REALITY TV AND THE CHANGING IMAGE OF THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN ‘LEADING LADY’

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As international Women’s History Month comes to a close today, examining the image of black women in media, and how it has evolved over time, may shed light on how black women will continue to make historic inroads in the future.

In the poem Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, the poet writes: “You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies,/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” Many of the historical lies told about black women have been wrought through negative images in media. Yet, we have also “risen” through the same means, through positive images that inspire us to achieve.  These dueling images — the destructive and the empowering — are engaged in a fierce battle even today through our most powerful mechanism of media dissemination – TV.

The current popular depiction of black women on television is caught between two extremes. On one hand, you have an emotionally complex, intelligent and self-made woman in the character of Olivia Pope on the wildly popular ABC show Scandal.  (While there are other, less sophisticated characters on scripted shows like The Game and Meet the Browns, they for the most part are ignored by black media.  Meet the Browns, despite being a Tyler Perry production, is never a trending topic on Twitter.)

At the other end of spectrum, there is the gimmicky, low-rent version of Olivia Pope, mostly seen on “reality” television. From the perspective of superficial appearances, this black woman seems to operate from a somewhat similar privileged segment of society. This woman also lives in a finely appointed home, dines at the finest restaurants, and wears designer clothing. However unlike the fictional business woman of Ms. Pope, the “crazy black reality show chick” generally cobbles together her ostentatious and opulent lifestyle via a usually dysfunctional relationship, whether past or present, with a man of financial means.

Such a formulaic presentation of black women on TV is lucrative. The numbers are in and the people have spoken.  Married to Medicine, for instance, the latest network reality show to feature another slice of Atlanta’s endless supply of black female subcultures, is a bona fide hit. It debuted to Bravo’s highest ratings for a reality program that wasn’t spun off from an existing show, with a solid 1.9 million people tuning in to this newest feat of cable programming focused on drama and cat fights.

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