Has Reality TV Become Black Women’s Enemy?

From ''The Real Housewives of Atlanta'' to ''What Chilli Wants,'' these days, reality TV is fixated on black women. But only when we act the fool.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Remember the ”real” housewife named Sheree? Whose only claim to fame is that she was once married to a professional football player? Remember how she yanked housewife Kim’s blond wig and called her white trash outside of a fashionable Atlanta restaurant? (Kim, the sole Caucasian Atlanta ”housewife” whose married lover’s checks allows her to pay $3,000 on a regular basis to get the fat rolled from her thighs.)

Across the reality-television spectrum, there have always been women like Sheree and her ”friends” on Bravo TV’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta: catty, materialistic, self-absorbed. But are television executives really only interested in black women when we’re acting a fool? And more importantly, are we really only interested in seeing ourselves portrayed in this light?

Apparently so: Last month, VH1 dominated the list of top 25 cable shows in black households for reality original programming, returning with the all new Basketball Wives ranked at No. 5. (Like Housewives and Tiny & Toya, the show features ex-girlfriends and wives trying to make names for themselves on the heels of relationships with famous men.) What Chili Wants followed in popularity at No. 7, and Brandy & Ray J came in at No. 11. Executives say that their channel has had a 9 percent increase in black women prime-time viewers ages 18-49 in this past year alone with the success of their reality shows.

TV One also made its first showing on the top 25 list for original programming last month when LisaRaye: The Real McCoy came in at No. 16 and delivered the biggest audience in the network’s six-year history. (TV One will roll out two more original reality shows in 2010: one starring reality-show villain Omarosa as a bachelorette and the other spotlighting R&B entertainers K-Ci and JoJo as they struggle with sobriety.)

BET’s Tiny & Toya has consistently ranked high in black homes–so much so that a new show featuring Toya is in the planning stages for 2011.

For some, the fascination is hard to understand.

Last season, for example, it seemed impossible to escape from drug-addicted mothers on BET’s Frankie and Neffe and Tiny & Toya.

”We get e-mails asking, ‘Why are we showing that,”’ said James DuBose, executive producer on both shows. ”I always say … it’s OK to show the dark side as long as you have a purpose.”

To say that drug addiction doesn’t exist, wouldn’t be presenting these stories authentically, explained Charlie Jordan Brookins, vice president of programming operations for BET. But in the case of Toya, ”we’re showing that despite her upbringing, she’s rising above her circumstances. She’s writing a book. She’s trying to get her love life back together. She’s seeking counsel with people who will help her … She’s not letting her mother go.”