Disgruntled women and absent men dominate popular reality shows that focus on black people and love. They're just TV shows, but what statement do they make about our reality?
Last week marked the end of Season 2 of VH1's catty Basketball Wives, and just when we thought the foolishness was over, the network debuted Love and Hip Hop, a "docu-soap" series on women who are connected to hip-hop, through either their men or their careers. The presence of the words "love" and "wives" in the titles of these shows is misleading -- the programs are almost totally devoid of both.
It's no secret that in recent years, VH1 reality shows have started to skew more toward attracting (exploiting?) the black viewer. From women with nicknames such as Deelishis, Bunz and Thing competing for five minutes of fame on Flavor of Love to the mile-long list of high expectations of former TLC member Chili on What Chili Wants, black love and relationships are front and center on the network.
With all of the doom-and-gloom media coverage of black women and marriage statistics in recent years, do shows like this reinforce stereotypes of commitment-phobic black men and desperate black women who settle for unfulfilling relationships?
On this past season of Basketball Wives, only one featured married cast member, Jennifer Williams, was actually married. And surprise, surprise -- much of her storyline revolved around the dissolution of her dysfunctional union. By the time the end-of-season cast reunion rolled around, Williams announced that she had plans to finally divorce her estranged husband, former ball player Eric Williams.
As for the other women, they're former girlfriends, one-time fiancées and ex-wives. Besides Williams, they all have one thing in common: They had children with their ballers. Is this really enough to warrant "wife" status?
Just as Basketball "Wives" was ending, Love and Hip Hop kept the train rolling. It's only one episode in, and we've been given a window into the relationships of Chrissy, the girlfriend of rapper Jim Jones; and Emily, rapper Fabolous' longtime love. Both women have been with their lyricists for several years. Despite the fact that their men aren't interested in marriage, the cast mates stress over when they'll get a ring.
Chrissy makes it clear that she wants to get married and have children with Jones. Describing her role on the show, VH1.com states, "Her time is running out. She'll be the Bonnie to another Clyde if it's not going to be Jim. Jim better wake up soon because Chrissy will get hers one way or another."
The most troubling relationship is that of Emily and Fabolous. They have been together for eight years, live together and have a son, but she says he never "claims" her to the outside world. "He's a rapper. There's women, there's this, there's that, but he'll never leave me," Emily confidently proclaims. "I'm his family; I know that ... He'll say, 'I'm single as a dollar bill.' "
Excuse me? If your man isn't willing to admit that he's with you or that you even exist, he may not be your man. The one-sided relationship is painful to watch. After a tear-filled lunch with Mashonda (ex-wife of Swizz Beatz, who caused a minor scandal when he left her for Alicia Keys), during which Emily debated whether she should stay or go, she drove off in a Bentley, presumably purchased by the beau who won't even acknowledge her role in his life.
Reality shows aren't an overall representation of any race or sex, but it's questionable, interesting and baffling that all of the characters seem to fit the same mold. Black women are continually seen as the ride-or-die, hold-your-man-down-no-matter-what chicks. Loyalty is certainly needed in all relationships, but when it's unbalanced or comes at the cost of happiness, that's a no-go.
Maybe healthy relationships don't make good TV. We all know that catfights and conflicts equal good ratings, but can we at least see a little love? Just one happy, stable, real-life couple? They don't have to be married, since that's not the goal for everyone, but what about a union in which both people actually want to be with each other?
If VH1 producers can find gaggles of women ready to publicly battle for Flavor Flav, of all people, they can surely find a happy black couple who are ready for prime time.
Patrice J. Williams is a contributor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.