason for the lack of quality (read: scripted) programming is that unscripted television costs studios hundreds of thousands of dollars to create, far cheaper than the tens of millions to produce a scripted series. Mara Brock Akil’s struggles with The Game and Girlfriends reveal that even when a Black show is given a chance, it’s still subject to the whims of White executives.
Ultimately, the popularity of Black reality TV, despite the Barnum & Bailey antics, comes because no matter what’s happening, we’re still watching. For some, Real Housewives provides relatable characters. For others, it’s voyeurism with a side of schadenfreude: “Did you see how Sheree got evicted from her mansion?” Real Housewives of DC is up next, and Michael Vick has a BET reality show premiering in 2010. So maybe it’s time to turn up “Tardy for the Party” and just embrace the chaos. We know you know the words. —Latoya Peterson