Yes, There Are Positive Images of Black Women on Reality TV

NeNe Leakes (left); Tia Mowry (Getty Images)
NeNe Leakes (left); Tia Mowry (Getty Images)

I knew what was coming the minute after reading that NeNe Leakes and Star Jones would be joining the fourth season of Celebrity Apprentice.


It was pretty clear that with Leakes' hot head and Jones' slick mouth, the two were destined for on-screen conflict. So it is not shocking to see the Real Housewives of Atlanta star currently bad-mouthing Jones — on TV, on the radio and so on — to anyone who will listen, while the ex-View co-host does the same exact thing, just more eloquently.

As the two black women engage in a nasty, public back-and-forth fight to the amusement of millions, the Web has been flooded with a sea of essays about the implications of their behavior — essays such as writer Allison Samuels' Newsweek piece "Reality TV Trashes Black Women." Samuels opines that, to the dismay of many, the "angry black woman" stereotype, perpetuated in full by Leakes, fuels the reality-TV genre.

She spoke with pioneering actress Diahann Carroll, who told her, "What I see now on television for the most part is a disgrace, as far as how we're depicted." Another pioneer, Phylicia Rashad, recalled a conversation with an NBC executive after The Cosby Show went off the air. Rashad quipped, "He said it was going to get much worse before it got better in terms of diversity. He was right."

Actress Holly Robinson Peete, who has dabbled in reality TV herself with a stint on Celebrity Apprentice, offered a more diplomatic response, noting that there are plenty of "white women acting a fool on television every night." Still, she cautioned, "But there's a balance for them. They have shows on the major networks — not just cable and not just reality shows — about them running companies, being great mothers and having loving relationships. We don't have enough of that."

In terms of reality television, if you're focusing only on shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Celebrity Apprentice, then perhaps Robinson Peete and others are right in their claims. However, there have been more varied images of black women featured in reality TV than she or Samuels let on. Samuels did note the success of La La Vasquez's VH1 series, La La's Full Court Wedding, about the television personality's wedding to NBA player Carmelo Anthony, but that is not the only show out there that could be considered "positive."

When it comes to shows about women running their own businesses, right now E! is airing The Dance Crew, with Laurieann Gibson. Produced by Ryan Seacrest, the show follows Gibson — now the creative director for Lady Gaga — and her team of aspiring dancers as they prep for various A-list performances around the globe. The longtime choreographer has another show, Born to Dance: Laurieann Gibson, premiering on BET in August.


And then there's mom and businesswoman Kimora Lee Simmons, whose Life in the Fab Lane has been airing for several seasons. Those looking for a more traditional look at black businesswomen missed their opportunity with the Centric reality show Keeping Up With the Joneses. The show chronicled Tracey Ferguson, the founder and editor-in-chief of a Houston-based luxury publication for women of color.

While that show's time is up, viewers searching for more than bickering black women can also look forward to what squeaky-clean Tia and Tamera Mowry will be bringing to the Style Network this summer. After the successful run of their pilot last year, the network ordered a full season of Tia & Tamera Take Two. That show will follow Tia as she preps for her first child while her twin plans her wedding.


And before the reality pair of Tia and Tamera, there was Tiny and Toya on BET. Yes, they netted this show based on their relationships with rappers (Lil Wayne and T.I., respectively), but with episodes centered around opening businesses, fighting Alzheimer's disease and raising children, the show wasn't exactly Amos 'n' Andy. Perhaps their Southern twangs and lack of pedigree couldn't bypass the "talented tenth" definition of positivity, but overall, the theme of the series was progression.

None of these shows have reached the popularity of any featuring Leakes, but that isn't surprising. Producers on unscripted (in the word's most loosely defined form) programs rely on fame-lusting personalities to create spectacles for ratings. And people of all races, ages and sexual orientations like spectacles.


When it comes to black women on reality TV, it's not an issue of wanting more than just snaps, shouts and shade. More is already there. The question is, are you watching it?

Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard University-educated writer currently based in Los Angeles. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter.


Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.