Who Do You Follow?

Television reality stars from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Braxton Family Values,” “Basketball Wives” and “Love and Hip-Hop” are now considered to be “ROLE MODELS” in society?!…These “roles” on  television are in need of serious transformation…can somebody…ANYBODY…come up with NEW material?!?!

The cover above made my heart hurt quite a bit the past few weeks…while I know many people aren’t really checking for VIBE magazine these days, I am concerned about those who are. Whether teenage members of the Terrence and Rocsi 106 and Park Generation, or just plain ol’ hip-hop fans, I find it problematic that in a time in our history when a Black woman lives in the White House and leads a major obesity initiative (in addition to wearing an array of other hats), another Black Woman OWNing her television network, and of course the many powerful Black Women and mothers that have loved, educated, and served as incredible mentors to many future leaders, that VIBE would select the women above as “role models” in today’s society. I mean I get the need for a pop culture representative but was Oprah unavailable? Was Mary Mary double booked? Did Janelle Monae say no? What about the Black Girls Rock people? Or even Beyonce—was she busy with baby Blue?

*Note: This may be a lil’ lengthy because it is written in the spirit of “forgive them for they know not what they do” and is an effort to break down the issue at hand for those who truly don’t understand why these images are a problem…you know, out of love…if you “get it” you may want to just skim towards the latter part where solutions are featured…

Who Are These Women?

For the thousands of young, impressionable teenage girls in society, media images serve as a guide on how to think, speak, dress and behave. While singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, Kandi Burress (woman to the left) serves as an example of the most financially independent of them all, Evelyn Lozada and Chrissy Lampkin (two women on the right) are representations of life where fist fights for “respect” serve as “keys to survival”. Moreover, these women are “revered” in some circles because of who they have been romantically connected. Tamar Braxton, second from the left, does not quite fit in the same category of the other women, because she is the only cover girl that is married. Moreover, she is the only woman pictured who is not on a show that alludes to being in a romantic relationship in its title. Instead, she is featured on “Braxton Family Values” because of being the sister of R&B sensation Toni Braxton and her husband is Toni’s former manager and Interscope record executive. Interestingly, VIBE did not choose Toni to be a role model for the cover, despite being a veteran in the music industry, survivor of numerous health issues, activist for numerous organizations, and loving mother.   It is important to note that Tamar is often deemed as the “people’s choice” of Braxton Family Values due to being the initiator of most of the fights and controversy that take place on the show. That’s a trait her family mentions, and maybe that’s a contributing factor to her spin-off reality show (we’ve seen it in the past..outrageous behaviors=more camera time, from video vixens to “New York” from the Flavor Flav show, remember she got the spinoffs “I Love New York”, “New York Gets a Job,” I mean a whole franchise for cray cray behavior). In the midst of conflicts, Tamar has a history of mentioning how her husband’s resources provide an escape for her that her sisters are not privy (ie, “I can just leave in my husband’s jet now”) and she wants him to help her launch a music career. What all these women DO have in common are a few things, such as using the status of another person as a major component of their identity to appear on reality television, participating in fights based on unfruitful topics like materialism, and getting spin-off shows based on their behaviors (well except Kandi, hers was because of talent). Don’t worry…while this may seem like a long rant that needs a bit of polishing, a few solutions are offered below in the event you are tempted to follow suite with “your new role models” pictured on VIBE’s cover.

