The corporate feeding frenzy on the distorted image of Black women
by Starla Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
“The Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast members, from left, Kenya Moore, Cynthia Bailey, NeNe Leakes and Porsha Stewart attend the Bravo Network 2013 Upfront on April 3, 2013 in New York. Photo: AP/Wide World photos
(FinalCall.com) – The manipulation and one dimensional portrayal of Black women on television was once again thrust front and center into the spotlight after an on-camera blow up by two cast members of the popular Real Housewives of Atlanta series. The profanity-laced, finger pointing, hair pulling, melee which aired April 20 resulted in battery charges, an arrest warrant; endless replays and debates on morning news shows and social media on whether Kenya Moore or Porsha Miller were most at fault during part one of the Season 6 “Reunion” show.
Meanwhile, Bravo the cable channel owned by NBC Universal which produces and airs the show is gearing up in the aftermath to air parts two and three. Part one, attracted over 4 million viewers, making it the highest rated of any of the reunion shows, according to reports.
According to the Nielsen Company for cable network shows the episode ranked number one among Black households and number three among all U.S. households.
There is fortune and fame gained at the expense of denigrating the images of Black women, argued analysts. What is blatantly missing from television is a broader representation of the diversity, complexity and stories they bring to the table. Regardless to the riches, elite social status or success reached by some of the Black women represented on reality T.V., too often they are still portrayed as violent, materialistic or unstable.
“These shows are about the denigration of Black women. It pulls up every stereotype, every historical stereotype that we have. We’ve got Sapphire, we’ve got the neck-rolling sister, it’s every negative stereotype and it is repugnant,” said Dr. Julianne Malveaux, economist, author and president emerita of Bennett College for women.
The caricature “Sapphire” was popularized from the 1920s through 1960s on the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio and television shows explained sociology professor David Pilgrim. On the show, the character Sapphire Stevens regularly berated Kingfish, her good-for-little husband, he said. The show was popular and Sapphire became a synonym for aggressive, mean Black women, Prof. Pilgrim said in an e-mail to The Final Call.
Prof. Pilgrim established the Jim Crow Museum which is a collection of over 4,000 racist memorabilia and artifacts at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.
“The legacy of Sapphire Stevens lives today on television shows that portray African American women as cussing, head-shaking, finger-wagging angry women who belittle Black men—who are portrayed as lazy, ignorant, or otherwise morally flawed,” he added.
Evette Dionne, a writer and editor who covers a variety of issues including, race, culture and entertainment said many of the reality shows are capitalizing and profiting off of the pain and hurt of Black women.
Executive vice president of development and talent at the Bravo Cable Network and “Watch What Happens Live” host Andy Cohen attends the Bravo Network 2013 Upfront on April 3, 2013 in New York. Photo: AP/Wide World photos
“Instead of giving them therapy or a way to work through their issues, they put them in these situations where unhealed hurt comes to the surface and next thing you know, it’s throwing bottles and hitting each other upside the head and cursing each other out because they have unresolved issues that nobody has attempted to work through. I blame networks for that,” said Ms. Dionne.
She is bothered by the lack of the diversity of images of Black women on television.
According to Nielsen, Scandal which airs on ABC, starring Kerry Washington is the top-rated show in Black households. The show has been lauded for its talented star Ms. Washington, who became the first Black female lead in a network drama in 40 years when the show debuted in 2012. Despite that feat, critics point out the show’s character is involved in an extramarital affair and is in a sexual relationship with two other characters, both White men. The character rejected an offer of marriage from another character, a Black man.
According to a poll conducted by Essence Magazine and Proctor and Gamble, nearly 80 percent of Black women said they are concerned about the way they were and are being portrayed in media. Blacks also watch more television than any other group in the U.S., noted Nielsen.
“African-Americans are voracious viewers of television. In 2013, they watched over seven hours a day! This is more time (and programming) than any other demographic—a hefty 37 percent more,” said the company’s report, “Tastemakers, Leaders and Media Lovers: Why the African-American Consumer is Important to the Entertainment Industry.”
The challenge when it comes to Black women and reality T.V., said Dr. Malveaux, is many people say it is “just entertainment.”
“Well if you had one sister doing something decent for everybody who’s clowning, that might be OK. You see White women clowning and you see White women in major important roles or at least in sitcoms that do not demean them. If you counted up the number of African American women with prime time roles on television, disproportionately they would be these sisters who are carrying on like they’re in junior high school.”
Ms. Dionne agreed. “If there were a million representations of Black women, I would be OK with reality television. But if reality television is dominating the representation and that’s the only thing you really see outside of say Scandal, Being Mary Jane and Sleepy Hollow, it’s problematic for me.”
Being Mary Jane stars Gabrielle Union and debuted in 2013 on BET with over 4 million viewers. The character Mary Jane is a successful television anchor trying to balance a career with her personal life while trying to find “Mr. Right.” The character was sleeping with a married man but eventually stopped. Sleepy Hollow airs on FOX and stars Nicole Beharie in the role of a police detective.
Online activist group, Color Of Change condemned the RHOA reality show, as well as Bravo’s show, Married to Medicine, which focuses on the lives of Black women who are in the medical profession or married to a medical professional. The group released a statement condemning what it called a “staged hostile environment that provoked the altercation and the troubling pattern of violent, stereotypical portrayals of Black people across many of Bravo’s Black reality franchises.”
