I hate hate. But more than hating hate, I hate what could happen to our world if you do not read this article in full and respond with your thoughts (even if they are dissenting thoughts).
When bloggers began to identify those of us who have decided to boycott VH1 after the premier of their latest reality series as haters, I was less than enthused. Nevertheless, calling us haters is like calling Warren Buffet broke--it just isn't true (unless you redefine hate to include education and human rights advocacy, then we could be the biggest haters of all time).
Relax, This is Only Entertainment
"Um, what do human rights and education have to do with reality TV, lady? You need to relax. This is ONLY entertainment. What the hell are you talking about? If you don't like it, don't watch. Now go sit down."
Six years prior to my reality TV cameo, I had just graduated from Spelman College, a women's liberal arts college in Atlanta. Although many of my classmates internalized the curriculum, which would help them to deconstruct the many myths surrounding Black womanhood from freshman year forward, I was so consumed with keeping a tight hold on my boyfriend who worked at Atlanta's most popular strip club that I missed a lot of what I was supposed to learn. Furthermore, when I should have been studying, I was shopping at Saks with girls whose parents probably did not have to borrow money for them to attend college. I was also busy working a part-time job at BCBG so that I could have access to deeply discounted expensive clothes.
All of my efforts to appear to be among, as one of the real housewives says, "the wealthy elite of Atlanta" caused me to miss the memo that Spelman's mission is to "empower the whole person to engage the many cultures of the world and inspire a commitment to positive social change." In fact, this probably wasn't even the motto when I was at Spelman--I wouldn't know.
My identity battle, which I had no idea that I was fighting at the time, was the very reason that upon graduation, I took more pride in my wardrobe and the boyfriend who might later become my husband than my degree. It was the reason why when Spelman launched a protest against Nelly for sliding a credit card down the crevice of a woman's behind I felt like some Spelmanites were making far too big of a deal about the situation. "It's only entertainment," I would say.
My insensitivity to issues surrounding the Nelly protest and my identity crisis were not the result of attending Spelman, but largely a result of my enrollment in the other institution that I had attended for 22 years--Mass Media University (MMU).
Dear Old MMU
MMU is the largest, most powerful unaccredited organization in the world; so powerful that many of us are enrolled right now and have no idea. At MMU, students don't declare a major, because mass media is the only major available. We attend class, but we are not allowed to comment or question the instructor. The rigid and narrow current curriculum only consists of a few television networks, music genres, movies, magazines, and websites. Books are often prohibited. Many of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents attended, or are still enrolled at, MMU.
MMU's curriculum ensures comprehension of the following principles: (this is only a small snapshot):
"If you don't have an expensive handbag, red soles on your shoes, or a particular type of weave, then you aren't as valuable."
"You must do whatever you have to do to get these desired material goods, even if it involves selling your body or someone else's."
"Single is shameful. Engaging in a relationship with a married man is better than being single."
"If you have a boyfriend or husband and he isn't of a certain social status, you're worthless."
"You must 'ride or die' for your man, even if he treats you terribly."
"If you don't like men, you're weird--unless you have 'girl-on-girl' sex for the pleasure of a man; then, you're still worthless, but you're not as weird because everybody's doing it."
"The darker you skin and the shorter your hair, the less pretty you are."
"If you don't have a 'coke bottle' shape, then you're probably too fat or too skinny."
"If your facial features are not angular, you're ugly."
"When you get your Prince Charming, the ring that he buys must be a certain size or quality, or you should question your worth and possibly his, too."
"Money and material goods make you happy, and better than others."
"Spending is better than saving."
"If you're from a low-income or working class family, the organizations that you join, the events that you attend, and the things that you wear and drive will allow others to perceive you as middle or upper class and you will be more readily accepted and respected."
"If you're from an upper class family, your associations with other class groups could damage your social status. If you're not doing charity work, do not associate with other class groups."
"Don't speak out against social inequities, you might get fired from your good paying job, or never get hired in the first place."
