Is Black-ish Right About Reality Stars?

Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC.
On some shows, guest appearances can feel forced and out of place, but Black-ish is usually better when other people drop in. With the exception of a recent episode that I’m still trying to forget, Black-ish uses these cameos as opportunities to explore the Johnson family dynamics while also addressing the cultural nuances that frame their decisions.
Last night, when Rashida Jones made her debut on the show as Rainbows sister Santa Monica — yes, that’s her name — the series tackled the subject of reality stars. Per usual, the Johnson family stood in as America, with their sometimes polarizing views. In this episode, however, the general consensus seemed to be that an entertainment career consisting solely of reality television is beneath regular, hardworking folk.
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Where Johan and Rainbow are the true offspring of their free-range parents, Santa Monica appears to be cut from a completely different cloth. She has just wrapped a season appearing as a budding upstart on a Real Housewives-esque show called Rich Wives. When she arrives to visit her sister, she is riding the wave of going viral and basking in the glory of her large alimony settlement from a three-month marriage. She’s passionate about her appearance and her social media following because, duh. Predictably, Bow thinks that Santa Monica should have a more serious career — like her own — and be less self-absorbed.
Bow stands in as America’s moral majority, the one that has normalized making fun of reality stars as the lowest caliber of entertainer, people who deserve neither respect nor prestige. After amassing a huge fortune and breaking barriers in tech, not even Kim Kardashian can escape the narrative that she deserves none of it because she has decided to live her life on camera. Because it’s perhaps the industry hit hardest by narrow beauty standards, a focus on appearance comes with the territory. And social media becomes just another part of the gig. These conditions imply that reality stars are shallow and without morals.
However, we still consume reality television with feverish enthusiasm, despite what we think about the women who appear in them. I love that Santa Monica challenged her sister when she reminded Bow that being on Instagram and Snapchat were part of her job, so she technically works just as much as Bow. And while she spends an absurd amount of time taking selfies, she spends more time with their aging parents than Bow does.
Bow accepts that her sister's lifestyle choices are simply different than her own, but not inherently better or worse. I just hope that one day the rest of us will reach the same level of understanding about one another, as well.
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