ColorLines on race and reality TV: from cultural transgression to minstrel shows

Today at ColorLines Magazine, Neelanjana Banerjee looks at race, representation and reality TV and asks, as per the story’s headline: “Is Reality TV a Revolution for Race or the New Minstrel?”

A smart, nuanced and well-reported piece, Banerjee notes that:

“A series of NAACP reports have tracked the dismal representation of African Americans and other people of color on network television for the past decade. In 2000, the NAACP called for a boycott of the four major networks because none of their 26 new shows featured an actor of color in a lead or starring role. In 2006, the NAACP reported the number of minority actors of any sort in prime-time had declined to barely 300. In its most recent report, however, the NAACP declared reality TV ‘the only bright spot’ in the industry.”

The NAACP could arrive at such a conclusion because, as Banerjee writes, “Today, the mainstream dating shows, such as ‘The Bachelor,’ primarily ignore people of color. But on competition shows and on cable networks, characters of color are much more likely to show up.”


is to say, people of color are more likely to appear in network competition shows and cable reality TV dating and lifestyle shows than they are across the board in scripted television. It is for just this reason that we need to pay critical attention to not just the quantity of people of color within the reality TV universe, but to the quality of those representations, as I discussed with the magazine:

“Media critic Jennifer Pozner monitored 1,000 hours of unscripted programming for her forthcoming book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV—a Fast Food Nation-esque expose. She argues that reality TV’s increasingly stereotypical portrayals of women and people of color are responsible for a backlash against women’s rights and social progress in general. ‘I feel like [these shows] play the same function that minstrel shows did when they were at their prime,’ Pozner charges.

In the book, Pozner outlines the programming fallacy of the terms ‘unscripted’ and ‘reality’: ‘The central conceit—that participants are ‘real people’ experiencing ‘real emotions’—is used to hide the storytelling work of casting directors, writers, editors, videographers, and production teams, as well as advertisers who contribute to visuals, dialogue, and plot development.’ And with their invisible hands, come quite visible biases and notions about what makes for a compelling character of color.”

I delve into those visible — and sometimes not so visible — biases in Reality Bites Back, in the chapter, “Erasing Ethnicity, Encoding Bigotry: Race, pre-and post- Flavor of Love“:

“As reality shows are some of the only places viewers regularly see people of color on TV, their imagery takes on greater significance. When the primary televised narratives about race and gender are Jezebels, Mammies, and Sapphires, ‘spicy’ Latinas and ‘exotic’ (or passive) Asians, our collective cultural understanding of who women of color ‘are’ — what they’re capable of intellectually and professionally, and how they should be treated socially and sexually — becomes poisoned. Likewise when men of color appear mostly as buffoons, thugs, and criminals.”

Still, there are always exceptions. And I do explore some of the positive glimmers in the book–which, I’m happy to say, ColorLines picked up on and expanded. Among the thousands of reality TV cast members who’ve gotten drunk, hooked up and stripped down on lifestyle, dating and modeling shows over the years, Banerjee rightly states that “a few of those faces… have also been catalysts for some of television’s most transgressive moments,” including HIV-positive Pedro Zamora on MTV’s The Real World in the 1990s (which happened before the book’s 2000 – 2010 focus), or transgender model Isis King on cycle 11 of The CW’s America’s Next Top Model. As per ColorLines:

“Isis King’s appearance on cycle 11 of Tyra Banks’ ‘America’s Next Top Model’ brought national attention to transgender identity. When ‘Top Model’ recruited King for the show, she was living in a homeless shelter where they were holding a photo shoot. On the show, fellow cast members both supported and antagonized King, but ultimately she was portrayed in a positive light.

Pozner spends a whole chapter of her book analyzing Banks’ contradictions as the former supermodel tries to ‘redefine standards of beauty.’ Pozner applauds “Top Model” for emphasizing King’s humanity over her difference. King did not come to the show as a transgender activist though, and the show’s judges appreciate her lack of agenda. As Pozner quips, ‘A trans body may have been appreciated on the show, but activist intentions? Wanting to be a visible agent of social change, rather than just posing in sponsors’ ads? Now that would be unacceptable.'”

(Why that quip? Because as I write in the book, Isis’s participation on Top Model was marked by mixed messages–and “acceptance had its limits.” Here’s the back story about the “doesn’t have an agenda” comment: One of the judges specifically praised her for answering a question about what her presence there would do for the LGBT community by saying she only wanted to win, only wanting to be a model, not an activist.”)

I wrote Reality Bites Back to spark a critical, cultural debate about the role reality TV plays in shaping our ideas about gender, race, class, and more, from the minstrel shows of VH1 to the rare exceptions in which images of individuals such as Pedro and Isis humanize previously “othered” groups. I’m so pleased that Banerjee sought insights from hip hop journalist Davey D, Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man, Center for Media Justice’s Malkia Cyril, and Kristal Brent Zook at The Root for this piece about the positives and negatives of race in reality television.

What do you think about race and reality TV? Let the debate continue — share your comments and questions below. (And go read the full piece at ColorLines.)

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