During my eight years of practice as a school psychologist, I saved no money. I would drive in a brand spanking new convertible BMW Z4 from my prime real estate home to the schools where I worked, which were some of the most impoverished schools in the country. How does one afford such luxuries on a public school salary of $72,000 per year? Well, when you attended MMU for two decades, these things are your identity; so you do whatever you can to keep them (e.g., bartend, networking marketing) or else you go into crisis. Sadly, even with these things you are just as likely to experience anxiety, depression and other problems as a result of trying to keep them. The most unfortunate part about this crisis is I was also in graduate school and missing more critical teachings because my focus was elsewhere. I was spiritually and emotionally dead. I had everything, but my life was darker than ever...
...Until the day when a few Black middle school girls hit the switch for me, teaching me more than I would learn at MMU. They also provided a context for what I was supposed to learn at Spelman, as well as a context for my low tolerance for most "reality" television shows featuring Black women, and women in general.
The girls were members of an afterschool group of "at-risk" girls, which was implemented by a school-community-university consortium. The purpose of this group was to empower girls as one of the many strategies to fight the growing problem of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in Atlanta. While the girls demonstrated multiple strengths, I also observed far too many verbal assaults and physical attacks. When I would hear a middle school girl tell another middle school girl that she's "a non-motherfucking factor" as heard on one of VH1's most popular reality series or ask her friend if her designer purse was real, I realized that these girls were not only acting like many of the reality TV stars that I had seen on television...
...they were also acting just like ME.
We all attended MMU--even the middle school girls, who had been enrolled for 11 years or more. Although our knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors may not have been a direct result of our time spent at MMU, unfortunately no one could deny MMUs influence, since we (and our parents) had spent such a large part of our lives there.
When I finally found out that I had been an MMU student for decades, I revisited the seed that Spelman had planted long ago. I wanted to know why, for so long, I had behaved the way I did; and why I valued the things that I valued that left me living from paycheck-to-paycheck. I then watered my seed.
I did not anticipate that watering my seed would leave me angry with the woman I had become. The more I learned, the more I would hate everything that I had learned at MMU.
I then began to spread hate everywhere--hate in the form of activism, that is. Hate in the form of intervening in the lives of the women and girls that I saw slipping away right before my eyes. These women and girls were at my job, in my personal circles, and on the television screen. This hate would lead me to burn my MMU degree and pray that I would never set foot on that campus again. Sadly, the campus is colossal and my ties there are so deep that I inevitably revisit from time-to-time.
Even when some of us learn that we have been enrolled at MMU, we are too indoctrinated or have obligations that inhibit our pursuit of knowledge. For some, it is quite difficult to study structural inequality when trying to figure out to feed a family. At the end of the day, many of us just want to go home, relax, and watch a "reality" show to escape our realities.
Furthermore, when former MMU students (or those who are only enrolled part-time) approach current MMU students to teach and learn new information, they are sometimes dismissed as "hating". However, sometimes former MMU or part-time MMU students' approach is so abrasive that we actually deserve to be dismissed. Folks who are no longer at MMU full-time must learn to communicate their anger better in the heat of the moment, myself included.
Recently, I interviewed for an on-air radio position at a major network where I hoped to be a "co-host" on a show. Despite being uncomfortable with at least 90 percent of the music, I hoped that if I could "get my foot in the door" that I would be able to figure out a way to voice my opinion about critical social issues between telling jokes and spinning the latest 2Chainz single. I was naïve enough to express my desires in my interview. It comes of no surprise that I did not get the job. What crappy news to get on my 32nd birthday. I just knew that this would be my entrance into the entertainment industry, and THE perfect way to merge my interests in education and entertainment. Instead, it was my first taste of rejection. It had me down for a day or so, and then I realized that I couldn't do God's work from a valley. I picked up, brushed it off, and kept it moving.
I Have a Dream...and a Challenge
As cliché as it may sound, I have a dream. Go ahead and call me the "Digital Dr. King" behind my back, I don't care. I'll still have my freakin' dream. I have a dream that one day there will no longer be such a vast divide between "social consciousness" and "entertainment". I have a dream that one day networks' community service projects will no longer pale in comparison to the digital crack that is often perceived "only as entertainment". I have a dream that a time will come when we unite to starve MMU's enrollment, eventually leading to it's closure and the rise of a new institution where entertainment and social consciousness co-exist on every station. I have a dream...
