Gabrielle Union is something of a magician. Though she was targeted in the 4chan nude photo hack earlier this year — an experience she recently addressed in Cosmopolitan — it’s certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear her name. And, she’s not just basketball star Dwyane Wade’s wife. She’s the woman photobombing her husband’s post-game interview. She’s the woman who offered Prince a tuna casserole. She’s downright cool. And, now she’s overhauling our preconceived notions about reality TV stars in her role as Erica in Chris Rock’s new film Top Five. Presto chango.
Top Five, starring Union, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Jones, and a host of other talented women, feels like a feminist film — a label Union says she's not opposed to using. Rock's film marks a pivotal moment for the portrayal of black and Latina women in pop culture. In an article for Salon titled “The Reign of Tyler Perry Is Over,” Michael Arceneaux writes, “We’re finally getting movies from black creatives that don’t involve Jesus, a Madea, or some exhaustive romantic squabble that ends in perfectly packaged ‘true love.’” Though Arceneaux refers specifically to thrillers featuring black actors, his statement rings true for Rock’s movie, too. (In one scene, the cast specifically calls out Tyler Perry's Madea franchise.)
As Erica, a reality TV star who’s planning a nationally televised wedding to her fiancé Andre (Rock), Union breathes fire into an otherwise passive, forgettable role — one that much of America seems programmed to disdain — pushing audiences to reconsider how they view the Kim Kardashians of the world. Union has strong feelings about how women are portrayed on reality shows and brings some of them to her role. While she wishes things were different for women on reality TV, she doesn’t place full blame on the networks. “Nobody’s forced to do anything,” she tells R29, referring to women who willingly partake in reality shows. “It’s a free world, and [the networks] only show what they’re given. Editing can only edit so much,” she says. “It’s about taking personal responsibility for your own image and how that image will be used.”
Union says black and Latina women are too often portrayed as being volatile. “It’s unfortunate that the takeaway for a lot of people who aren’t exposed to certain groups of women — specifically black and Latina women — walk away with the idea that this is how black and Latina women are. They fight each other. They cuss each other out. It’s backbiting. It’s very crabs-in-a-barrel. And, there are not enough women of color on television and film to offset it,” Union says.
There are a few exceptions — Union named La La’s Full Court Life as one of them — but the lack of more examples speaks to a larger issue among audiences. “We don’t have more of those [shows], because clearly there’s a demand now [to see] women of color be as nasty as possible to each other. It’s our choice what we watch, and our choice as performers to do a reality show where people assume that it’s real.”
Yet, Union refutes negative stereotypes about reality television stars — that they’re dumb and untalented. “A lot of reality people don’t get enough credit for being intelligent. That was one of the things [I focused on] when I was creating Erica. I’m not doing a carbon copy of anyone, but the reality people I know are really smart, very powerful, and they’ve taken control of their own images,” Union says. Though in the early stages of the genre, some reality stars may have had little agency, Union believes that's no longer the case. "That was more of what I wanted to show with Erica — that these women aren’t being led by the nose. They’re in control. They are businesswomen, and they are powerful.”
One through line of Top Five is a reinvention of the Cinderella fairy tale, with Rosario Dawson's character — a journalist and single mother — as a new version of the princess. I asked Union if she thought traditional, Disney-type princess stories are harmful to young girls today. Do they need a rebrand? “Where Cinderella is, like, 40 and going through IVF alone?" she imagines. "Or, like, Prince Charming leaves her or has tax problems? There are so many different stories, but we need to be accountable as human beings. If you’re reading [traditional fairy tales] to your children and positioning them as reality, you set yourself up for this. Books don’t jump off the shelves. You pick them, and you choose what you’re going to read to your children, or what you’re going to show your kids. Don’t blame Disney now because you’re not offsetting them with different images in your own life, and whatever else you’re exposing your child to.”
Sure, as a kid Union watched Disney movies and Julia Roberts rom-coms, but her mother also took her to see Nikki Giovanni read poetry at the Oakland Children’s Museum. “She offset it. So if I, as I became a full-fledged adult, was still living in a fantasy world — that’s on me, like I’ve got some issues. There’s a therapist somewhere that’s missing a check because I didn’t go enough,” she jokes. “So, yeah, maybe it’s because I’m in entertainment, and I look at it kind of for what it is. But, I also know that as adults, we have a responsibility to expose our kids to all kinds of things. I might have grown up always staying in the ‘I wanna be Princess Tiana and turn this frog into something that I’ve created in my mind about what he should be,’ but I was also reading Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.”
