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Big bucks, violence and Black women

“The Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast members, from left: Sheree Whitfield, Kim Zolciak, NeNe Leakes, Phaedra Parks, Cynthia Bailey, Kandi Buruss

“The Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast members, from left:
Sheree Whitfield, Kim Zolciak, NeNe Leakes, Phaedra Parks, Cynthia Bailey, Kandi Buruss

The corporate feeding frenzy on the distorted image of Black women

By Starla Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call

The  manipulation and one dimensional portrayal of Black women on television was once again thrust into the spotlight after an on-camera blow up by two cast members of the popular “Real Housewives of Atlanta” series. The profanity-laced, finger-pointing, hair-pulling melee, which aired April 20, resulted in battery charges, an arrest warrant, endless replays and debates on morning news shows and social media on whether Kenya Moore or Porsha Miller were most at fault during part one of the Season 6 “Reunion” show.

Meanwhile, Bravo the cable channel owned by NBC Universal, which produces and airs the show, is gearing up in the aftermath to air parts two and three. Part one, attracted over 4 million viewers, making it the highest rated of any of the reunion shows, according to reports.

According to the Nielsen Company for cable network shows, the episode ranked number one among Black households and number three among all U.S. households.

There is fortune and fame gained at the expense of denigrating the images of Black women, argued analysts. What is blatantly missing from television is a broader representation of the diversity, complexity and stories they bring to the table. Regardless to the riches, elite social status or success reached by some of the Black women represented on reality T.V., too often they are still portrayed as violent, materialistic or unstable.

“These shows are about the denigration of Black women. It pulls up every stereotype, every historical stereotype that we have. We’ve got Sapphire, we’ve got the neck-rolling sister, it’s every negative stereotype and it is repugnant,” said Dr. Julianne Malveaux, economist, author and president emerita of Bennett College for women.

The caricature “Sapphire” was popularized from the 1920s through 1960s on the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio and television shows explained sociology professor David Pilgrim. On the show, the character Sapphire Stevens regularly berated Kingfish, her good-for-little husband, he said.  The show was popular and Sapphire became a synonym for aggressive, mean Black women, Prof. Pilgrim said in an e-mail to The Final Call.

Prof. Pilgrim established the Jim Crow Museum which is a collection of over 4,000 racist memorabilia and artifacts at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.

“The legacy of Sapphire Stevens lives today on television shows that portray African American women as cussing, head-shaking, finger-wagging angry women who belittle Black men — who are portrayed as lazy, ignorant or otherwise morally flawed,” he added.

Evette Dionne, a writer and editor who covers a variety of issues including, race, culture and entertainment said many of the reality shows are capitalizing and profiting off of the pain and hurt of Black women.

“Instead of giving them therapy or a way to work through their issues, they put them in these situations where unhealed hurt comes to the surface and next thing you know, it’s throwing bottles and hitting each other upside the head and cursing each other out because they have unresolved issues that nobody has attempted to work through. I blame networks for that,” said Dionne.

She is bothered by the lack of the diversity of images of Black women on television.

According to a poll conducted by Essence Magazine and Proctor and Gamble, nearly 80 percent of Black women said they are concerned about the way they were and are being portrayed in media. Blacks also watch more television than any other group in the U.S., noted Nielsen.

“African Americans are voracious viewers of television. In 2013, they watched over seven hours a day! This is more time (and programming) than any other demographic — a hefty 37 percent more,” said the company’s report, “Tastemakers, Leaders and Media Lovers: Why the African American Consumer Is Important to the Entertainment Industry.”

“Research shows that dehumanizing portrayals of Black people on television lead to real-world consequences for Black folks — influencing how we are treated by doctors, judges, teachers and lawmakers. No matter how entertaining, this should be the last fight between Black women that Bravo profits from,” according to a statement by online activist group Color of Change.

Pilrim added, “An even greater atrocity occurs when Black writers, editors, and producers pander to historically stereotypical portrayals—like Mammies, Toms, Sambos, and Sapphires — to sell books, movies, or television series.”

Most of the top level television executives and producers are white males and many are members of the Jewish community. None of the 18 top executives pictured on Bravo’s website are Black.

The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam raised a question about Hollywood and images during a broadcast of his 2013-2014 online lecture series, “The Time and What Must Be Done.”

“But does it matter who dominates the media? It does,” said the Nation of Islam minister.

“Look, the media shapes not only our children’s values and actions, but our own,” Farrakhan said.

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