Inside Reality TV’s Black Excellence Complex
Heavy is the crown of representation, and across the reality sphere, Black women are weighed down by the personal calling of excellence.
The television space has a diversity problem. Though there are more shows featuring people of color on air than ever before, Hollywood still struggles to expand its breadth when it comes to keeping the industry inclusive — especially for Black women. Actors and audiences alike have been campaigning to bring more Black stories to the forefront for years, and though series like HBO’s Insecure and OWN’s Queen Sugar have championed the Black female narrative, they remain rare.
As the scripted side of television struggles to diversify its storytelling, the corner of TV land occupied by reality programming is dealing with a different issue; if anything, there are almost too many stories being told. There is no shortage of reality TV subjects. However, even with the seemingly endless stream of content within the space, Black women on screen are still struggling. Fame does little to protect them from the pitfalls of misogynoir.
Black women are saddled with the burden of putting on for the whole community — a responsibility that many of their white counterparts rarely have to shoulder. Heavy is the crown of representation, and across the reality sphere, Black women are weighed down by the personal calling of excellence. We need not look further than Bravo’s present programming to observe the challenges faced by Black women navigating the space; at the reality TV hub, Black talent’s hyper awareness about the narrative of Blackness being shared with the world is a direct result of internalizing the pressure to perform at the highest levels.
In the early 2000s, Bravo went from being a network that focused on performing arts to becoming the premier destination for reality content. The Real Housewives franchise, born in the spring of 2006, was one of those key series; its Orange County pilot paving the way for casts from 14 other major cities. The Atlanta-based series was especially popular, featuring a group of bold and boisterous Black women living and working in one of the Blackest cities in the country. As The Real Housewives of Atlanta grew, so did its list of recognizable personalities; over the years, Nene Leakes, Cynthia Bailey, Kandi Burruss, Phaedra Parks, Porsha Williams, and Kenya Moore became staples within the network, and in the pop culture space in general.
But that widespread recognition came with a heavy price, and the RHOA ladies soon discovered that public perception of them, especially among non-Black viewership, was very different in comparison to that of their peers on the channel. Even as RHOA quickly became one of the network's highest performing series, there were some who still viewed it in a harsh and unfavorable light despite it having the same shouting matches and shade-throwing as the other primarily white franchises. New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice literally flipped tables and famously accused one of her castmates of being a “prostitution whore” (season one); Lisa Rinna of Beverly Hills broke a wine glass at a casual dinner during a heated argument (season five); the Lone Star State’s very own LeeAnne Locken issued a thinly-veiled threat of physical violence under the waning influence of anesthesia (season two). Those incidents and more were largely chalked up to the ladies’ larger-than-life personalities.
Black women everywhere recognize that the rules have always been different for us; such blatant double standards are nothing new. As a group that sits at the intersection of two perpetually marginalized identities, misogynoir strips us of the opportunity to behave badly — even a little — forcing us to be the picture of excellence at all times lest we be negatively stereotyped. Actively avoiding the minefield of common tropes like the Mad Black Woman, the Hoodrat, or the Jezebel is a full-time job, and when you’re on television, you’re working overtime.
“Every Black mother has taught her child that we have to be twice as good, twice as smart, and twice as polished just to get into the room,” Real Housewives of Potomac’s Gizelle Bryant said during a recent phone conversation. “Forget standing out. We have to be better just to get into the room.”
“Black women are already considered the bottom of the barrel in this society, viewed as less than,” she continued. “So we’ve been conditioned to know that we have to hold ourselves in a queen-like manner at all times. And when we represent ourselves in any other manner, it affects all of us. If one of us does it, it hurts all of us. We’re all accountable for each other.”
That conditioned sense of accountability manifests itself in a number of ways for Bryant and her fellow Black Bravolebs. In the upcoming season of RHOP, the cast will wrestle head-on with the impossible standard of Black excellence when tensions run so high that they lead to a physical altercation between Housewives Monique Samuels and Candice Dillard Bassett. To this group of women, who represent a community that prides itself on raising upper echelon individuals, the fight that ensues feels like a stain that sullies a lifetime of virtue.
