Between the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the recent spate of high-profile hate crimes, there has been plenty to keep those of us who care about civil rights busy in the Obama era. But it's always refreshing when fellow advocates for equality and justice call attention to those major civil rights battles often overlooked by the mainstream media. The kinds of meaningful, substantive battles that can change lives and make the world a better place for future generations. Obviously when most of us think "meaningful," "substantive" and "civil rights," we think The Bachelor.
When I first read that a class-action suit had been filed against the masterminds behind the reality TV juggernauts The Bachelor & The Bachelorette for casting discrimination, I assumed I was reading a headline from The Onion. But after realizing that the reports were not in fact a joke (even though I think this lawsuit is) I was speechless. (Those of you who know me personally or have merely been annoyed by me on television know that this is a rare occurrence.)
I can think of a laundry list of civil rights battles that still loom large for people of color, even in the age of the first black president. Among them, the issue of racial profiling which has finally been thrust into the national spotlight due to the Trayvon Martin tragedy, employment discrimination so blatant that white men with criminal records still have a leg up over black men without one, and yes, the lack of diversity in quality entertainment, as demonstrated by the recent backlash to the new HBO show, Girls.
But part of why I was so shocked by the lawsuit is because if I were to name two places in which my people are unjustly overrepresented, the first would be prisons and the second would be bad reality television. There are certain entities and institutions where no group should aspire to greater representation because doing so does not improve the standing, quality, or equality, of said group, but actually devalues the group as a whole. Reality television is one such vehicle.
As I clarified while discussing this subject on MSNBC, I'm not referring to shows like American Idol that actually require a legitimate talent or skill. I'm referring to shows that claim to showcase the lives of "real people" who are "just like the rest of us." Only the real people selected all seem to have severe emotional problems or criminal tendencies, or in the case of many of the cast members of color they select, both. At this point I'm starting to believe that's not an accident.
I didn't have to look very far for validation of my theory when the very week The Bachelor critics filed their lawsuit, a cast member of a show called Basketball Wives filed a lawsuit against another cast member, who has since been charged with misdemeanor assault. For those who missed it, the women (and make no mistake, these are full-fledged adults over the age of 30, not kids who don't know any better) got into a verbal altercation that resulted in one hitting another, while another woman removed her shoes and climbed over a table to continue said altercation. Did I already mention the part about these being adults?
As embarrassing as this altercation is, or at least should be, for all parties involved, it's not nearly as embarrassing as the fact that it's not the first physical altercation that's happened on the show. But even more embarrassing? The fact that this formula -- angry women of color getting into fistfights, catfights and weave-pulling smackdowns -- seems to have become the go-to reality TV recipe for success, with Basketball Wives joined by shows like Real Housewives of Atlanta, Bad Girls Club, and others to perpetuate a stereotype so enduring and pervasive that First Lady Michelle Obama expressed her own fears about it just months ago: the image of the angry black woman.
These shows send the same message. No matter how much you dress us up, or how much money we may have, lying underneath it all for every woman of color is a neck rolling, finger pointing, profanity using stereotype ready to solve any dispute with physical violence because that's how we "keep it real."
Only that's not how most of us "keep it real." But you wouldn't know that by watching reality TV. In the early days of the genre, even those shows that did not encourage physical violence, per se, seemed to encourage the perception that one of the black cast members would resort to it if they felt the need to (think Omarosa on season one of The Apprentice and Kevin on season one of The Real World). Now here we are years later and though the diversity of reality TV shows has expanded, the depiction of people of color on them hasn't really.
So is the answer a lawsuit to make shows like The Bachelor more inclusive? I would say the answer is a lot simpler than that.
Even more embarrassing than the behavior of the women of color on some of these shows is the fact that there are women of color who help keep them on the air. If you are one of these women who watch these shows dismissing them as "harmless," then you can't be outraged the next time some conservative shock jock tries to stereotype Michelle Obama as an angry black woman. You're helping to perpetuate that stereotype. As the saying goes, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. After all, when Don Imus called black women "nappy-headed hoes" and Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a "slut," we were outraged. Yet you will hear women -- of all colors -- called much worse than that in ten minutes of a Real Housewives or Basketball Wives reunion show. Where's the outrage then?
For the record, I know that these types of shows don't exactly present any group of people at their best. And I don't believe that media should be required to depict any group of people in an exclusively positive light, including black Americans. But black people are approximately 13% of the population and yet if you were to take a look at reality shows, or at least the coverage of them, you would think that we are responsible for the overwhelming majority of threatening behavior in social settings. (Click here to see a list of some of the worst reality tv moments.) While white Americans enjoy multi-faceted representation in mainstream media -- from Meryl Streep's The Iron Lady to Bridesmaids -- to balance out the Jersey Shores of the world, we are left portraying maids on our best days (the Oscar-winning film The Help) and real-life women who beat up other women on our worst (such as on most of these reality shows.)
Filing a lawsuit against The Bachelor may not be the answer, but voting with your eyeballs in support of programming that does actually "keep it real" when it comes to depicting us, may be. Just as we worked together to send a message to Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh about the perils of demeaning women, why haven't we sent the same message to the people peddling this dehumanizing content? For those who think I'm overreacting, I have a trivia question for you. What has served as the greatest recruitment tool in the history of the Ku Klux Klan?
You give up?
The answer is a movie, Birth of a Nation. Released in 1915, it was filled with every negative stereotype of black Americans (or white actors in blackface portraying them) imaginable. We were depicted as lazy, over-sexualized and violent. Sound familiar? Its release caused Klan membership to skyrocket nationwide.
Now nearly 100 years later, the imagery of us hasn't progressed all that far. But today the culprits responsible for such imagery are not white actors in blackface, but black people willing to take on the role of modern day minstrel for a quick buck and black producers willing to sell out their own people for a check. (I'm looking at you Shaunie O'Neal, producer of Basketball Wives.) But she's not alone. Like many of the white record executives during the era in which gangsta rap reigned supreme, Andy Cohen, the Bravo svengali behind the Real Housewives franchise, continues to serve as a modern-day D.W. Griffith (the director of Birth of a Nation), serving up devastating and dehumanizing stereotypes, but all in the name of "entertainment."
But it's okay. I'm sure he has a black friend. And perhaps he or she thinks his programs are all just harmless fun. To some people, they probably are. But tell that to the hate groups whose memberships have been increasing in recent years, or to those who have experienced the recent rise in hate crimes firsthand. But Ms. O'Neal and Mr. Cohen are probably too preoccupied to notice or care. After all, they're busy laughing all the way to the bank.
Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com where this post originally appeared.