This is not about stereotypes. And it is deeper than “how we are depicted on TV.” It goes further than neck rolling and finger poppin’, and Andy Cohen’s cluelessness. This is about the mental health of a community, and specifically black women. This is about how reality TV has created a space where sisterhood has been savaged, in a continuous, 24/7 loop.
I have been watching Love & Hip-Hop since the Chrissy/Jim Jones days, that is, from the beginning. LHHNY begat Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, and then the somewhat sub-par Love & Hip Hop Hollywood. Add to that a dash of Basketball Wives, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Blood, Sweat & Heels. Mix in a bit of Married to Medicine, and R&B Divas, and I am on a steady diet of dolled-up, hair laid, face beat, crazy-ass blacklady pathology on a regular basis. And for a minute, I was able to compartmentalize it as entertainment.
But lately, I’m feeling it may be time to chuck up the deuces.
Frankly, delight has turned to disgust as I am once again witness to black women ripping into each other continuously and relentelessly. That’s the entire plot. It used to be about “relationships” or “love” or “family” but today this tired formula seems to be set in stone: In damn near every single scene (backdrop: irrelevant) at least two women are at each others throats, if not physically, then with a constant stream of loud, sometimes scathing verbal putdowns.
Case in point: In this season of LHHATL, almost every single woman on the show had “beef” with another, usually times two. There is no reprieve. Mimi vs. Margeaux; then Mimi vs. Dawn, then Jessica Dime vs. Joseline; then Dime vs. Tiffany Fox; Rasheeda vs. Ashley Nicole; Rasheeda vs. Karlie; Erica v. Bambi; hell, now even Deb Antney is throwing zingers at Kalenna? Which led to Deb’s daughter in law Tammy getting into Kalenna’s face. Oh, then there’s Yung Joc’s girlfriend vs. his baby mommas. And on and on…
The conflict on these shows crosses social class, age, and most of all, common sense and decency. And whether it’s scripted or real, the effects are the same.
I had a “Facebook roundtable” with some of the smartest women (and man) I know, and they too, say they are ready to walk away, or already have, though somebody’s obviously watching. But more than just being in their “feelings,” often it was about a real mood that is set after constantly consuming ourselves being at war with ourselves.
“I stopped because it just became too hard to watch. Especially the fighting. I found myself angry sometimes after watching a marathon,” says Dana, a celebrity hairstylist based in New York City. “All the hollering, screaming and fussing made me holler, scream and fuss.”
In fact, according to a November 2013 issue of Psychology Today, consuming violent media, can in fact, increase aggression, though the media likes to point out that there is no definitive link:
The entertainment industry frequently claims that violent media do not increase aggression, even though it is obviously in the economic self-interest of the entertainment industry to make such claims. In 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning about the harmful effects of TV violence. Since then, the scientific evidence has grown even stronger, but news reports claim less harm. … It is a paradox. On the one hand, the TV industry claims that a few minutes of advertising can sell soap, salsa, cereal, and even political candidates to viewers. …On the other hand, the TV industry claims that the hours of programming surrounding the few minutes of advertising have no effect on viewers.
“It normalizes negative behavior,” confirms Dr. Paulette Murphy, a clinical psychologist with a practice in New York City. “If you see it enough, you might think it’s ok. But the truth is, if someone is negative in your life, those people shouldn’t be in your life. And this isn’t how you should conduct yourself.”
Joy, Memphis-based publicist, thinks that Dr. Murphy is spot on, and says she fears for those who are young, and impressionable.
“Look, I loved gangsta rap and 90s ghetto R&B. But when it was time to grow up, we all grew up. Still loved it but it had its time and place. Which was not all the time and everyplace. Y’know? So for kids who are foundation-less, super impressionable and looking for someone or something to guide them, this is destructive. Instead of looking to family or elders in the community they are looking to these TV caricatures, which again have become normalized. Simply put: if you don’t have an established normal these things become your normal.”
And lest you think violence is always physical, sometimes it’s the verbal smackdowns that are the most biting. Ef cutting to the bone, these bishes go to the marrow.
“I got tired of watching grown woman literally hitting each other and being cruel,” says Kellee, a filmmaker based in Chicago. “It’s one thing to disagree, but they took it the nth degree…bad for the soul.”
One of the most egregious examples of this cackling cruelty was the last season of Basketball Wives LA, when new character Sundy Carter told Brandi Maxiell, who was battling ovarian cancer and dealing with fertility problems: “Go try and make a baby, I have three.” And then went and bragged about it to others. Who laughed. Has the cultural norm of the “the putdown,” the last laugh, the “I told that bitch” gone too far?
“We’re losing our manners,” says Dr. Murphy. “Also, we’re taught it’s not ok not to win an argument, it’s not ok to walk away. When I worked in schools, people look down upon you if you don’t go for the jugular, they look down upon you if you walk away. But sometimes that’s the healthiest thing to do.”
And speaking of walking away, some are tuning out of reality TV because of the brutality, but others say the dressed up drama is just too much of a juxtaposition to Black bodies being felled on a daily basis or REAL sheroes.
“At first, it was exciting to see people be as bold and trifling as you could never be in real life,” says Sonya, a digital media practitioner from Brooklyn. “But then I had to cover Trayvon Martin’s trial. I watched the livestream at work and cried daily. Shortly after that verdict, I lost a taste for the mundane and focused more on what really matters.”
And for many, this world where Black women are screeching, silicone pumped, dressed-up stereotypes is not about how others see us, though that is an issue for some (says Angela, a historian in Maryland: “I have lost my taste for the Atlanta housewives because I was tired of seeing us fight and behave like idiots for the masses.”) But the consensus of the group was not that of embarrassment, but fatigue.
“I don’t subscribe to the theory that [black women on reality TV] influence others impressions of us,’ says Cameron, a photographer from Washington, DC, and the only man to weigh in. “If a Black President running the nation ain’t an example of Black reality, I don’t know what will give some folks a positive view of us. But I’m getting a little tired of it. Day in and day out Black women fighting or being ready to fight…it’s just getting played out for me.”