“This platform is something that we had to work for,” Gizelle said over the phone. “Damaging what we worked so hard to have and hold up...we don’t take it lightly.”
While keeping the “real” in “reality television” is always priority number one, knowledge of how Black womanhood will be perceived by viewers as a consequence of their behavior on camera leads to a hypervigilance that their white counterparts never have to take into consideration. Appearing on television provides a huge platform, but that platform also leaves room to be subjected to an astonishing level of racial violence from the public. Racist trolls are attracted to things that center Black women like bees to honey; no matter where we are in the mediascape and what we’re doing, you can bet that there’ll be a swarm of people in the comments with something disgusting to say — an occupational hazard, if you will.
For Married to Medicine: Los Angeles star Dr. Imani Walker, that possibility initially turned her off to the idea of joining a reality TV series; a respected psychiatrist, medical director, and mother, Dr. Imani had everything to lose by appearing on a reality show. When the original Married to Medicine was in its developmental stages, she admitted that she was among the wary masses protesting the Bravo production due to valid concerns that it would make a mockery of Black medical professionals who are already far and few between across specialties. But once the show took off in 2013, Dr. Imani changed her mind and saw reality TV as a valuable opportunity for a teaching moment that would show the world how crucial Black doctors are.
Once Married to Medicine: Los Angeles was greenlit years later, the doctors and doctors’ wives discussed how they could be more intentional about the message they wanted to send to the public through their show. The stakes were high for the women — in addition to the fact that Married to Medicine’s success would be difficult to replicate in a spinoff series, they’re also very influential in their community and all work full-time jobs outside of Bravo, unlike many of the other housewives. With more to lose, the show needed a bigger objective. Led by former cast member Asha Kamali Blankinship, the cast took time before filming began to learn about the racist stereotypes propagated through and by the media, intent on educating themselves about ways to avoid falling into those tired traps.
“Before and after Married to Medicine Los Angeles, I’m still going to be a doctor,” said Dr. Imani. “And the basis of this show is that we’re in or attached to a noble profession, so there are things that I, as a Black woman who is also a professional, have to be way more conscious of that even other Black women don’t have to.”
“When the first season started,” Dr. Imani continued, “I already had a road map of what I wanted to get out of it...I had to sit with some of the other women like, What do you want to get out this — what do you want your brand to be? You really have to know what your higher purpose in all of this is.”
“I joined [Married to Medicine LA] because I felt like there wasn’t enough representation on TV,” chimed in Dr. Britten Cole, Dr. Imani’s friend and co-star, matter-of-factly. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have anyone in my community to look up to and say, ooh I want to be that, but reality TV gives us an opportunity to show different sides of Black people and how we really live.”
“We do have a responsibility to show our community in a good light because we’ve been misrepresented for so many years, and not necessarily by our own doing,” she stated. “Black reality shows tend to have a bad rap, and I went into this wanting to change that by showing the truth about who we are.”
Dr. Britten pointed out that representation is one of the keys to unpacking antiquated ideas about who Black people are. What we see on television does have an affect on how we live. Media is a powerful tool of socialization in all of its forms, an apparatus that simultaneously creates and reflects culture. Television shows, songs, and other mediums communicate values to audiences who interpret those messages and then disseminate more ideologies confirming (or countering) what they’ve seen with more media. So purposeful representation does matter — a lot.
Unfortunately, purpose isn’t always prioritized when it comes to the reality landscape; drama, just like sex, sells. Time and time again, the shows that rake in the most viewers across networks are the messier, more chaotic ones driven by strife. Some of the most iconic reality TV moments are steeped in conflict between Black women: Joseline Hernandez’s infamous dressing-down of Mimi Faust on Love and Hip Hop Atlanta (“Hey, maid!”), Tyra Banks’ now-regretful tirade against America’s Next Top Model contestant Tiffany Richardson, Tiffany “New York” Pollard versus everybody on throwback dating show Flavor of Love. Scenes that feature Black girls with bad energy have been cemented into the culture’s collective memory, and as a result, more peaceful programming seems dull in comparison.
