I will be the first to admit that, when it comes to television, my standards are basically nonexistent. I indulge in everything from Love & Hip-Hop (all three cities) to Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Basketball Wives, and multiple The Real Housewives franchises. There is no shame in my game when I tell you I've spent many an afternoon with the likes of Joseline Hernandez and the Richards sisters. I have no excuse — other than the fact that mindless television relaxes my brain.
Throughout the years that I've watched these shows though, I've always noticed the marked difference between the series that star mostly Black casts versus the mostly white ones. KUWTK and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, for example, both feature plenty of conflict, but rarely physical violence. When I tune in to Love & Hip-Hop, Basketball Wives, or even The Real Housewives' Atlanta seasons, on the other hand, it's almost a guarantee that there will be hair pulling, table flipping, and cringe-worthy tussles.
It's so common, in fact, that I've almost become immune to it. Recently, I actually fell asleep during a scene where two of the main characters were literally brawling. That's right: I was so un-affected by what was happening on screen that I actually fell asleep.
When I woke up to the preview for next week, I was stunned. These women were in a nightclub, going to toe-to-toe, hurling insults and fists at each other. Yet I was so used to seeing this kind of scene that my brain was able to completely turn off. My lack of reaction to this encounter made me realize just how much these shows normalize this type of behavior between Black and Latina women. If an alien from outer space watched one of these shows to get a sense of what brown women are like, they would think: loud, angry, and violent.
A recent season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta featured a typically-calm Cynthia Bailey kicking cast member Porsha Williams in the stomach; in the past year alone, Love and Hip-Hop has featured spitting, blows, and weave-snatching. Still, somehow I tune in, week after week, giggling at each character's latest shenanigans and gasping at the worst of the fights. During a recent episode of Basketball Wives, Jackie Christie — a 47-year-old Black woman and mother — took off her shoes and ran across the floor in an attempt to fight another character...at a formal cocktail party. Other partygoers in floor-length gowns looked on, horrified. I cracked up laughing as I texted my friend in disbelief over Jackie's antics. Lawd, Jackie is a hot ass mess! I texted as we swapped screenshots and gifs.
But when I put the phone down and my laughter subsided, the guilt began to set in. I knew that this was yet another terrible image for Black women on television, yet here I was — a Black and Latina woman myself — enjoying it. One part of my brain told me that it's just entertainment; viewers had to know this was all just for fun. But the other part of my brain asked: At what point does entertainment cross the line from fun to unraveling the hard work people of color have done for years — centuries!— to break free from damaging stereotypes?
Of course, we can't put the weight of entire cultures on the backs of these silly reality TV shows. But we also can't ignore the harmful effects these images can have; Love and Hip-Hop, which features hyper-sexualized women fighting (usually over men) on a weekly basis, brings in around 1.5 million viewers every week. Sure, these are "real" people who sign up for these shows, and they are all adults who should take responsibility for their actions. But I think it's also time that networks like VH1 and Bravo take some responsibility for the way they choose castmates of particular ethnicities and pit them against one another. And no, no one on any reality show is ever painted in a completely angelic light. But it can't be purely coincidence that there is a lot more conflict and physical violence shown on Black shows than their white counterparts.
I also realize that if I'm expecting networks to take responsibility for the way they're portraying minorities on television, I also need to take some responsibility myself: The truth is that these networks want to make money. Money comes from ratings and viewership, and by audiences continuing to tune in every week. I know I'm adding to that cycle.
However, it's time to take a stand. I can no longer soak in these images from week to week and just label it a guilty pleasure. Watching Black and Latina women constantly tear one another apart is not entertainment. In the bigger picture, it's toxic and irresponsible.
So while I can't promise to quit cold turkey, I think the time has come to scale back on my reality TV watching — either until I can let it go completely or until these networks do a better job at portraying women of color as complex and layered. We are not one-dimensional characters solely capable of screaming and pulling one another's hair out. In the meantime, I think I'll be sticking to scripted program with more positive imagery. (Paging Queen Sugar and Insecure!) After all, what we digest during one TV episode can have an impact that lasts much longer than 30 minutes.