Friday, August 21, 2009

What's worse: RHOA or race-based criticism of it?

My blogsister Professor Tracey has me thinking about "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." Yesterday, on Aunt Jemima's Revenge, Tracey asked whether the hit Bravo show was "a guilty pleasure or embarrassing as hell for black folks, particularly women." And so, as a regular watcher of the show, I pondered the lightning rods that the Hotlanta housewives have become.

Yeah, I watch RHOA. It's shamelessly trashy, quite obviously scripted, drama-filled reality TV. But after a week of working and thinking and stressing and getting caught up in our country's all-too-real political drama, sometimes I want to rest my brain by consuming something simple, indulgent and without value. "Real Housewives" is like a Hostess cupcake for my gray matter.

To be sure, the women on RHOA are no role models. They are alternately bullying, narcissistic, back-stabbing, money-grubbing, cliquey, disloyal, arrogant, self-involved, willfully ignorant, poorly spoken, wasteful and tackily nouveau riche. The show features street fights, wig tugging, name dropping, pole dancing, sugar daddy-funded goodies, "baller" fetishizing, vanity business projects, cattiness, loud arguments in nice restaurants (and nice offices..and nice homes), and whole lot of "flossing" and faux importance. Whether editing or reality is to blame, the women read like gross caricatures of the bourgie set, garnished with a little Jerry Springer.

But here's the thing: These traits are not solely the hallmark of the black housewives of Atlanta. Reality shows are cast and scripted for drama, and the "Real Housewives" franchise serves up plenty of it with each and every season. So I find it curious that these five, black women are singled out as egregiously off-the-hook. Oh, I'm not saying that the white Real Housewives don't catch hell. Half the thrill of watching all the RH series is snarking on the excess and ignorance afterwards. My problem is HOW the Atlanta wives are criticized.

A foray into online coverage, blogs and TV forums like the ones on Television Without Pity will uncover frequent use of the word "ghetto" and "hood," references to this or that housewife looking "like a man," hints that the housewives are high-classed "hos"--promiscuous, scheming she-devils hot on the trail of big money, snark about big booties, talk of how the women are embarrassing black folks. Hmmm...sounds kind of like the type of criticism often thrown at black women, even those who act demurely and properly. (Have you seen the stuff folks say about Michelle Obama and her daughters?) Frankly, I have more problem with this sort of racialized analysis than I do with anything that happens on "Real Housewives of Atlanta."

Bethany Frankel, one of the "Real Housewives of New York," goes heavy on the race-based synopses in her weekly RHOA recap at E! Online. Read her account of housewife Sheree's episode one meeting with a party planner:

Anthony had the most professionally looking attire, and he let us know that he is a top-level executive. Then the wheels fell off—you could just feel that something was about to explode.

My man tried to be so articulate in the beginning, and he worked his way up to gangsta. Not only did he not get the helicopter. He was a helicopter! I loved how he would occasionally look at the camera as if it wouldn't catch all of this.

You really need to rewind it because there are so many fantastic nuggets in this scene. I definitely laughed so hard I cried, and I mean windshield wiper Snoopy tears. OK, a few examples: "Who gon' check me boo?" Or "I eat bitches like you every day." Did he throw "yo mamma is a bitch?!" Did anyone else just die when his coworkers subtly closed the office door as if they had begun speaking just above a whisper.

When she stood up, still in sunglasses, after her Cleveland explanation, her face literally looked distorted. It was fantastic. She went full hood on his ass, and I dropped dead. This was a meeting with a party planner!

"...tried to be articulate...worked his way into gangsta"

"...went full hood..."


Was it "hood" when New Jersey housewife Theresa lost her shit and flipped a table during a loud imbroglio in a swanky restaurant?

I read mocking comments about the RHOA women "axing" for things and numerous slights against their collective blaccents. But why is it more acceptable when the Jersey wives mangle the Queen's English than when the Atlanta wives do?

Atlanta Housewife Sheree is one self-aggrandizing chick, but is she any worse than ex-Countess Luann de Lesseps on Real Housewives of New York? Honey, a married-into/divorced-out-of title doesn't make it any better when you act a pompous ass.

