Reality television has irrevocably damaged society’s perception of black women. Or it hasn’t—it depends who you ask. Over the last decade, reality television’s place in the larger TV landscape has morphed, stretched and expanded to make room for subgenres and sub-subgenres, the most popular of which can best be described as “ratchet reality TV.” It’s a slightly warped version of the real world, presented as fact but finessed by writers to mimic daytime soap operas and primetime dramas. A world of bickering “housewives” and catfighting frenemies, where it’s often unclear what anyone does for a living—outside of being a reality star.
The major characteristic of ratchet reality is messiness: women making awful, often humiliating life choices that usually end in some form of violence or aggression. A drink thrown in someone’s face, a weave pulled out of someone’s head. And the stars of ratchet reality are often, overwhelmingly, “loud” and “aggressive” black women, presumably feeding into and reinforcing the very worst of stereotypes. These shows and these women, according to some, have negatively defined black womanhood.
But have they really?
When we talk about black women on television, we’re almost always talking about the lack of black women on television. But recently, thanks to Shonda Rhimes and her Shondaland production company, the conversation has shifted towards a perceived new Golden Age of TV diversity. After all, in just a few years, the showrunner has had a hand in creating two of the most talked about and influential black female characters on TV: Scandal’s Olivia Pope and How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating.
Both shows have been lauded for their diverse casts, and for the powerful positions of the black women at their centres. They’ve also been praised for their impact: in the wake of Scandal‘s success, there’s been a surge in black women as main characters, from Mary Jane Paul on Being Mary Jane, to Lieutenant Abbie Mills on Sleepy Hollow, and more recently to Cookie Lyon on Fox’s mega-hit Empire.
It wasn’t always like this. Upon Scandal‘s debut in 2012, actress Kerry Washington famously became the first black female lead in a primetime drama in almost forty years. So up until very recently, the most dominant images of black women on television did not come from network dramas—they came from reality TV. And unlike the positive reactions to post-Shondaland TV, the conversations surrounding black women and reality television have hinged on the apparent harmfulness of the imagery, as well as the extension of stereotypes.
But before we can discuss black women on reality television, we must first discuss black women on television in general. Because many of the archetypes criticized in reality television today began to crystallize during the several decades between Diahann Carroll’s groundbreaking turn as a working single mother on Julia, which premiered in 1968, and Kerry Washington’s debut as the badass leader of a crisis management firm in 2012.
A Brief History
In the mid 1970s, most televised images of black women were on sitcoms, usually as maids or homemakers reacting to white leads. For example, Esther Rolle’s Good Times character Florida Evans first made an appearance on Maude in 1972. Misogynoir and a general lack of imagination had black actresses playing modern variations of the mammy (jovial fat black woman), the jezebel (shameless hussy), and the jigaboo for laughs. Often, these actresses would have to navigate the tightrope of trying to present positive images of poor black folk while also (thanks to overwhelmingly white writing staffs) juggling the perpetuation of perceived stereotypes and archetypes.
And then, in the 1980s, Clair Huxtable arrived. The Cosby Show was the groundbreaking alternative to the working-class, down-on-our-luck, life-sucks-but-we’re-making-it-through narratives of 1970s black sitcoms, with Clair as a stark and deliberate contrast to the Florida Evans model. Educated, conventionally attractive, and endlessly poised, she challenged notions of what black motherhood and black womanhood looked like through the mode of respectability. She was a palatable image for white audiences to consume, and one that black audiences could not only approve of but aspire to. And while she represented a kind of blackness that indeed existed, she was somewhat of a fantasy.
The 1990s came along, and with them a boom in black women and black people on TV. In the wake of Clair Huxtable, there were new “diva” and “independent women” archetypes: Maxine Shaw and the ladies of Living Single, Pam and Gina on Martin, Whitley on A Different World. These shows, shifting focus away from family and toward the lives of single black professionals while capitalizing on the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture, enjoyed high ratings across various demographics.
