This year was not a good one in black reality television for anyone looking for edifying or empowering depictions of African Americans on the small screen. Though there were some uplifting shows like OWN’s 6 Little McGhees, the most popular of the genre depicted flagrant infidelity and/or petty squabbles that usually escalated into elbow- and even bottle-throwing.
The thing is, most fans of the reality television genre (like me) aren’t necessarily looking for inspirational content when setting the DVR to record Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta, Dirty Little Secrets, or Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo for that matter. It’s junk food/guilty pleasure/ratchet entertainment that guarantees a mindless laugh after a long stressful day trying to make the donuts.
But with a limited landscape of small screen programming that portrays layered black characters or authentic African-American life, can we afford ratchet entertainment? The answer was a resounding “no,” at least among my Facebook friends, when Oxygen released news that rapper Carlos “Shawty Lo” Walker is set to star in upcoming reality series All My Babies Mamas.
According to blogged reports, and the video that surfaced online, the show will document the rapper and his relationship with the 10 women he fathered 11 children with. In a press release, Oxygen’s SVP of development, Cori Abraham, said of the show, “All My Babies’ Mamas will be filled with outrageous and authentic over-the-top moments that our young, diverse female audience can tweet and gossip about.”
“It’s our fault for watching these shows,” was pretty much the consensus of a few FB friends — “our” being the legions that made the controversial Basketball Wives and Love & Hip-Hop franchises runaway successes.
But is it our fault?
African-American households represent five to 15 percent of the viewing audience of the top-rated reality shows. Clearly, we are not the only ones watching.
Additionally, according to Target Market News, Scandal, 60 Minutes, and Person of Interest were among the top-watched network shows in black households during the week of November 27th — along with cable hits T.I. & Tiny the Family Hustle, Basketball Wives LA, and Chrissy & Mr. Jones. Yes, reality shows are cheaper to produce, but why aren’t television production companies also racing to create more shows with black female lead characters a la Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope on Scandal or Taraji P. Henson’s Detective Joss Carter on Person of Interest?
As long as African Americans remain underrepresented in the positions that greenlight shows, we will continue to be at the mercy of what the networks and cable channels decide to put out. It is perhaps no accident that Oprah’s OWN released wholesome family reality show 6 Little McGhees.
But the fact remains, if there were more of us helming studios and production companies, we still wouldn’t agree on what the right representation of blackness is. (See critiques on Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, The Cosby Show.)
After centuries of being stereotyped, misunderstood, and maligned in American culture, we are rightly vigilant about how we are depicted and how others see us. But will there ever be a time when we can enjoy ratchet alongside wholesome black entertainment? Should there be such a time?