Channeling Drama: How the Chaotic Couples We See on TV Impact Our Own Relationships and Communities
Mitt Roshin

Breakups. Divorces. Makeups.

We’ve seen our share of relationship drama on popular reality TV shows over the past few years. But spending hours looking at couples in crisis and Black women arguing can affect our own love lives. Research indicates that watching programs with relational aggression—described as manipulation, exclusion and bullying—can influence us to be more aggressive in everyday life. The nonprofit organization Truth in Reality is committed to changing the negative images of Black women in media. Founder Sil Lai Abrams talks about the effects of what we consume, and how to end the cycle.

ESSENCE: What we see influences what we do. What price are we paying as Black women for the current images?

Sil Lai Abrams: Black women have historically been portrayed in very narrow and stereotypical ways. In the 1990’s we had this girl-power era with girl groups, and on TV we had Living Single and an emphasis on sisterhood and community. There has slowly been a shift. Research explores the influences of men’s violence against women. Some of it is patriarchy. Some of it is media. Young men are growing up being taught certain views about women by their brothers, their mothers and their environment. Then it’s reinforced by media. If we are going to shift this cultural acceptance of violence against Black women, we do have to examine how the media is complicit in allowing drama and violence against women to go largely unchallenged. We’ve seen all sorts of crazy, and women who are dependent upon men for their identity or their income. These are unhealthy models of coupledom. There is no healthy love. There’s dysfunction. That’s something to address.

ESSENCE: What sparked you to create change?

Abrams: The infamous Evelyn Lozada and Chad Johnson head butt in 2012. People were refusing to believe that Evelyn could actually be a victim of domestic violence because she herself was so aggressive and violent with her castmates on Basketball Wives. It’s also respectability politics. Only “respectable women” shouldn’t be on the receiving end of any form of violence.

ESSENCE: You are spearheading Redefining HERStory, a documentary on the images of Black women in the media and their impact. Why is it important?

Abrams: Only love can stomp out hate. Redefining HERStory is a love letter to our people. I’ve heard people say, “Girl fights have been around forever. Reality TV didn’t start it.” The difference is, back in the day it was limited to what happened in your neighborhood. It wasn’t glorified. Now you post drama and you’re Insta-famous. Now you’re receiving positive reinforcement for antisocial behavior. This is our wake-up call to start a conversation that will lead to a change in attitudes and behavior. We have to be mindful of what we watch and how it shapes the way we treat ourselves and one another.

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The facts of our relationships and media consumption compiled by Truth in Reality:

• TV is our nation’s top leisure activity, with the average American watching 4 to 5 hours per day and Black Americans averaging 7 hours.

• The average Black American youth spends almost double the amount of time as other young people viewing media (13 hours per day).

• Black women have the highest rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and intimate partner homicide in the U.S.

• Black teenage girls have the highest rates of dating abuse among high school students.