How Reality TV Has Changed Our Daughters

The Real Housewives of Atlanta stars Porsha Williams, Cynthia Bailey and Kenya Moore
Bravo screenshot
The Real Housewives of Atlanta stars Porsha Williams, Cynthia Bailey and Kenya Moore
Bravo screenshot

Black girl magic is a magnetic power. It’s the phenomenal-woman effect that draws attention and makes the world watch for us.

What we wear. How we wear it.

What we say. How we say it.

What we listen to, what we watch, what we read, what we buy. Our brilliance shapes trends.

Media industrialists who churn out reality television know that. We sell, not because of the us that we authentically are, but because Joe and Jane America have been voyeurs to our cussing, bickering, scratching, tugging, dissing, thrashing and throttling dysfunction, and they like it. It’s entertaining to us, and for nonblack folks not in the know, it confirms their just-a-little-bit-racist prejudices about how we live and behave.

In the last 10 years, more than 150 reality shows have aired across major networks. Of those, about 30 have centered around black women, the next spurred by the success of the one before it, escorting casts of previously unknowns into instant celebrity.


They suddenly have legions of admirers and fans and followers, consisting largely of our young girls. They dote on these women’s high-end glamour, an accoutrement of a lifestyle that represents wealth, success and general fabulousness, and adopt the adversarial posture that chicks are bound to hate on them and keep them from shining.  

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” That’s what black women’s stories in reality TV have been: formulaic, monolithic tales of manufactured, ratings-boosting friction. These are our girls’ image-makers.

Far, far away from network storyboarding and big-money business decisions—but not beyond their reaches—I am raising a 16-year-old daughter. She’s a good girl, free-spirited and introspective. Much to her mama’s disappointment, she doesn’t find reading pleasurable, but she doesn’t watch much TV, either, save a sudden interest in VH1’s Love & Hip Hop that developed last year. She doesn’t have to to be infected by the vitriol of reality shows. It’s already ingrained in black youth culture, and in her I see a hostility and distrust of other girls that breaks my heart and makes me doubly regretful about the reality-show facade.

I first noticed she was especially antagonistic to womenfolk in 2009, when you couldn’t interact with any kind of media without hearing about Chris Brown and Rihanna and the outbreak of domestic violence that left her bloodied and bruised. I was chauffeuring a carload of then-10-year-old girls when discussion about it broke out and made a villain out of the victim.

“Ugh, I hate Rihanna,” my daughter snarled. “She got Chris Brown in all of this trouble.” Her friends co-signed, each barking a similar resentment against her.

I prodded them with what I hoped were thought-provoking questions. What did she do wrong? How would you react if a boy hit you? How would her choice to stay silent have prevented him from hurting someone else, maybe even worse? I might as well have been talking into the wind. It wasn’t just that they were staunchly Team Chris. They were passionately anti-woman.

Since then, I’ve caught comments that have troubled my heart, from classmates, friends and her own fiery-mouthed self. Girls are drama. Girls cause too many problems. Girls backstab each other. Girls can’t really be friends to other girls because you have to watch them. I don’t wonder where they got that from. Although not new sentiments, they’ve been fully acted out, and on rehash, every week, one hour at a time.

I’ve learned that despite surrounding her with the feminist energy I thought she would absorb by osmosis, just growing up in a household with a mother who so vehemently advocates for the power of women isn’t enough. I need to be more explicit in my counteraction of what reality TV is telling her generation. It needs to be even more deliberate, even more in-your-face than the culture that’s peddling antagonism, hostility and distrust of girls who look like her, girls she more than likely shares more commonalities with than she needs to be wary of.

We’re now looking at colleges, and I am not at all secretly encouraging her to consider Spelman. At first mention she balled her face up and shook her head as if I were offering her misery. “An all-girls college? No, no, no. The drama would be too intense,” she insisted. I reminded her that reality, at least when it comes to what’s on TV, is not real life. But black girl magic is.