And for all the tittering about new Atlanta housewife Kandi's seemingly sorry fiance with the four baby mamas...There are several series players with first, second and third marriages and blended families. There are sketchy boyfriends and even worse husbands. I look at Kandi's man and want to scream "Run, girl, run!" But, y'know I say the same thing about the cloying, controlling, joined-at-the-hip weirdness that is the marriage of RHONY wife Alex. I said the same thing about oily, creepy, young-woman-chaser, Slade, in season one of Real Housewives of Orange County. I said the same thing about the disinterested and sour-faced boyfriend New Yorker Bethany Frankel chased in season one of RHONY.

The Atlanta wives can be awfully clueless for alleged high society types. No ladies, you probably don't want to eat the fondant on your pricey cake flown in from L.A. Of course it tastes bad. Fondant, though edible, is for decoration. But when OC Housewife Jeana hosted a guest from Canada in season one, her family could not have appeared more ignorant and xenophobic. "Do you speak Canadian?" WTF? Jeana and her crew hardly seemed like well-traveled, worldly jet setters.

My point--As far as I can tell, nearly all of the Real Housewives are bullying, narcissistic, back-stabbing, money-grubbing, cliquey, disloyal, arrogant, self-involved, willfully ignorant, poorly spoken, wasteful and tackily nouveau riche. It makes for good television. But the Orange County, New York and New Jersey wives are not seen as representative of white culture or white womanhood. They are not discussed using racialized terms. And no white folks are spending time being embarrassed by their hijinks. By contrast, the Atlanta dysfunction is positioned as uniquely black, confirmation of a host of stereotypes about poor, ignorant, urban people; loud, angry black women; and shiftless black men with myriad baby mamas.

There is a sense in the sniping about the RHOA women, that people think they especially don't deserve their arrogance and feelings of entitlement. Who are these black women to think they have class, looks and smarts? Consider these comments from Television Without Pity:

Sheree - you can take the girl out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the girl! You are the wiki of trash. Truly.

My mouth is hanging open. The sheer blunt force of the vulgarity has left me stunned. It was like a herd of cattle wearing wigs and lipstick passed through my living room.

Sheree looks like Ray Allen with a wig.

And for the record, NeNe (I didn't know Martin Lawrence was on this show!!)...

This show needs subtitles. I don't think anyone speaks english. Must get out my Detroit Ghetto Translation Guide. Holy shit, what a mess of ugly, gross bimbos. Reminds me why I left Motown. Barf. Shower, please!!!!!!


There is something about a willful black woman that attracts unflinching, crazy hate. I call it it Star Jones/Omarosa Syndrome.

Look, there is a whole lot that is distasteful about the Real Housewives of Atlanta. But more distasteful is the disproportionate level of racialized criticism that is heaped on them for doing the same things that their white counterparts do.


DaisyDeadhead said...

I was gonna write about Kim's, umm, singing (ha!) and have some fun, but now you went and made it all political on my ass. :( Damn, I have to be serious now!

I watch all of these shows, total addict. I see no difference in the Atlanta housewives and the others, in terms of vanity and money and shopping and lunching and screeching and everything else. If it WAS different, we wouldn't be watching it! These are utterly "predictable" franchises, just like any other reality show, and we expect tantrums and tiaras. That's why we watch. If they were TOO different, it would be another show entirely. People tune in for a familiar formula.

Bethenny's comments (that you quote here) piss me off...not sure how to say this tactfully. (Thus, I may lack some tact; apologies in advance.) But I wonder how Bethenny would react to the profusion of Jewish American Princess jokes (at her and Jill's expense) that I once heard during RHONY from the guys sitting at the bar at Applebees? Does she realize she is considered more of a laughable stereotype here in the south (where the NeNes and Sherees are pretty common, actually!) than RHOA are? ("Bethenny's a chef? That means she calls room service!") Maybe hearing a few of those jokes (being similarly belittled in a specifically-ethnic sort of way) would cure her of that infantile behavior? Does she realize it cuts both ways?

But why is it more acceptable when the Jersey wives mangle the Queen's English than when the Atlanta wives do?

Not a bit different. Example: I loved it when Jill (NYC) said "you shouldn't kick a gift horse in the mouth"--I laughed my ass off!