Black Women in Reality Television

Remember the chant often heard in the black community, encouraging Black men to go to school because “everyone won’t be Michael Jordan or Lil’ Wayne”…well the similar discourse needs to start happening with little girls to ensure they don’t strive to be like women who have gained popularity because of their “wife” or “girlfriend” title. Confused? Let me explain…According to the Macmillion dictionary, a “housewife” is a “term used to describe a married woman whose main occupation is running or operating the family‘s home—caring for and educating her children, cooking and storing food, buying goods the family needs in day to day life, cleaning or maintaining parts of the home, making clothes for the family, etc.—and who does not generally maintain employment outside the home.” Now, while I love Kandi and think she’s extremely talented, many of the traits of a housewife are implied on the show, such as “running and operating the family’s home, caring for and educating her children, cooking and storing food, buying goods the family needs in day to day life, etc” however, two things that are left unchecked in the housewife category are the basics of the term, being that she takes pride in working outside of the home and is not married or not a wife. This makes her similar to Evelyn, who’s casted on a show called “Basketball Wives” …we won’t mention the fact that she’s currently engaged to a football player despite the show title and was originally included because of her broken engagement with a basketball player. Being associated with an athlete for relevance makes Evelyn a “factor” …in her terms. She, like Kandi, enjoys tooting her “independence,” as they are both featured as owners of boutiques and…well for Kandi, the list goes on and for Evelyn…she’s now an author with Cash Money Content (ie, Lil’ Wayne’s people). However, both are on television shows that label them as being the antithesis. A “Housewife” stays at home while the husband works outside the home to earn the money for the family, and a “Basketball Wife” has a husband in the spotlight because of his skill and agility of being a professional athlete, thus she gains her identity through him by affirming to the title. Maybe, if they would like to be on a television show that spotlights their business savvy and intellect, the two should have got together and created a show called “Independent Women.” While Evelyn and Kandi often stress their own independence, they have not separated themselves from the title “wife” or “housewife” for the shows the participate. They seem to be perfectly fine being defined by a title that automatically qualifies them to be connected to another person (whether “he” is there or not…since in most reality shows with protagonists of color, women are single…as in not married being the box they would check for the Census).

Chrissy’s on the VH1 show, “Love and Hip-Hop” because she’s the long-term girlfriend of rapper Jim Jones. She shows her yearn for financial independence in some scenes, such as an episode last season when she fought for her percentage of the proceeds of Jim’s clothing line she created designs for…however, she engages in fist fights and arguments with women on the show to ensure she receives “respect”…even her boyfriend’s manager, Yandy Smith. Chrissy also had an issue with the show’s Executive Producer, Mona Scott, an entertainment mogul who happens to be Yandy’s mentor. Her cast bio, found on vh1.com, actually discusses her career but on the show, she is portrayed as a rapper’s girlfriend trying to find anything she can do to make money and “hold him down”….kinda implying she has no skills until he helps her by throwing her part of his project. interestingly, in both “Love and Hip Hop” and “Basketball Wives” the producers are women who appear on the show, but in ways that have caused quite a bit of controversy as there is a debate that they play “instigator” roles. Shaunie O’Neal, an Executive Producer of Basketball Wives, is often present during the major fights scenes (need I say laughing afterwards), and Mona Scott Young allegedly played a contributing factor, according to Chrissy, by setting up a few fights that went down in “Love and Hip Hop”. While it appears they may have been involved in the business aspects of the show, as well as featured on-screen, it’s interesting they weren’t selected as “role models”…as both have quite a deal on their resumes, beyond being associated with horrific and degrading reality television shows.

Tamar’s fights are a little different because they are with her sisters, and often rooted in her self-centered behavior. She glamorizes being spoiled, having a “diva” attitude and not working hard to achieve success. Through blaming others and only wanting things “her way or no way” Tamar’s antics show young girls no matter how old you get, it’s okay to disregard the feelings and perspectives of others, especially if they are your family members. While Tamar doesn’t engage in physical altercations, she is the quintessential example of “dishing but not taking.” This means she enjoys criticizing others yet is unable to assess and deal with constructive criticism in a manner expected of a person over the age of 18 to exhibit. However, I’m not sure how authentic her antics are…her sisters insist her behavior has gotten“worse” since the first season of the show, yet I recall her behavior on BET’s “Tiny and Toya” a few years back…and she handled herself as a mature adult. Maybe, Tamar understands marketing and “what sells” in television enough to “bring it” with each scene as she serves as a producer of Braxton Family Values.

