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Commentary: Is Reality TV Your Reality?

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A couple weeks back, I was asked to write an essay about the depiction of Black women on reality TV. I passed on the opportunity because frankly, I don't watch much television unless it's on HBO. And although it's popular opinion to decry what a trainwreck reality TV is and how scripted TV (and the need for writers) is mostly dead, I won't jump aboard the crowded bandwagon without knowing at least a little current something about what I'm talking about. That said, since that ask, I've managed to catch a few episodes of popular reality TV shows featuring Black women, for instance "The Real McCoy," which chronicles LisaRaye's attempts to get back into the Hollywood limelight after her disastrous divorce from the Prime Minister of Turks & Caicos. Surprisingly, I like it. Short of LisaRaye dropping a few f-bombs at the prospect of not getting pizzaid by her ex like she expected, the show is surprisingly tame (as if cursing about being broke counts as real drama). She's over-affectionate with her daughter, Kai, and she frisked her daughter's date for weapons, but otherwise, she's pretty normal, if a bit endearingly hood on the edges, with common dramas. I caught an episode of the much-hyped "Basketball Wives" too, although I don't get how we're calling these women "wives" with a plural, since there's only one wife on the show. It was the episode where the groupie confronts the only actual wife to tell her that her husband's a whore, and then some other main character from the show throws a drink in the woman's face. I turned the channel. I love a good dramatic moment as much as the next chick, but can do without a proud groupie arguing with a woman who is miserably married and seemingly only staying for the money. (Does that make her a gold digger?) I mean, they're going back and forth over the same man who's playing them both; shouldn't they be going at the man?   I caught a peak at "What Chilli Wants," too, even though I said I wouldn't watch it after I saw the supertrailer online. In the clip, her relationship expert got mad at Chilli for being too picky, knocked the glass of the dinner table in a rage, and walked out. Um... no. I can die today without seeing yet another portrayal of an unprofessional, insufferably rude, loud Black woman unlike any Black woman I know.  Anyway, the epi I caught, Chilli was hooked up with some personal trainer guy by her coach. He was beautiful, but had little personality and talked in circles like that Damon Wayans' prison character from "In Living Color." I get that the show needs a dramatic arc and conflict to keep people tuning in, but sometimes I just want the women on dating shows to go out with guys who they might actually be interested in. Dating can be hard enough and dramatic enough with someone you like, without making it an intentional uphill battle, you know? So over the weekend, I was reading an article on The Root called, "Has Reality TV Become Black Women's Enemy?" Kristal Brent Zook argues that it has, pointing to act-out antics by Sheree from "Real Housewives of Atlanta," snatching off Kim's wig, and drug-riddled mothers on both "Frankie & Neffe" and "Tiny & Toya," (I've never seen an episode of either 'cause I only watch hoodish when it's well-written, like, say, "The Wire" or "The Sopranos").  With rare exception, Black women are clearly not being shown in our best light. Zook caught up with the producers of a few reality shows to ask why Black women, for the most part, are shown at their hood best. ''When you sign on to do a train-wreck show, you have to deliver that,'' says D'Angela Proctor Steed, executive producer of "Sunday Best," a gospel competition reality show on BET [who I must note are where "Frankie & Neffe" and "Tiny & Toya" can be found]. ''And I do think producers cross a line in order to make the train wreck bigger, or to make them happen faster.'' ''That's not what we're doing,'' countered Jeff Olde [Senior Vice President, President, Production & Programming] of VH1, [who was  a network executive when "Flavor of Love" was on the air.] ''We don't have that intention.'' "'If it happens organically,'' however, ''then it's real life.'' Real life, for some, but what about the other depictions like the less hood side of how Black women behave or deal with life? I object to the common portrayal that we're all single-mother raised women suffering through a host of problems typically caused by Black men acting a fool, because isn't this what most of these shows have in common? Shows like "Run's House," "Daddy's Girls," and "The Family Crews," which offer "typical" dramas like a man and wife trying to steer their mostly well-behaved kids in the right direction or two young women trying to strike out on their own in a new city are too few and too far between. And those are the stories I actually want to watch. Terrion Williams, a doctoral candidate in American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California who is writing her dissertation about reality-television programming, says I may be projecting my ideas about what's good and normal and what's hood through a very biased lens. ''I want to be careful about labeling,'' Williamson told The Root. ''Because that attitude comes from a kind of middle-class, bourgeoisie ideology that says there's a certain way that we, as Black women, should conduct ourselves. Would we be happier if all we saw was Michelle Obama? Would that then improve our lot in life?'' Not improve my lot, but it would make reality TV more relatable, you know? And maybe then I'd actually tune in regularly and not just when I'm bored or asked to do so for an assignment. Demetria L. Lucas is ESSENCE's Relationships Editor, the writer of ABelleinBrooklyn.com and the author of  A BELLE IN BROOKLYN (Atria, June 2011.) Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abelleinbk.
Filed Under: Real Talk
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