On Sunday night, Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta returned with a new season, its first since cast member Porsha Williams physically attacked cast mate Kenya Moore during the show’s reunion special earlier this year. With cast and crew looking on, Williams found herself in tears on the floor of the set, restrained by security, wondering out loud how she’d allowed things to get this far.
But we knew this was coming. Williams’ mug shot had been leaked to the press a week prior, touted by entertainment blogs as the “most glamorous mug shot ever.” Arrested and charged with battery, Williams faced very real consequences for her actions. But what about the show’s producers? When will they take responsibility for creating and exploiting the conditions that led to the violence we witnessed that night?
With reports of the potential for even more violence to come on the network, it feels as if there is no end in sight to the show’s lucrative love affair with dehumanizing images of black folks.
Episodes that feature these brawls are hyped for weeks before their airdates as must-watch events. And these convenient plot developments-turned-marketing hooks are no accident, because so-called reality shows like RHOA are anything but real.
Producers strategically employ casting, location scouting, product placement and editing in the service of a contrived storyline that exists just to thread one act of violence or humiliation into the next. Then, when something like the reunion show fight inevitably erupts, they disavow any blame.
It’s time, though, that they take responsibility for the real-world impact of their manipulations and move beyond a reliance on one-dimensional, unfair, degrading depictions of African Americans.
The reunion-show fight was just one in a long line of physical altercations involving black cast members that the network has exploited for profit. Last year Bravo’s The New Atlanta featured a vicious physical fight between black cast members Alex and Africa at a charity event hosted by a white cast member. And Bravo’s Married to Medicine—which chronicles the endless feuds among a group of black female doctors and doctors’ wives—aired one of the nastiest fights in the network’s history.
On early reality projects like MTV’s The Real World, the standard was to institute an outright ban on physical contact, with any rogue cast member who dared lay hands on another facing immediate ejection. Such policies are practically nonexistent today—and the violence is getting worse. According to recent reports, an altercation on the set of Bravo’s Blood, Sweat & Heels between Geneva Thomas and Melyssa Ford resulted in a bottle being smashed over Ford’s head. And while taping for its new season last week, Married to Medicine cast member Quad Webb-Lunceford apparently needed medical attention after a glass thrown by Lisa Nicole Cloud shattered across her face.
Truth be told, Bravo’s programming has often portrayed women of all races in a decidedly stereotypical light. And RHOA has built a devoted fan base because it offers a number of important portrayals we don’t see enough of elsewhere on television: entrepreneurial black women in loving relationships, examples of strong parenting, nontraditional families and LGBT cast members.
But none of that lessens the network’s responsibility for profiting from routinely violent portrayals of black people. Network executives must critically engage with the fact that white people enjoy far more diverse representation across the media landscape, and that the ubiquity of the “angry black woman” archetype puts black women in real danger. As MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry noted during a roundtable discussion of the issue on her show last year, “the stakes are higher” for black women.
Bravo has fashioned itself as a self-consciously upscale and aspirational brand, aggressively marketing its programming toward so-called affluencers—the term used to describe viewers who are wealthy and educated and can be counted on to grow the network’s reach. So it is beyond disturbing that top executives apparently equate black aspiration with bullying, conflict and so-called ratchetness. There’s nothing forward thinking, modern or sophisticated about racial stereotyping.
Negative perceptions—conscious and subconscious—manifest in ways that have a profound impact on black lives, including less attention from doctors and teachers, reduced employment opportunities, harsher sentences in courtrooms and abusive treatment by police.
Media is powerful, and for too long its misuse has helped perpetuate a climate of inequality and injustice, particularly for black people, pushing a forced narrative of who we are that is far from the truth. As Bravo continues to build a brand on the backs of black viewers, when will its executives realize that we aspire to be viewed as more than just angry black women?
When will they acknowledge that we are more than just “ratchet”?
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Arisha Hatch is managing director of campaigns at ColorOfChange.org, the country's largest online civil rights organization. ColorOfChange.org launched represent.colorofchange.org to organize people-powered campaigns and to work with industry leaders to create a more honest and less harmful media landscape for black people.