To be fair, I must admit that everything about these women isn’t bad. Chrissy and Tamar act like they have SOME values every now and then. While dealing with issues of the heart, Chrissy shows a great deal of love, dedication, commitment and compassion (towards Jim, his family, her family, etc.). Evelyn strives to do the same with her family, Kandi works hard w/ her businesses and Tamar..um..I guess when Vince and Toni were sick she showed another side…but unfourtantely, these examples are often minuet as long lasting impressions are negative…such as the fights they’ve all engaged in (even Kandi to stoop low during reunion to say “my man has a Range Rover”!!!) smh…The sad part about the selective amnesia that takes place with the “values” of these women is synonymous of how rappers say “parents should teach kids right from wrong and not them” when criticized for violent lyrics and images in their “art”. Rappers and athletes often denounce the idea of being a “role model” and hide under the cloth of being an “artist exercising creative expression” so as to not have to take responsibility for the actions of those that follow. I mean clearly, twitter is a representative of how many “followers” a person has, but that is another posting..back to the Vibe “cover girls.”  These women actually embrace the idea of being a role model…and are mothers that really see no problem with their behaviors. I wonder how many of them would purchase the magazine for their children if instead of their faces on the cover, there were other women who participated in the same actions they exhibited on their reality shows. The fact that these women are deemed “role models,” laugh at petitions against them and get defensive when critics raise an eyebrow or voice concerns about their behaviors show the lack of maturity. Their self proclaimed “high school” behaviors bring them great pride as they perform for fans of their shows every week, tweet and sign on for new seasons. Not only are these images damaging to young women, something should be said about the young boys who will A) think this is typical black women behavior and serve as reminders of the stereotype of “black women with attitude problems”…even though Evelyn’s the worse of them all as she runs bare-footed across the top of conference room tables in an effort to fight a former friend while representing for the Puerto Rican women in the world…(oh but wait, my bad, I forgot..she apologized..and they’ve kissed and made up since?!..So does that mean the “non-m’f’n factor” bullying t-shirts are off the market, too?!Or was it just in time for next season?) and B) some of the cast members of the shows represented by the cover girls teach the idea that as long as a man has money, women will stay in a relationship, despite how unhealthy it may be or how negative they are treated.

Sadly, the photo above has become the dominate image of “success” when it comes to Black womanhood in “reality television” programming. Now, I’m not saying love can’t be found in an athlete/entertainer, nor am I saying one needs to be single to feel self-worth, however, I am saying that youngsters of color need diverse images of what a “role model” looks like…especially if we know reality is the prominent genre of television on networks geared to young adults.  Moreover, images of women and men of color who have attended college and are working in professions other than sports and the music industry can give youngsters inspiration to strive to excel in positions that will take them beyond a television screen (at least Harlem Heights tried to do that even though the product placement was quite evident..). It is important for each of us, especially those who have a problem with these images, to stand tall and be the “change we seek,” as our President often encourages, to combat these negative images with the positive actions of our lives. WE must be the examples and role models for the youth in our communities (since we can’t depend on Viacom or the like to represent and tell stories in a balanced perspective reflective of multicultural communities).

While I believe everyone has a powerful light, voice and purpose and perspective in this world, I don’t think fighting, violence and negative behavior reflects an individual’s best self.

In the event you or someone you know is contemplating reality television…or yearn to serve as a “cover girl” of a magazine, here are a few tips and helpful lessons that may serve as a worthwhile guide sheet to combat horrific images we have seen in the past and can hopefully start a new trend of positive images for people of color in the media:

-If you’re a hardworking “independent” woman, don’t join a cast for a show premise that suggests you’re dependent on a man for financial stability.

-If you’re a proud mother, show and not tell us! And definitely do not behave in a manner that would have your children suspended from school if they carried on the same antics.

-If you are tired of being solely connected to a celebrity, or living in the shadow of a high powered individual, don’t participate in a project in which your “identity” is based on their success.

-If your friend is producing a show to bring attention to whatever  commonality you all share in your personal lives, do not blame “the producers of the show” for any images that lead to criticism or portray you in a negative light. Educate yourself on the production process, demand creative control, sit in editing suites, and simply leave the show if it is going in an unfavorable direction (Kimsha Artest did with BBWives: LA). And, if you do not see the “fruits of your labor” until it actually airs, address the issues and take responsibility for your actions head on instead of blaming the “production team.” Post-production (editing) only links together actions that took place, images are not created from scratch to show an event that actually happened. For example, Chrissy blamed the producers for a fight she was involved in by saying it was their fault because they put her in the room with one of her enemies. At some point, we must exercise self-control because being in the room with a person you do not get along with does not excuse violent behavior. What message is that sending to a 5th grader bully who loves fighting kids in their home room class? It’s like teaching them no matter what happens, it’s okay to get fight until the Principle moves them to a different teacher’s room.

