(The Root) — Blacks in reality television have been front and center in the news, with the recent controversies surrounding Love & Hip Hop New York, The Best Damn Funeral Ever and the recently canceled show All My Babies' Mamas.
In the midst of all the hoopla is The Sisterhood, a reality show that explores the so-called complex lives of five Georgia pastors' wives, also known as "first ladies." The show, which airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on TLC, has been criticized for "mocking" Christianity. Singer and pastor Marvin Sapp and other religious leaders have denounced it for not being an accurate representation of ministry families. There was even a petition circulating to urge the network to cancel the series.
The Root caught up with Ivy Couch, one of the show's featured wives, to see what she thought of the backlash. "We're not doing stereotypical things that degrade women," Couch explained. "We're having discussions about can we have or afford a baby, or talking to [co-star Domonique's] husband about pawning her ring for financial reasons. That's what I'm proud of: our willingness to share these parts of our lives in order to offer some balance to those images."
The wife of Pastor Mark A. Couch of Emmanuel Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Spelman graduate grew up in the Baptist church in Roxbury, Mass., and accepted God in her life at age 9. Her relationship with religion wavered at one point, until she met a woman who was a founding member of her would-be husband's church, who kept inviting her to attend. She accepted the invitation, finding a church home and a husband in the process. The rest, as they say, is history.
Couch discussed the controversy surrounding the show with The Root. She also explained why people should watch, the culture of being a pastor's wife and if and when images of black women in television will change.
The Root: What do you think about criticism of the show? Do you feel it's warranted? Why or why not?
Ivy Couch: In all honesty, I don't really think you can do anything of measure in this life without criticism. If you're not getting criticized, then you're not doing enough. A lot of the criticism is coming from the Christian community. There is a saying that if you can change a Christian's mind, then you're doing something. That saying exists because we tend to be the most rigid and judgmental.
We go through a lot of darkness to find grace, and the irony is that when we come out of it, we often don't give that grace back to those who need it.
Pastor and the first lady should not be an enigma to church members. Do I think we should be held to a higher standard? Yes. When you see these pastors of mega-churches falling from grace, they might not fall so hard if pastors and first ladies would admit they have struggles just like you, and while we strive for perfection, we're human and falter just like you.
TR: Why should people watch the show?
IC: What makes this show so powerful is the subtleties of God working in it. If this show beat you over the head with the Bible, then who would watch that? This show is more for people who don't necessarily know God. They'll see God show up on the show in subtle ways and understand the lesson. We all love God. There's no question about it.
I do think when we merge with a national television network that knows how to promote television, they are also going to do their job at pulling in viewers. The previews may not reflect the totality of the show. Of course, that's going to rattle viewers. It's brilliant television because it's making people watch. People will be blessed when watching this show.
TR: What is it that people don't know about the culture of pastors' wives that's essential to know?
IC: We're much more thick-skinned than people give us credit. I have a sweet nature. I love long and hard and smile a lot of the time, so people often think that you're gentle and just happy to be the pastor's wife. A lot of people think because you're smiley and undergirding your husband, then that's all you are. You get the, "Isn't she cute?"
Don't take meekness for weakness. Pastors' wives are tough. You see financial issues, marital issues — us going through so many issues but solving them with God's love and grace.
TR: When do representations of black women get to become whole in film and television?
IC: I happen to watch some of these reality shows, and what is going on in them is awful. When you have millions of viewers watching shows where women are pulling out hair weaves and slapping each other, we get lumped into that, and people are quick to boycott our show before it even gets a chance to develop. While they're boycotting our show, they're watching the other shows that actually are doing real harm.
Unfortunately, it's all about the numbers. When you have the numbers talking for you, then it becomes what sells. It's challenging to figure out how not to have that negative stuff infused with our show. It is exhausting — I want to show that I'm educated. I want to show that I have values. I want to show up with bells on and give the best that I have, but knowing at the end of the day, what gets shown is up to the editor.
I'm proud of Domonique for sharing so much of herself [sexually abused as a child, former child prostitute and recovering drug addict], because she could have come on the show and acted like that part of her life never existed. It's amazing to me how people like to see people fight, and people like to see drama. We're trying to do something different. We just want the chance to show it.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.
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.