Abuse and Torment: When Reality Television Finally Gets Real

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.
In happier times, Real Housewives of Atlanta cast member Phaedra Parks (right) and Apollo Nida attend a Cirque du Soleil performance in Atlanta Oct. 26, 2012.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil

This season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta is the realest season of the franchise. The storyline involving the disintegration of the marriage of celebrated entertainment attorney Phaedra Parks and her husband, Apollo Nida, has taken center stage, dwarfing the contrived confrontations and all-out mean-girl sessions that previously defined the show and the genre.

Parks’ struggle with her husband, who appears to be mentally unraveling, has been marked by chaos and precarious interactions, leaving many to wonder, including Executive Producer Andy Cohen, whether Parks has been the victim of physical violence at the hands of her husband. Parks declined to answer the question during part one of the reunion show, setting the blogosphere abuzz with questions about whether or not Parks had been the victim of domestic violence.


Domestic violence is not new to the Real Housewives franchise or reality television. Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast member Taylor Armstrong’s physical and mental abuse at the hands of her now-deceased husband, Russell, who committed suicide following publication of photos showing his physical abuse of Armstrong, was chronicled on the show and in her book, Hiding Fom Reality: My Story of Love, Loss and Finding the Courage Within.

RHOA cast member NeNe Leakes has been candid about her history with domestic violence, even hosting charity events to help combat the pattern of behavior that is present in many intimate-partner relationships. And a few years ago, VH1 reality stars Evelyn Lozado and former NFL football player Chad Ochocinco were involved in a domestic violence incident, leading to the end of their short marriage and cancellation of their wedding reality show. Reality stars are not immune to a pattern of behavior that affects 1 in 4 women in their lifetime.


While Parks has neither confirmed nor denied whether Nida physically assaulted her, it is clear that the fairy-tale life she was determined to have has turned into a nightmare. It is also clear that a much-maligned genre of television has a problem other than negative images of shady, clawing, mean-spirited women on hand. This season of RHOA continues to raise this question: When should reality-television producers like Cohen and Mona Scott Young pull the plug on predatory and abusive behavior toward women? It also makes one wonder why viewers and executives are taking so much pleasure in black women’s pain.

Parks’ life with Nida started out with fairy-tale ambitions: A beautiful lawyer falls for an ex-con, gets married and lives happily ever after. But soon after their second child was born, a cruel side of Nida began to emerge. From flirting with her cast mate Kenya Moore to claiming that Moore had sexually propositioned him (an allegation he later admitted was false) to attacking Brandon DeShazer at a pajama party gone horribly wrong, the fairy tale crumbled. Nida, who got caught up in a fraud case and was headed back to prison, began to unravel, tormenting the attorney, accusing her of cheating, and stalking her to the point where her mother suggested she take the kids and run. Bravo continued to point its cameras and clock the ratings, which were double any other Real Housewives franchise.


When does a network decide that a woman’s torment is too much? If Cohen himself admits that watching footage of Nida’s interactions with Parks made him uncomfortable, then imagine how Parks felt. What are the implications of a show that continues to film despite the fact that one of its stars (Nida) has threatened the safety of his family?

Predatory male behavior is nothing new on reality shows, especially as it relates to shows with black casts. Love & Hip Hop has built an entire franchise predicated on this power dynamic. This season of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta is even beating the NBA playoffs in ratings. Does it mean that executives choose ratings over the safety of cast members? Yes, it is reality television, where the shows are supposed to capture the truth about the lives of various cast members, however uncomfortable it may be, but where is the line? If executives choose not to draw the line, then what are the ethical implications involved?


The world seems pretty comfortable watching nihilistic representations of black culture. Real or perceived violence against black bodies, especially women’s, seems to be acceptable on- and offscreen. One only has to compare the public responses to the killing of unarmed black men (Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown) with the public responses to the killing of unarmed black women (Rekia Boyd and Natasha McKenna) to see that something is off when it comes to how society values black women, living or dead. Which brings me back to Parks.

Parks’ torment by her estranged husband this season was hard to watch for a variety of reasons. There was a time on reality television when just the threat of violence would mean that a cast member was kicked off a show. Now there are all-out brawls, threats hurled and bottles thrown, and nobody bats an eyelash. Acts of violence have become a normative part of the genre, but where is the line when it comes to violence and abuse by men against women, particularly black women?


One could argue that documenting this part of reality helps raise awareness about these issues, while others might argue that there is no room for this type of abuse or violence toward women on television. Wherever one falls on the issue, one must consider why millions of viewers are comfortable watching black women being tormented by their male partners and why executives don’t appear particularly interested in doing anything about it.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.

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