“Research shows that dehumanizing portrayals of Black people on television lead to real-world consequences for Black folks—influencing how we are treated by doctors, judges, teachers and lawmakers. No matter how entertaining, this should be the last fight between Black women that Bravo profits from,” the statement read in part.
The one-dimensional portrayal of Black women exemplified on many of these reality shows is a formula that works and people will tune in, added Ms. Dionne. These types of shows are often cheap to make, she explained.
(L-R) Debra Lee (CEO BET Networks) and Gabrielle Union (Actress) attend BET’s “Being Mary Jane” Los Angeles Premiere on December 16, 2013 in Los Angeles. Photo: AP/Wide World photos
“These shows, sometimes their budget is $50,000, $60,000. They don’t have to pay these women a lot of money like you would have to pay an actress. It’s profitable for them,” said Ms. Dionne. There is less monetary risk than there is with a network show, she explained.
NeNe Leakes is one of the stars of RHOA and makes a reported $1 million per season.
These types of shows do not give young, Black women reasonable images of who Black women are, said Dr. Malveaux.
Dr. Ivy Dunn, chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Chicago State University, told The Final Call there is a societal impact that comes along with such images.
Blacks often do not protest it often enough and sometimes fall victim to it, said Dr. Dunn.
We also believe that if I’m not this way as a Black woman, certainly there are some like this even if I am not this way personally, she continued.
“Yes, perhaps they are getting paid and getting rich for this. But we don’t get paid, we don’t get rich. A woman who acts like that in public is going to go to jail, which is exactly what happened to one of them,” Dr. Dunn said referring to Porsha Williams.
“It just so happened that she had enough money that she’s able to go on and do other things. But that does not happen in the real world. So it’s putting up false situations that aren’t going to apply to you if you get caught up in that.”
There is a push to see Black women represented in a different light, but will those in decision-making capacities do anything different?
As of February 2014, The Real Housewives of Atlanta is the highest-rated installment of The Real Housewives franchise and is additionally the most-watched series airing on Bravo, according to Nielsen.
Producers behind the scenes of the show claimed to be befuddled and baffled that allowing two people with a prior history of arguments and confrontations could possibly turn violent.
Andy Cohen hosted the RHOA reunion show and also serves as executive vice president of development and talent at Bravo. According to the network’s website he is the executive producer of entire The Real Housewives franchise. Carlos King is executive producer of RHOA and Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, which runs on VH-1. Mr. Cohen is White, Mr. King is Black. Both men said they did not see the possibility of the violent encounter.
Ms. Leakes, the only remaining original cast member, said she did not anticipate there would be a brawl when asked about it on the Arsenio Hall Show April 23. The Final Call reached out to representatives of Ms. Leakes and received the following response from her publicist Susan Madore of Guttman P.R., “NeNe unfortunately isn’t available. Her schedule is insane right now.”
The Final Call also reached out to media contacts for Bravo but no interview request was granted.
Ms. Leakes told Mr. Hall, “You already know that it’s going to be negative and belittling and all that kind of stuff. The pay is OK but I don’t know if it is worth what you saw in the clip.”
Prof. Pilgrim said what is being represented on television is the consequence of Blacks not telling their own stories and leaving it up to others.
“It is an unfortunate truth that African Americans are often portrayed in popular culture by people who are more interested in making money than giving accurate portrayals,” said Prof. Pilgrim.
He added, “An even greater atrocity occurs when Black writers, editors, and producers pander to historically stereotypical portrayals—like Mammies, Toms, Sambos, and Sapphires—to sell books, movies, or television series.”
Most of the top level television executives and producers are White males and many are members of the Jewish community. None of the 18 top executives pictured on Bravo’s website are Black.
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam raised a question about Hollywood and images during a broadcast of his 2013-2014 online lecture series, “The Time and What Must Be Done”.
“But does it matter who dominates the media? It does,” said the Nation of Islam minister.
“Look, the media shapes not only our children’s values and actions, but our own,” said Min. Farrakhan.
Award-winning filmmaker, writer and producer Stacey Muhammad said mainstream Hollywood and media is an arm of systemic oppression reflected in larger society especially when it comes to Blacks and women.
“Hollywood is the place and the space where most of the dirty work is done depicting people in a particular way that certainly determines how they view and interact with one another and around the world,” Ms. Muhammad told The Final Call.
The only ideas many have about Blacks and “people of color” are shaped by what they see on television which are often limited narratives based on stereotypes, she said.
Other alternatives outside of mainstream dominated media do exist but even there, it presents a struggle to represent Black people as complex human beings added Ms. Muhammad whose hit web series, “For Colored Boys,” is one of many examples of independent Black filmmakers taking matters into their own hands to create diverse content, representation and genres. There are others creating different and diverse content for the web like producer and director Issa Rae, said Ms. Muhammad.
When asked if she thinks audiences are willing to watch something “different” showing Blacks in a different light. Ms. Muhammad said, “Of course.”
“The problem is where people go for their information and entertainment because there are many things that are out here that are different. But as they say if it’s not in the mainstream it’s not in our bloodstream. So how do you get, masses of people to mass consume something that’s not on Channel 6?” she asked.
“At this point it’s damn near an impossibility. I think that as long as we are not very clear on what media is and what mainstream media is we’ll continue to find ourselves in very difficult situations,” said Ms. Muhammad.