Indeed, networks including UPN, The WB and Fox seemingly used these series to boost ratings, only to eventually cancel them to make room for shows that would appeal to white audiences. Living Single, which had drawn strong numbers despite competing with the NBC juggernaut Friends on Thursday nights, was unceremoniously axed in 1998 (although its numbers had actually risen in its fifth and final season), only to be replaced by a show called World’s Funniest Police Videos. Within a year or two, more series with predominantly white casts, including That ’70s Show and Grounded for Life, would make their debuts on Fox as the landscape of television gradually shifted.
Back to Reality
Of course, the dearth of scripted black shows in the early aughts was also partially in response to the rise of reality television. The genre was easy to produce, cheap to make, and attracted millions of viewers. VH1, along with a few other cable networks like Bravo, was at the forefront of the trend with a first wave of shows that included Flavor of Love and its spinoffs I Love New York and Real Chance of Love. These series presented some of the earlier archetypes of black women on reality TV—the gold digger, the fighter, the party girl—which all seemed to play on long-established ideas of black as materialistic, violent and hypersexual.
It has become common knowledge that reality television isn’t real in the strictest sense of the word. It is a world of formulas and algorithms: place Type B in a house with Type A and watch sparks fly. The formula of the black female reality star was perfected, most recently, with the debut of the VH1 show Love & Hip Hop in 2010. Set in New York and following an assortment of male music producers, rappers, and their girlfriends, the show was an instant hit.
Former music exec and manager Mona Scott-Young is the show’s spokeswoman and creator, and has gone on to make several spinoffs, including The Gossip Game, Chrissy & Mr Jones, Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, and Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. The Atlanta instalment of the franchise has proven to be the most popular and the most lucrative. According to Nielsen it is the highest rated show among black women in the 18-49 demo, and its third season premiere was the biggest in VH1 history with 5.6 million viewers.
But despite its popularity, more than any other current reality shows depicting the lives of black women, the Love & Hip Hop franchise has been the catalyst for the most ire and outrage regarding its representation of black women, and specifically of black women in relationships.
One of the most talked-about storylines on Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta is the love triangle between producer Stevie J, the mother of his child Mimi Faust, and former stripper turned reggaeton artist Joseline Hernandez. Throughout the course of their three-season saga, Stevie J cheats on Faust with Hernandez, who reveals she is pregnant with his child and later terminates the pregnancy at his urging—after he threatens to send her “back to the strip club where you came from” during a fight. Later, Stevie marries Joseline, while Mimi moves on with a rapper named Niko. In the latest season, she’s confronted by Stevie after a sex tape with Niko mysteriously leaks online. “You’re a mother,” Stevie tells her in one scene, “You should know better.”
Ratchertry vs. Respectability
The Stevie J-Mimi-Joseline dynamic is echoed in several other almost identical triangle storylines throughout the franchise—it’s a formula that’s proven to work and attract viewers. On one level, fans delight in watching the triangle explode, in picking which woman to root for, the jezebel or the mammy (Mimi Faust is literally called a “maid” by Joseline). There’s also the element of schadenfreude, the pleasure in judging both women for allowing themselves to be played by the same man. Beneath the popcorn melodrama and the trashy good fun, however, is the politics of black femininity, played out in sometimes disturbing modes. Emotional manipulation (Stevie consistently brings up Joseline’s former sex work to control her) and slut-shaming runs rampant both on the show and in online commentary from fans.
Other fan favourites play into the misogyny. Atlanta rapper Scrappy’s mother, known as Momma Dee, has become a fixture on the show because of her ridiculous one-liners, over-the-top outfits, and constant meddling in her son’s love life. In an episode of season 2, she urges him to drop the mother of his child, Erica, as well as several other love interests he’s seeing. “You ain’t ready for a relationship,” she tells him. “Keep it real with them…These girls are hoes. Let them come in and out. Let them know you only in and out, in and out. Do what players do. And how do players play? All day, everyday.”
