I have not seen one episode of the "reality" television tsunami that is Love & Hip-Hop, not in New York nor in Atlanta. The reason for this is not some socio-cultural grand gesture on my part; it's simply because I don't feel compelled to see a desperate knock-off of myriad depictions of women as catty, abusive, disloyal, ignorant, and dependent on their men for crumbs of infamy. I particularly have no interest in the latest incarnation from Atlanta because it's painfully clear that by featuring what appears to be Magic City veterans -- and a grown man named Lil' Scrappy -- that they pulled the cast from the edge of obscurity because they are ready, willing, and able to out-minstrel show the other casts -- ATL style.
But, you know what? That's my personal choice, and I've never cast myself as judge and jury over someone else's entertainment. To paraphrase Voltaire, I might not agree with a damn thing you watch, but I will defend your right to watch it.
In a piece for TheGrio.com, I researched the intersectionality of race, culture, ethnicity, and feminism in the context of reality television. What became clear when looking at the numbers is that though shows such as Mob Wives, Bad Girls Club, and Shahs of Sunset are equally sensationalistic, Real Housewives of Atlanta and Basketball Wives -- and their predominately black casts -- have clearly resonated with their audiences, i.e., black folks, with ratings averaging 3.2 million viewers and 3.7 million viewers respectively.
Now, we can add Love and Hip-Hop, Atlanta to the growing list. The premiere attracted an astronomical 3.6 million viewers and was the top-rated show on cable for women in the 18-49 demographic.
Maybe I'm missing the point, but I don't think I am. With petition after petition popping up online to protest these programs, why are we focused more on VH1 and not the misogyny, internalized hatred, and poverty that were viruses in our community long before each show's premiere? VH1 is not creating the problems, they are exploiting the problems. And as with any form of media exploitation, the key to its eradication lies in siphoning and transferring the demand, not merely stifling the supply.
Let's be clear: This is in no way support for VH1, which has proven to be nothing but a corporate bloodsucker doing what corporate bloodsuckers do best -- latching onto the pulse of a desire and bleeding it dry. Still, with a plethora of "reality" television debuting years before the Wives and Hip-Hop lovers of the world were even conceptualized, what does it say about our communities that we have provided them their most successful hits to date?
And please, for the love of all that's sacred, miss me with the victim-blaming accusations.
Many professional women who watch these shows talk about it in secret like it's a meeting to discuss plans for the Underground Railroad. They are afraid of being judged, yet they still watch. They tune in to shake their heads and wring their hands, yet they still watch. They decry the negative influence that it has on young girls, yet they still watch. They bemoan the stereotypical imagery of black women, yet they still watch.
Controversy sells. And every single person who watches, regardless of intent, is plus-one in the ratings for VH1 -- and incentive for advertisers to keep funneling money into the programs.
Counter-productive, isn't it?
The most recent petition likens Love & Hip-Hop, Atlanta to "digital crack rock" being "slanged" in our communities. Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment, I also think it may be one of the most definitive labels created to describe the phenomenon; however, as we've seen in the "War on Drugs," black, brown and impoverished communities are disproportionately profiled and criminalized, while the wealthy "cocaine" white programming escapes censor judgment free, and dealers just find more creative ways to infiltrate the hood. Of this I'm sure: If "crack" is the addiction, then, as with any drug, the clinical symptoms that poison our communities must be addressed in tandem with the criminalization of the drug itself-and in place of condescension toward the addict.
In a provocative and honest essay for Huffington Post, Kelly Smith Beaty expresses her disgust with Love & Hip-Hop, Atlanta with such sharp, factual insight that I felt intense pride at the fact that I called Atlanta home for 6 years. Then, with one statement, the essay veers into exclusion:
"Our REALITY is progressive, proud, prestigious, and prominent. No, it is not squeaky clean, but it is not an eye sore in the American tapestry either. We as Atlantans, black Atlantans, the Real Black People of Atlanta."
Contrary to popular belief, there are "real" black people in Atlanta who are not prestigious. There are "real" black people in Atlanta who are not prominent. There are many "real" black people in Atlanta who by no means could be considered "progressive." To acknowledge their "reality" does not mean that we are they, nor that they are we -- though it is only through accident of birth and circumstance that we are not -, it is simply understanding that they do, in fact, exist.
As I've stated previously, disrespect implies ownership. To feel disrespect, one must feel the imagery is abusive; to experience that abuse on a visceral level, one must feel that even if it's not true of themselves as individuals, it is often true of their kindred in the collective. I reject that ownership and I reject that imagery as truth. It's extremely difficult to see our sisters and brothers pimp themselves for a dollar and a street dream, I understand. Still, our issue is not - nor should it be -- with black reality television, which is an authentic experience for many people; it is the lack of balance that offers no counter-perspective of black life and womanhood.
Whether as art or reality, our collective reputation means something to us. It means something to me. Still, freedom of speech is a slippery and subjective slope, and we can no more allow individual morality to dictate television programming than it can political policy.
Asked in an interview how he felt about Dr. Martin L. King Jr., Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik el Shabazz) said he did not believe King had ill intentions, but it was impossible to think a man was going to end up in the right place if he was going in the wrong direction.
Adult censorship is the wrong direction.
I'm personally against any woman acting as if she was raised by she-wolves, but they come in all colors -- not just black - and I'm even more against suppression of expression. While the negative imagery concerns me greatly, I'm much more concerned with why black women are always judged by a few and women of the "dominant" culture are granted autonomy. It's the same stance that I take with Steve Harvey. I find his philosophy is insulting, but some people appreciate his "advice." My energy is not directed towards boycotting Think Like A Man, but to supporting what I believe to be quality programming and urging others to do the same. Some people respond to what many perceive to be negative imagery because they see their lives enacted before their eyes. So maybe, just maybe, the answer to eradicating the overwhelmingly stereotypical depictions of women of color lies in the source, not the Fun-House mirror reflection.
Revolutionary Assata Shakur said, "Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them."
More than I could ever dislike a "reality" show, I abhor the school of thought that says we's must be good little negresses because massa is watching and what massa say go, and I shole don't want massa to think we's all act that-a way. Both the action and the reaction can be construed as forms of slavery and I refuse to relinquish that much power -- and I reject those few black women as my representation. VH1 will never swoop in and play Captain Save-a-Negro because its parent corporation, Viacom, has no conscience. By suggesting that they do -- and that it can be appealed to through signatures -- externalizes our oppression and potentially out-sources our responsibility for our own communities.
I fully respect any sincere moral stance, and applaud every single person who exercises their freedom of speech to voice concern and anger at our narrow portrayals in media. However, I will never support individual morality as a generic placebo of right and wrong to be applied to all society. It's much more complex than that. Until we are in a position to proactively produce more positive programming, as opposed to re-actively opposing what's already been created, we will continue to be bombarded with these shows.
More importantly, whether I, you, she or he likes it, 3.6 million viewers have decided that they're "about that life." Again. Which means one of two things: 1.) Intervention is being targeted in the wrong direction, or 2.) It's not our business to authorize, condone nor agree with what grown people watch, how they act nor how they choose to share their personal experiences.
Whichever position individuals may believe the conflict stems from is unequivocally a protected, personal choice -- exactly as it should be.
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KWestSavali