At the risk of sounding like a grouchy old uncle, I remember when to be on TV you had to have a skill. You had to be a singer, a dancer, an actor, or a rapper, a writer, a comedian; you had to do something. The only talent you need to be on television now is a talent for self-promotion and self-abuse, and most importantly, a lack of self respect. Ever since shows like Real World, Jersey Shore, and Bad Girls Club hit the air, we’ve been subjected to the tantrums, mood swings, and delusions of grandeur from overgrown children with maximum egos and minimum talent.
The overwhelming majority of modern reality shows have mostly Black women in them. Shows like Married to Medicine, Love and Hip-Hop, The Real Housewives of Atlanta (although I want to know how you can be called a “Real Housewife” if you’re not real, you’re never at home and you’re nobody’s wife) are a parade of loud, ratchet Black women doing what ratchets do: backbiting, gossiping, throwing drinks at each other in clubs and getting into physical altercations.
A lot of people in the Black media community have pointed out that these shows feed into the worst stereotypes about Black women. Mostly they have been ignored but it looks like things have finally reached the tipping point with the backlash over VH-1’s Sorority Sisters. Black sororities have been extremely vocal about the way their organizations, which have historically been instrumental in promoting the dignity and education of African-American women, are being represented on the show. I admit I haven’t watched it but looking at the trailer, I can see that it’s more of the ratchetness that Black reality shows are known for but this time, sponsors, probably mindful of the extremely high racial tensions in America right now, are deserting the show as fast as they can.
The uproar has sparked renewed discussion about the future of a type of programming that uses stereotypes as a hook.
In the days of blackface minstrelsy, people worldwide paid dearly to watch Black and Caucasian men in blackface act out racist parodies of African-American culture that degraded performer and audience alike. And always behind the curtain was the ringleader, racking up money while his “darkies” capered for the hicks.
From a production standpoint, these shows are cheap to produce and are very lucrative, just like the old minstrel shows, and Mona Scott-Young and Andy Cohen are the two most successful modern day ringleaders. They are the producers of VH-1’s Love & Hip-Hop and Bravo’s Real Housewives franchises respectively, and have grown very rich by using a formula that record label execs and far too many rappers long ago learned to exploit: double down on ignorance and cooning, reduce yourself to a stereotype, and people will throw money at you to reinforce their feelings of superiority.
I’m not saying these shows don’t have a place on the air. The problem is they take up so much of the programming that features women of color that it feels like a deliberate insulting response by networks to complaints about the lack of diversity on television by finding the lowest of the lowest common denominator of programming to box Blacks into.
There is something else that’s not being discussed in regards to the Sorority Sisters backlash: class. The sororities represented on the show are some of the most prestigious Greek-letter organizations in Black America, with a great many wealthy and accomplished women of color among their members. I can’t help but wonder how much of the outrage at this particular show is because it is the “talented tenth” being degraded this time, as opposed to the “ghetto hoodrats” on the other shows? These shows are a detriment to the image of American women of color regardless of their economic or social background. The average viewer of these shows is not going to waste time making distinctions between a loud wannabe singer and a loud sister wearing a Greek letter pin; all they see is a bunch of black women looking ignorant.
It’s a shame that so many professional sisters are lining up to damage their credibility by appearing on these shows. It’s tragic that there are so few roles for Black actresses that so many are signing on to shows like Hollywood Divas for work that will irreparably damage their brand. Saddest of all is the fact that these shows are so avidly consumed and obsessed over by Black women who don’t seem to realize their complicity in the ongoing degradation of their image. These shows make Black people, Black women in particular, look like the grotesque deformed characters that minstrel shows traded on. It’s even worse because the Black performers in those days had no choice. The women in these modern day coon shows, ringleaders and performers, do it voluntarily.