Cynthia Bailey of RHOA is no stranger to being called “boring.” Ever since she got her peach on the Bravo series in its third season, the former model has been branded a snoozefest because she has a history of playing peacemaker amongst the group; of the Atlanta Housewives of past and present, Cynthia has been involved in the least drama, which should be a good thing. But calls for her to be demoted to a “friend” (a person who appears on the show often but doesn’t have an official title or the official salary that comes with it) or stripped of her position on the show entirely have persisted for years for that same reason — good vibes don’t really make for must-see storylines.
The enduring critique, Cynthia shared, is hurtful, but it always stings a bit more when it comes from Black fans.
“Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but if you’re for uplifting the culture, then you need to be for uplifting the culture,” the Atlanta entrepreneur stressed. “If you are, you can’t say that someone who’s trying to represent Black women in a positive light is boring. That’s very reckless of you to think if you stand on our side.”
“I have a responsibility to the culture to be a positive representation of what we look like,” Cynthia explained. “I can only do me, and I’m always going to be accountable for what I do on the show. I believe that we can make an entertaining show that’s not negative. It’s really hurtful when your own people are the ones saying that you’re boring because you don’t want to turn up and act a fool just for the sake of being a fool.”
Still, as a person who has tuned in for a number of reality TV titles across the spectrum, I don’t see anything wrong with women — especially Black women — behaving badly on camera. Like it or not, no one is perfect, and that’s a reality that we have to come to terms with, and even celebrate, because it allows us to just breathe. If anything, I’m personally thrilled by the sight of a Black woman doing whatever she wants before the piercing watch of the white gaze. Unlearning the centering of whiteness as the moral standard for what is or isn’t socially acceptable is an essential step towards anti-racism that everyone must take.
When we understand how white supremacy has colored our understanding of social norms, mores, and laws, we are able to see exactly what needs to be changed in order to create a better, more equitable world. And by moving away from narrow ideas of what it means to be a Black woman, we’re reminding ourselves that every Black life is worthy and deserving, a fact that we’re clinging to desperately in an increasingly nightmarish sociopolitical climate.
All of the Black women I spoke to shared that their channel has been nothing but positive towards their respective stories and has always respected what they had to offer the Bravo audience, and I believe it; save for some recent incidents with Bravolebrities being called to the carpet for thinly-veiled racism, Bravo has maintained a strong reputation for supporting its Black talent and is actively making strides to amplify their voices. But even that constant support doesn’t lighten the weight of having to be twice as good. The bigger the platform, the heavier the burden to be the best. And sometimes, even our best isn’t always enough to keep us out of harm’s way.
Our internalized pressure to breathe excellence is a learned response to years of racist and sexist establishments that position Black femininity as inherently inferior. We see examples of this in almost every system — in the corporate world, in schools, in religious organizations, across politics (for politicians and constituents alike), in the economy, in the media. Misogynoir shows up everywhere, and as a result, Black women are conditioned to always put our best foot forward.
Black girl magic is mandatory; we work hard not because we want to but because, although our failure has been designed by the system, it’s simply not an option.
In its early days, reality TV was an easily mocked amusement that “serious” people talked about in hushed tones. Today, it’s an Emmy-awarded genre in its own right, and perhaps the most important and relevant form of entertainment in a world where we document and distribute every moment of our lives in high definition. But now, against the backdrop of anxiety-inducing headlines and societal upheaval, the previously low-stakes genre provides welcome relief (See: Hyori's Bed & Breakfast ), cultural commentary (see: Survivor ) and an examination into how the country got here (see: Vanderpump Rules). In 2020, there’s truly no escape from reality, whether it is playing out on our screens or outside our door.