But, y'know I say the same thing about the cloying, controlling, joined-at-the-hip weirdness that is the marriage of RHONY wife Alex.

I asked here, what does he do for a living anyway? He never goes anywhere!

So, yeah, I agree... it is outrageous to single these women out as... well, any different than the OC, NYC or NJ Real Housewives. I assume they were chosen because they were similar.

And thanks so much for this post, you have made we aware of something that was sailing right past my consciousness!

PS: I love NeNe, and will defend her to the death. She is the Joneses! :D

Black Butterfly said...

I completely agree with this post. It is ridiculous the huge disparity between how the "privileged white" women are critiqued for their rogue behavior or those of their families onscreen compared to the black women on RHOA. When critiquing the same type of outlandish behavior with black women there is is ALWAYS a heavily laden racial diatribe. It is absolute BS.

ActsofFaithBlog said...

They know this going in yet they CHOOSE to embody all of the embarrassing behavior and traits that will drag ALL black women down. Notice how the wife from season one left. She was always classy, her marriage seemed solid and she read as "boring" onscreen. She refused to play into it. Why would any black person expect to do a show like this, act the way they do and then think they'll be viewed in a fair comparison to white women? It's not gonna happen. As for the blended family vs baby momma scenario those other women are MARRIED or were. No matter how it's spun Kandi's choice of a serial baby machine and all around irresponsible lout says she has no self-esteem, lacks good judgment and doesn't care about the type of role model she provides for her daughter. It's utter FOOLISHNESS.

Anonymous said...

Not disagreeing with your racialism theory at all, just commenting about ...

"And no white folks are spending time being embarrassed by their hijinks."

Well I know that *I* am!

Monica Roberts said...

Amen Tami.

I'm not a fan of reality TV period, but I hate it even more when peeps are subjected to racist comments

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Kristen said...

I totally hear what you are saying. I'm embarrassed to admit I watch the show, too. It's such a guilty pleasure and I started watching when it started in Orange County, since that's where I live. But it is ridiculous if these ATL women are getting nay more criticism. Like you said, in every city we are seeing women who are materialistic, shallow, and ridiculous.

Roxie said...

Exactly why I avoid tv blogs. I know/knew this sort of criticism is/was happening

I am not Star Jones said...

Everything you wrote is true but leads me to two thought bubbles: is Kim also tarred with the ghetto brush because of her affiliation with the others? Or is she exempt due to her supposed superiority?

And I think Bethanny's comments come from a place of believing that the cast of RHofA are all in on the joke. The women are amping up the stereotypical aspects of what they are supposed to represent for the rewards to come.

Their behavior insures that people are commenting about them, creating buzz and honestly, I think that's the bottom line for these women.

If their performances allow closet bigots to get their full bigot face on AND it translates to popularity and cash for them, so be it.

Kjen said...

I noticed the race based critiques of RHOA, but I always seemed to encounter the charge from other blacks. As in "these handful of women who are tacky, ignorant, etc, etc, will set back the black race for centuries to come" type of critiques. As if Black people other than the picture perfect Cosbys have no right to be seen and heard.
I use to be "embarassed" by "negative representations" as well, but I'm getting over it.
Not every Black person seen on tv can/should reflect my views and experiences and its not only up to us - i.e. always put your best race face forward in front of white people - to prove to others that we are human beings that come from all shapes and sizes and experiences.

Dsxyfemme85 said...

The sad thing is, in my experience with Television Without Pity, commenters like the ones that you quoted are often Black women who consider themselves better than the RHoA (or whomever the Black reality star of topic is, New York, Omarosa, etc.). Then the white commenters see that as the okay to pile on with their own classist, and sometimes coded racist remarks. I wonder if they're trying to prove to white viewers that "we're not all like that". I agree with Kjen, I think sometimes we can be the hardest on each other just to keep up appearances.

kat said...

Sadly, I think some of this is coming from the show's creators themselves. I saw a few episodes over the weekend, and almost every word out of Kandi's mouth was subtitled. Even though her speech was perfectly clear.

Toronto realtor said...

very interesting article and the discussion too. I agree with Kat as I think some of this is coming from the show's creators themselves.


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