I also have a dream that YouTube (and the Internet) will be better regulated, but that dream is for another article.
Call me naïve, but it can happen--but only if we become "haters". It won't mean that we're "above" reality TV shows, but that we demand that these shows be used as platforms for change. Our world is too damaged to remain subscribed to traditional paradigms in entertainment. Although art is often thought to imitate life, in today's climate, "art" has a disproportionate amount of the power. Thus, art needs to do a better job of giving us positive images to imitate.
So, what are concrete solutions?
I am certain that there are many potential solutions. I do not have them all. But, for one, producers, other executives, cast members, personalities, a range of viewers, and consultants could work together to create content to which the target audience can relate, while introducing "pro-social" concepts. I'm sure such strategies are already in place at some networks, and maybe even at VH1; however, from the first episode of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, there is room for improvement.
For example, let's look at the story of Momma Dee, the ex-pimp on the show, who could also be called an ex-human trafficker. In a city known for it's strip clubs, where sex trafficking is pervasive, we desperately need to hear Mama Dee's story (which is why I never said to cancel the show in the petition, but tell stories in a responsible way). The first episode could have provided Mama Dee's backstory in a way that didn't make pimping seem so "cool". When pimping is treated casually, like it's chewing a piece of gum, it perpetuates the problem. How? Well, as individuals and organizations work to prevent human trafficking, it is difficult to get people to buy in to a cause that is equivalent to gum chewing according to public opinion. Selling people for sex or labor is not a casual matter and we (networks included) cannot afford to miss a single chance to address the issue.
No, VH1 is not in the business of social activism. However, like parents, other individuals and organizations, (including other networks/stations) they, arguably, have a responsibility to bring awareness to underlying social issues that undergird problems like human trafficking and conspicuous consumption; a responsibility to tell viewers how folks with economic challenges (who just so happen to be disproportionately ethnic minority people) are more likely to become involved in sex trafficking; a responsibility to tell viewers how a great deal of folks aren't becoming involved in trafficking and prostitution because they are bored or because they are making a choice, but because they feel it is what they must do to make ends meet like Mama Dee did (or "to get a new purse because one of the housewives taunted another housewife for wearing the $1,500 purse that I purchased last week").
Sex trafficking PSAs wouldn't necessarily hurt anything either...but I know that's a long shot.
Maybe if we (including sponsors, producers, etc.) view ourselves as perpetuating problems such as sex trafficking, we would look at our behaviors differently. Hmmmm.
Again, I am not saying silence cast members and put the production crew out of jobs. Yet, I am saying to be a lot more responsible, much more creative, and stop putting some stupid dollar before folks' rights to knowledge and freedom.
This year, at Spelman's commencement ceremony, Oprah Winfrey stated,
"For years, I was really happy just to be on TV; but in 1993 I went back and took a look and decided that I was no longer going to just be on TV, but use it as a platform for good and not be used by TV." She also said, "In three years, no one will remember The Real Housewives of Atlanta."
I challenge networks and everyone involved in shows like Real Housewives and Love & Hip Hop (and even Oprah) to prove her commencement address wrong. Make us remember you, for reasons other than being used by TV...and give us a reason not to hate.
This isn't only about one show...or VH1...or TV...or "images" of Black and Brown people...or women; but it is about being more innovative and allowing people to tell stories that could potentially help millions of people. It is about, for example, lessening the type of content that the American Psychological Association's Task force on the Sexualization of Girls has found leads to problems like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.
If you agree, click here to sign the petition telling VH1/Viacom and their sponsors that you will not be watching/listening to them until they work harder to create content that helps and not hurts. If you disagree, tell me why so that we can work together to either identify 'the problem' correctly (if there is a problem in your opinion) and, if deemed necessary, determine possible solutions.
Follow Erin Harper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/allerinharper