The Real in Reality TV: The Portrayal of African-American Women

Tuesday, 06 July 2010 10:01 Written by  Ebony L. Morman

The recent swarm of reality TV shows that have hit the airwaves has everyone from teens to 30-something’s tuning in each week to see what crazy antics are set to take place. The argument can last for days about what’s real and what’s fake, but when it all boils down, viewers are not changing the channel.

Whether it’s a show like Real World, which usually cross racial, sexual and age boundaries or one of the many African-American centered reality shows like Tiny & Toya, Basketball Wives or The Real Housewives of Atlanta, people just can’t get enough.

Viewers are not totally clueless, plus producers make it obvious that cast members are typecast. If a cast member is not a certain type of person, then there is a possibility that they will be portrayed a particular way. You have technology and a simple editing process to thank for that one.

Oftentimes, most of the blame is placed on producers, but cast members know the stipulations when they sign their lives away on the dotted line. When you sign, it virtually means anything goes.

There is a consensus that African-American women in particular are not portrayed in the best light on some reality shows.


The Real Housewives of Atlanta

“[African-American] women are portrayed in the most stereotypically way: ignorant, angry, mistrustful, aggressive, gold-diggers and loud,” says 25-year old Shayla Wooten.

Although Wooten watches VH1’s new reality series Basketball Wives, which follows the lives of the once significant others of NBA stars, each week, she still feels like the cast of the show and shows like it are typically willing to throw away their reputations all for a measly 15 minutes of fame.

“The more ghetto, the better for the ratings,” Wooten adds.

Even if Wooten’s assessment isn’t as scientific as Nielson’s ratings, she may be on to something.

Both Tiny & Toya and Real Housewives have had some of the highest ratings for their respective networks. Tiny & Toya’s debut in 2009 had 3 million viewers. Of Bravo’s four The Real Housewives of... franchise, the Housewives of ATL is the most-watched season.

It’s easy to speculate on reality TV’s appeal, but hairstylist Sidnye Shelly has her own reasons for keeping up with the shows.

Shelley tunes in to watch Tiny & Toya primarily because she is a fan of the men in the women’s lives, she admits. Tiny Cottle is rapper T.I.’s fiancée, and Toya Carter is rapper Lil Wayne’s ex-wife and mother of his child.

Housewives of ATL and Basketball Wives are full of drama,” Shelly adds. “It’s funny to watch them go back and forth and not bust a grape.”

While Wooten believes that the channel the show airs on has minimal effect on the way the women actually act or are portrayed, Shelly does see a slight difference.

Tiny & Toya, which airs on BET, is the most relatable among the three shows, Shelly says. They are down to earth, and for the most part, their everyday lives consist of doing normal activities. The cast of Basketball Wives are portrayed as high-class, catty women who bicker over meaningless subject matter and consistently complain about men, she says.

Whether it’s a show where women are complaining about men or fighting for the love of a man like on any of VH1’s For the Love of... shows, registered nurse Kimberly Tenison finds people’s behavior on TV to be entertaining.

“On the dating shows, women are not always portrayed in the best way,” she says, “but they allow themselves to be portrayed that way.”

Whether you like it or not, reality TV is in it’s prime. As appealing as it may seem to just change the channel, viewers choose to keep watching. Even though it may be purely entertainment for some people, for Wooten the issue is deeply rooted.

It’s just another subtle form of racism, Wooten expresses. Now, everyone can watch African-American women make a mockery of themselves.


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Ebony L. Morman

Ebony L. Morman

GMO's Senior Editor Ebony L. Morman received her B.A. in journalism from Northern Illinois University and her master’s in journalism from Columbia College Chicago. The Chicago-native enjoys writing about almost anything, but since she also has a passion for music, writing reviews of albums has become one of her favorite past times. Aside from GMO, Ebony freelances for a variety of publications and volunteers in her community.

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