-If you are contemplating your participation on a reality show (like any of the VIBE cover girls’), decide what means more…your dignity and integrity or the number of Celine bags you can rock or pair of Louboutins in your closet.

-If you MUST do a reality show…take notes from people like “Taj” from the music group SWV, who had a reality show with her husband, Tenessee Titan Eddie George, called “I Married A Baller” distributed on TV One in 2007. The title brings agency to she AND her husband..a joint partnership often expected in a marriage.Moreover, we as audience members should support programming that does not involve fighting such as the “Mary Mary” show and the way Monica Arnold’s reality show, “Still Standing” or even “Tia and Tamara” on the Style network. These shows exhibited the importance of balanced lives and healthy relationships. While they are not as “juicy” as the “wives” shows to some, they do serve as examples of the type of friendships and relationships we should support and encourage our children to emulate. (As a suggestion, can someone out there at a network start a pitch program where people like me and other folks that yearn for diverse images can be a part of the development process since it appears you all are tapped of ideas when it comes to telling great stories AND meeting the bottom line..I got a list of ideas and know plenty of other young, talented folks who do, too! And once finalist have been chosen..can WE the people vote on what shows WE want to represent who WE are…I mean this is a democracy…and the Awkward Black Girl web series has proven that shows with characters that are not one dimensional CAN have a following).

-If you are going to be portraying the image of a role model on a magazine or in your local community, consider your attire. While this is VIBE’s “Sexy Issue,” must they all be dressed like vixens? Couldn’t VIBE have taken a different route by showing how one can exude flyness no matter what they have on, even in a chic Business suit?

-If you get lulled into doing a reality show after seeing how much you will get paid, and make a “boo boo” with your actions (we are all human), and are asked about your behavior on the show,  particularly if someone singles you out as being a representative for all of your race and gender, do not generalize all the members of your respective groups! For example, Kandi shared that the behaviors of the members of the Real Housewives of Atlanta are not only representative of Black women but ALL women…as if essential character traits of womanhood are reflected on their show. Women are not all the same, hence the existence of feminism, Black feminism and Womanism…I’m sure all the deep people followed that one! *If you’re confused, its okay, just get a lil’ bell hooks, Beverly Guy-Sheftall or Patricia Hill Collins in your life.

-If you must show out in an interview for your rebuttal when asked about your critics, think carefully before commenting. This way, you won’t be in the same boat as Evelyn, who tweeted  to her fans that she apologized for making negative comments about Star Jones, one of her critics of violent behavior exhibited on television, and saying they had discussed the petition and were now cool.

Watching these shows for entertainment and striving to be like these women should be two different things—the fate of our society will be based on if audience members realize that. To those who feel they MUST watch the shows—go ahead (I take it you got nothing from this). But don’t strive to be these women. Tune in, if you like (reality television is a common guilty pleasure). But afterwards, fill out an app for grad school, pick up a book, volunteer at a community center (as an effort to teach our children what NOT to do) or something else productive since you know deep down you may watch these women, may even laugh, shake your head in disappointment, or gossip about it—but you don’t strive to be them. Tell VIBE they are wrong—these are NOT our role models.

This post was written with the superstar thoughts of Dr. Adria Y. Goldman, an amazing Millennial scholar who wrote her dissertation on Images of Black Women in Reality Television.

What are your thoughts about the “role models” of todays society?!

Unfortunately, another season of one of these type show begins next week, if you decide to watch the trailer, ask yourself…is there ANYTHING about this show that is productive to helping our youth live worthwhile, productive and fulfilling lives (and am I the only one that gets a headache and a few brain cells lost when I glimpse at such projects..and don’t all these girls look the same)?

*Editors Note: A petition has been created against this show. Click this link for more details and to sign- LAHH Petition

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