Critics argue that these storylines and the running themes of highly dysfunctional romantic relationships, cattiness and violence between women, materialism, and “pure ratchetry” are setting the progress of black women back a few hundred years. In 2012, the VH1 show Basketball Wives (literally about the wives and mothers of basketball players in LA) was the target of a massive boycott, after an online petition calling out the violent fights between its cast members surfaced online. And earlier this year, Mona Scott-Young’s show Sorority Sisters was cancelled after historically black greek organizations including the AKAs and the Deltas also launched a boycott in protest of its depiction of black sorors as hard-partying, violent troublemakers.
Scott-Young, in an interview with MTV’s Sway last year, expressed her disagreement with criticisms of her shows. “[Female reality stars] have every right to tell their stories. I think they’re valid stories, and judging by the numbers, they’re stories that people want to see and hear about.”
Presumably, post-Shondaland shows and black female characters are a godsend for protestors working to combat the kinds of images and storylines Scott-Young claims her audiences are thirsty for, stories that have evidently chipped away at the perception of black womanhood. But while it can be argued that reality television has perpetuated some stereotypes, it has also subverted them. It’s true that an overwhelming number of the characters and storylines in Scott-Young’s franchise can be construed as negative, but the Love & Hip Hop shows have done much to empower its female stars both on and off the screen. Video vixen and former stripper Tahiry Jose, a star of LHH: NY, asserted her personhood against critics of her modelling and former sex work. “I love my body,” she said, “and I’m not afraid or ashamed to share it.” Other stars of the show, like singer K. Michelle and music manager Yandy Smith, have been able to parlay their involvement with the series into successful businesses and careers in their respective fields. K. Michelle’s 2013 debut album rose to number one on R&B charts following her appearance in the franchise. And Yandy Smith, a manager prior to her involvement with LHH: NY, has used the show’s exposure to launch her own music management agency, a hair extension line, and an urban lifestyle website called Everything Girls Love.
The harmfulness and helpfulness of Love & Hip Hop and the current “ratchet” era of reality TV, especially as it runs parallel to this new age of black women in scripted drama and comedy, is incredibly complex. At what point does a stereotype stop being a stereotype? At what point are the women of Love & Hip Hop—catty, materialistic, sexual—allowed to be those things without the inherited weight and history of what came before? After all, shows like Mob Wives, Duck Dynasty and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills present similar images of women behaving badly, but rarely are they chastised for reflecting badly on an entire race.
Policing the identities of the black women on ratchet reality television is also policing the identities and the realities of the black women who watch it. In her polarizing Deadline essay on 2015’s “ethnic” casting, writer Nellie Andreeva made the suggestion that with shows like Empire and Scandal, as well as “Tyler Perry’s fare on OWN,” black representation on TV has now become “too much of a good thing.” Apparently, those handful of popular television shows with black characters are enough to encompass the full spectrum of the black experience. To Andreeva, black audiences are a monolith, and they watch certain shows not because they appeal to them on specific, individual levels but merely because they see more than two black faces on the screen. But that’s the biggest misconception about how black audiences and indeed all audiences consume entertainment. There’s this idea among critics of ratchet reality that black viewers who watch prime-time dramas with “respectable” black female leads can’t and shouldn’t keep up with shows like Love & Hip Hop. For the longest time, the onus has seemingly been on black people to promote respectable images of themselves in the media in order to change ideas about blackness in general—even when oftentimes access and control of said images was limited.
So has ratchet reality irrevocably damaged the perception of black women? No. Is it often problematic? Yes. Beyond the schadenfreude, beyond the base entertainment value that one gets from any reality show (be it predominantly white or black), there’s something significant about having Scandal not replace Love & Hip Hop nor serve merely as an alternative. Instead of occupying opposite poles, these characters, both the reality stars and the prime-time leads, lie on a continuum. Clair Huxtable, Florida Evans, Olivia Pope, Cookie Lyon, Joseline Hernandez—side-by-side, some messier than others, some more powerful than others, complicated and existing. The true diversity, the true representation, is allowing that to happen with honest dialogue, yes—but not by deciding their value based on their respectability.