Still, she takes issue with the idea that a woman grows up feeling the need to be “picked” by a man — that women are all lined up in a row just waiting to be chosen. “[And it's] by someone who we decided is an important man, who’s very desirable — whether on The Bachelor or any of the dating shows, the idea is that to have the fairy tale now is to be chosen publicly.” Union’s interested in dispelling this idea of a woman spending her life waiting — both in her depiction of Erica and in her personal life.
Union herself battles a stigma that she's simply an accessory to a man, rather than a professional, self-made woman. “We put a lot into that idea: That in order to be valid and to be whole and to be worthwhile, you have to be chosen. I get a lot of questions [in interviews] like, ‘Tell us about your wedding.’” She usually takes this opportunity to remind reporters that she’s a professional. “I’m working. I’ve got a show and two movies. I’m executive producing something. I’m also getting married — and that’s cool — but who I am, and why I’m dope? [The wedding] is a small thing. It’s great our family is whole, and we’re moving on. But, it’s not who I am. I don’t hang my hat on it. It doesn’t define me.” She also fields questions about what it’s like being a basketball wife. “A basketball wife is a creation for television. I’m an actress who happened to marry a man that plays basketball. There’s a difference. Now, the fantasy has turned into, ‘He chose you.' I chose him. We chose to be a family. There’s a difference.”
While Union isn't interested in sharing her personal life with the world, she's happy to praise Kim Kardashian for the way she handles her image. “There was a reason I didn’t make my most personal, private moment public every step of the way, because I didn’t want that. I didn’t want that for myself or my family or for our guests — but I get it. I get the ‘I wanna see, we followed you, we’re interested.’ I get the demand, and I get the urge to give. And, if you’re comfortable with it, that’s dope. But, this idea that Kim Kardashian wouldn’t be this full-fledged, dope, fly businesswoman with a huge brand if Kanye wasn’t there? That’s false. They opted to share something with us because we’ve been along for the ride. But, that’s Kim and Kanye taking control of their own images. Because they also know that in their most private moments, there are going to be paparazzi and people climbing hedges who are going to try to steal those moments from them. So it's like, let me just take control of it."
As a female celebrity, Union exists in a world where the shoes she wears on a Tuesday are subject to public scrutiny on Wednesday — a world where she constantly fears becoming the next Internet joke. "Just today, when I was trying to pick out an outfit, I was like, ‘What is idiot proof? What is not gonna get me dissected?’” She recalls a recent press day in Miami when she chose a pair of white shoes. She thought they were a safe bet, until media outlets put her entire ensemble up for public opinion. “It’s not that serious. It’s an outfit that I wore for two seconds."
Online critics show little mercy and even less remorse, so you can't blame her for worrying. "I think What can I put on that’s going to make me meme-free? I don’t want to turn into a meme. I literally had a dream last night that I was sitting in a room thinking about potential questions that people could ask and my responses. That was my whole dream, like avoiding the boogie. But, that’s where we’re at."
She admits it's changed the way she gives interviews — the fear that a quote taken out of context can destroy a career. "Imagine if you said the wrong thing, trying to make a joke, trying to show that there is no sacred cow, and that one thing you said takes you out of your passion forever."
This is the new balancing act for a female celebrity — between pressure to be perfect about the things you say, but selectively imperfect in a way that makes you relatable, like everyone's celeb BFF Jennifer Lawrence.
“So much goes into making and maintaining a female star. If you, God forbid, go out without your lashes, honey, or you eat a couple chocolate-covered pretzels, or you’re pregnant, but decide to wait until after the first trimester when you feel safe [to share your news]? They’re like, ‘She’s fat, you’re as big as a cow.’ When pregnant women stop being off-limits, where the hell are we?"
Union's all about balance. For every three seasons of bickering housewives, we may see just one substantial on-screen portrayal of a black or Latina character. But, with performances like her role in Top Five and by voicing her opinions, Union is working to change the conversation about actresses of color in Hollywood. Think of it as a tip of the scale.