This morning, the editors and I took a trip down reality TV memory lane and landed on an episode of one of the first shows to solidify the sustainability of the genre, Flavor of Love‘s little sister, Charm School. Don’t ask how we got there, just know that we did, starting with the time Mo’Nique gave Larissa, aka Boots, a read before we even called it a read.
That heated interaction was only one of many between the ladies, and it came to ahead during the Charm School reunion which aired July 8, 2007, and gave an eerie foreshadowing of the tumultuous relationship Black women and reality TV would have for years to come and which we’re currently still living through.
Continuing to feel singled out (even after Mo’Nique told her she wasn’t special enough for her to care about that much), Boots again questioned the “Headmistress” for picking on her throughout the show, which even caused Boots’ mother to step out of the audience during the reunion and tell Mo’Nique “you don’t run up on a young lady like that.” It was at that point that Mo’Nique asked, “Well when were you gonna walk up on her?” And then the real gems came:
“The reason I wanted you here today was not so you and I could have a confrontation because, from Black woman to Black woman, I’ve got nothing but love for you sister and I got nothing but love for that one,” Mo’Nique stated.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, be careful what you do and be careful what you say because the camera’s picking up every single thing and you don’t have to keep putting yourself out there like that. And then you have to ask the question: When that airs to America, how do we hold our head up with dignity? How do we put our heads back up? How do we walk down the street when a little girl of 10 says to Larissa, ‘you told that b-tch something!’ What do we say to her? What do we say to her? What do we do about that sista? That’s my point.
“I love [Larissa] so much. I stepped up on you because I love you just that much that I’m willing to put my sh-t on the line to say if you wanna swing, if you wanna fight, I’ll give you all of that. But when we’re done, I’ma (sic) stand you up and love on you. That’s what I’m trying to tell you Larissa, you’re letting life beat you up in such a way and ain’t nobody stepping to her and saying come here, let me put my arms around you. Let me love on you baby. ‘Cuz see I’m 40 years old, that baby ain’t even 25 yet and the way she’s going right now sista, one day she’s gonna run into somebody that’s just like her, that’s just like her, and they ain’t gone back down from her and then you’re gonna get a phone call and it ain’t gone be nice.
“Sis, I’m fighting for your baby sista. We gotta regain our respect sista. We gotta regain it. We gotta get it back…”
After Larissa questioned Mo’Nique’s authenticity, saying she only appeared on the show for a check, a strong sense of déjà vu came over me.
“Let me tell you why this show was number one in Black America,” Mo’Nique started. “I heard the response, it was coming from nothing but Black women and they all said, including me before I got to the show, ‘Oh my God is this who we are? Is this what we represent?’ Telling somebody to kiss it, lick it, suck it, stick it, eff you, you’re a monkey. I said you deserve more, you deserve better; c’mon baby, put your best foot forward.”
And here we are in 2016 having the exact same conversation, just with different players.
I’ll be honest, I lived for episodes of Charm School. Watching the show with my roommates was an event, and as a senior in college I didn’t see the connection between the image of Black women on TV and the perception people would have of me when they saw me on the street as a result. I also didn’t recognize the behavior of the cast members as the antics of broken women. I was entertained and would continue to be for some years after, until I was flipping through channels on a TV in the gym a few years ago and a white woman suggested I stop on the Real Housewives of Atlanta. “I just love those ladies,” she giddily told me and I couldn’t help but question why.
Aside from Nene Leakes, reality TV has rarely done Black women any favors. And I don’t mean that in the sense that now I have to wonder if white people assume when I leave work I meet up with women I don’t like just to throw drinks at them because of how we’re portrayed on TV. I can combat that nonsensical stereotyping on my own. The ones who really deserve compassion and concern are the women who don’t realize they’re being exploited and need someone to love on them, as Mo’Nique would say, not manipulate the entire trajectory of their lives (and those of their children in some cases) for the promise of a few thousand followers on Instagram and a liquor, weave, or waist trainer line of their choice.
When I look at the paths Amina Butterfly and Tara Wallace are on, when I see how post-sex tape Mimi Faust has turned out, when I recognize Evelyn Lozada as that angry girl Mo’Nique alluded to who one day met her match that didn’t back down, and when I realize Shay didn’t learn a damn thing from Charm School and continued to be played by VH1 years later on Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta, I’m not entertained; I’m sad. But unlike previous commentaries from the elitist camp only concerned about how the actions of these women affect them, I want these women to do better, not for my sake, but for themselves. To realize the residual damage of 15 minutes of ill-gotten fame is rarely worth it because when producers move on to warping the next victim’s reality, they’re the ones stuck with the permanence of the choices they made when the cameras were rolling temporarily.
If you know how to play the game, like a Nene Leakes or a Kandi Burruss, by all means play ball. But if you’re looking to reality TV to fill a void, it’s not going to work out sis. Like any relationship, you have to know and love yourself before you get into bed with the entertainment industry. If more women did, we likely wouldn’t see the images we do anyhow.
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