Like many people, my guilty pleasure is reality television. I typically follow one show and this semester my show of choice was “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”. I was already a huge fan of the series but as soon as Bravo announced it would be in Atlanta, Georgia I was intrigued. This was the first time Bravo allowed African Americans on the TV show. I was slightly disturbed that African American women who had wealth could only participate on the show if they were in a predominantly Black city such as Atlanta. Bravo paints a picture that there are no wealthy African Americans in California or New York which is completely false. Nonetheless, I was excited and anxious for Black women to have a chance to participate on the show. Although the chance to participate on “The Real Housewives” is to display one’s lavish lifestyle and love of capitalism, I knew the show would be different with African American women. I was proven correctly!
The premise of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” is to follow the lives of five women who live in Atlanta, Georgia. The camera follows the lives of Nene, Sheree, DeShawn, Kim, and Lisa. All of the women except Kim have successful careers in Real Estate or fashion. DeShawn runs her own foundation for young African American girls in Atlanta. Kim, the only white cast member, lives off of her sugar daddy named “Big Poppa”. These women were all friends at the start of the seasons, however, by the end of the show NeNe, Kim, and Sheree have a falling out which ends their friendship. Bravo’s goal is to show us “common folk” how the other half lives. If one watches one episode of this show you will see these women’s spending habits and dramatic appraisals of situations. The women behave like teenagers with access to huge bank accounts. The camera loves the drama and so does the wealthy.
The Real Housewives of Atlanta is aired by Bravo. However, the show is produced by True Entertainment. The executive producers of the show are Steven Weinstock, Glenda Hersh, Shari Solomon Cedar, and Kenny Hull. True Entertainment is known for its love of drama and wealth. True Entertainment is also responsible for the “Gastineau Girls” another reality television about the lives of the New York socialites. The show airs at 10 pm on Wednesday nights intended for an adult viewership. Since the show is produced by True Entertainment which has already put out other reality television, The Real Housewives of Atlanta was already slated to encompass lots of drama and a huge display of wealth. The issue is none of the produces were Black. Therefore, there was no one to take a conscious lens to how these women were being portrayed and how they would fit into a larger conversation about African American women in society.
All of the women drove Range Rovers, Mercedes Benz, and BMW’s. The women had designer handbags and drank expensive champagne. Also, the jewelry in the show was outrageous. These women would wear hundreds of thousands of dollars of jewelry just to attend a party. Also, the women always ate at upscale restaurants. I never saw any of them go to a fast food restaurant during the duration of the show. It is clear that all of the products advertised in the show were for people who could afford these material objects. If the viewers could not afford it, the show is set up to make people want to engage in the lifestyle of the wealthy and elite. All of the women find happiness in their money. This is seen by spending lots of money for hair; make up, nails, and clothes. The women need a lot of money to have the best of everything and the ABSOLUTE BEST OF EVERYTHING makes them happy.
Now that I have given a good premise in explaining the show, I will talk about the episode I viewed. I watched the “The Real Housewives of Atlanta Reunion Show”. The show started off in a very interesting but problematic way. The host of the show asked the women “Did you feel any pressure about representing African Americans while on camera”. This question was very interesting because this was the first time in the history of the Housewives reunion series this questions was asked. The host never asked the Real Housewives of Orange County or New York if they felt pressured to represent white women in a positive light. This already normatizes supposed “bad behavior” from African American women. Even more interesting was the response of the women. NeNe said “No!” because she was concerned with giving Bravo a good television show. NeNe who’s behavior on the show fits with the Sapphire stereotype that follows many African American women in the United States. At one point she mocks Kim’s relationship with Big Poppa calling her a “whore”. She tells Kim “close your legs to married men”, therefore, demonizing Kim’s behavior and sexuality. She ultimately calls her promiscuous and stupid because Big Poppa will never leave his wife. The only woman to say she was conscious of her behavior because of stereotypes of Black women was Sheree. This is a huge issue because it definitely shows a class issue. Many of the women felt removed from these stereotypical images of Black women because they are Upper-class women who do not engage with lower class women on a regular basis. Instead they all live in their exclusive and gated communities. Therefore, their behavior and their relation to behavior is purely a class issue. Their identities are linked to their race and gender, however, their class solidifies how these women view themselves in a larger societal context. This creates a distance between middle class and lower class African American women and the women on the show. Therefore, the lower class women become voyeurs of this lavish lifestyle with no connections to these women because the show never shows how race factors into their lives. Unlike the lower class women who may feel racism on a regular basis, the show is created to show that these women do not engage with a discriminatory narrative.
Another aspect I want to discuss about the reunion show is the comments Kim makes about DeShawn’s barbeque. She said “I don’t want to go to DeShawn’s BBQ and eat chicken with NeNe”. NeNe challenged this by saying “we had lamb and shrimp so I found the comment suspect”. Kim’s comment is embedded in racist ideology. The fact that she assumed that there would be chicken at the barbeque plays on raical stereotypes of food that Black people eat. When NeNe calls her out, she says “I’m not racist. Half of my friends are black”. This response is full of what Stuart Hall calls “inferential racism”. In his essay “The Whites of Their Eyes” he says “inferential racism is naturalized representations of events and situations relating to race, whether “factual” or “fictional”, which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions” (91). Whether or not Kim meant this as a racist comment, it shows how certain symbols such as chicken become linked to black people. I am sure Kim isn’t the only person who thinks this. When I search watermelon on urban dictionary. com, the fruit is always linked to black people. As I conclude this post on reality television, the reunion show showed the women fighting more than the other housewives reunions I watched. I can’t help but wonder whether or not the producers of the show wanted to evoke the Sapphire image of these Black women for its white audience. This image is what many white Americans feel comfortable when dealing with images of Black women. The depictions of the Black Housewives were definitely different than those of the white housewives. This season focused more on fighting which begs the question “why”?