I fell in love with reality television when I was about ten years old. The show that did it for me was America’s Next Top Model. I never missed it for the world. This was during the time when ANTM aired prime time on Wednesday nights on UPN (which is now the CW), so I would set it to record on the VCR while my family attended midweek church services (you never realize how long ago 2004 was until you’re reminded that VCRs were still a pretty common household staple back then). Anyway, I watched America’s Next Top Model up until about the thirteenth or fourteenth cycle, when the glitz, glam, and drama of the modeling world became replaced by Tyra Banks’ crazy antics. But the show became a gateway into the world of reality TV for me, including (but certainly not limited to) shows like American Idol, The Real World, The Bachelor & The Bachelorette, Making the Band, and My Super Sweet 16. And I wouldn’t dare do a post about reality television without mentioning the holy grail itself, VH1’s Flavor of Love trilogy, which spawned subsequent shows like I Love New York, Rock of Love, Charm School, and Real Chance of Love (rest easy, Real), basically all the shows I had no business watching as a middle schooler.
Oh, but I watched and thoroughly enjoyed every second of them all! The best part about coming home from school used to be turning on MTV and watching their afternoon lineup of shows like Next, Room Raiders, Date My Mom, and Pimp My Ride. With the glory days of the 90s sitcom gone, my generation was left with nothing to watch but reality shows and teen dramas like One Tree Hill and The O.C. during the mid-2000s. In my mind back then, and still even a little bit now, all of these shows were great! But lately I’ve had this “meh” attitude towards reality TV because I don’t like what it’s doing to my people. Black people.
I’ve been a proponent for reality TV for as long as I can remember. I even gave a persuasive speech in my oral communications class during my freshman year of college about why more people should watch reality television. Here were my three reasons:
- Reality TV makes people feel better about themselves. There’s something called the Jerry Springer Effect, which is a totally real thing because I used sources from Cornell University to back me up on it (holla!). The Jerry Springer Effect is what happens when people watch screwed up guests on shows like, you guessed it, Jerry Springer and Maury (pretty much any daytime “talk show” on FOX) and says “hey, I might have a crappy life, but at least I’m not as bad as these people making fools of themselves on national television.”
- People are able to see themselves on reality TV. I used The Biggest Loser as my example here. For instance, overweight people watch other overweight people making life changes for the better and decide that they are going to do the same. This never quite worked on me, being that on the few occasions that I’ve watched The Biggest Loser I’ve done so with a snack and still remain overweight today, but I’m sure the show has motivated millions of other people.
- Reality TV helps people accomplish their dreams. This is where shows like American Idol, Project Runway, and America’s Got Talent come into play. Normal everyday people go on TV and make their dreams come true. Now isn’t that inspiring?
I still watch a lot of reality TV today. If you follow me on Twitter, you know this from the unhealthy amounts of live tweeting I do every week. And I apologize for that (actually I don’t. Don’t like it? Unfollow me, bro!). However, my thoughts and opinions on reality TV have begun to negatively shift over recent years. Shows like 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom are the worst. Yes, I was guilty of watching the first few seasons of both shows, and yes, it’s real life and should be depicted, but it just trips me out how MTV shifted from airing girls throwing sixteenth birthday parties to them birthing babies. And maybe it’s just me, but I feel like Americans have this weird fascination with teen pregnancy, even though it’s a very serious epidemic. We practically glamorize it. I’m guilty of this, too, though. That Lifetime movie from the 90s called Fifteen and Pregnant starring Kirsten Dunst? I’m right in front of the TV every time it comes on!
I could go on and on about the awful reality shows on television today, but the ones on VH1 are the absolute worst. I blame Flavor Flav. The incredible influence that all three seasons of Flavor of Love had on pop culture led to VH1 popping out a plethora of similar shows that I and so many of my fellow Americans sadly bought into. Flavor of Love has arguably opened up doors for current VH1 shows like Basketball Wives. As a huge NBA fan, I absolutely hate this show. It’s like the casting call flyer or whatever read “If you are the ex-wife of a retired semi-famous NBA player, have at least one baby by a third string shooting guard, or have just slept around with a lot of NBA players, come on down! We’ll hire you right away!” Oh my goodness, it’s so bad. Who are these women? Why should we be invested in their lives? What do they do for a living besides this show? Why, VH1? Why!? I’m so disappointed in you, Shaunie O’Neal.
One VH1 show that I’m guilty of indulging in, though, is Love and Hip Hop. I’ve never watched the original New York series, but I started watching it’s spin-off, Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta in 2012 after tweets by my Twitter followers made it sound so appealing. And it was. The drama was horribly scripted and laughable, yet I couldn’t stop watching. The love triangle between Stevie J, Joseline, and Mimi? Gold! But I only watched about three episodes of the second season before I decided I was done. Watching women argue over a grown man who’s stage name is “Scrappy” got old to me. Plus, by the time season two rolled around I was living in a college dorm and no longer had access to a DVR like I did at home, which made me less inclined to watch. Season two also interfered with Dancing With the Stars time (judge not, this was a really good season!), so one had to go. Love and Hip Hop easily lost that battle, but about a year and a half later I stumbled upon the franchise’s third installment, Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood. Because I had stopped watching a lot of VH1, I was completely unaware of this one. The first cast member I remember seeing was Lil Fizz, who I hadn’t heard anything about since B2K was still a thing. B2K was (arguably) my generation’s black version of *NSYNC. Being a self-proclaimed lifelong B2K fan meant that I was instantly hooked! I had all of these questions about Lil Fizz, like where had he been? Was B2K going to reunite on the show? Where was everyone else? I watched one episode, then two, then three, and that was it. I had to watch every week from then on out to see what new (fake) drama was occurring in Lil Fizz, Ray J, and Soulja Boy’s lives. I was sucked right back in like a vacuum. I’m convinced that Mona Scott Young (franchise producer) is the devil. Or maybe I’m just basic and easily persuaded. It’s probably both.
The latest reality show to truly dumbfound me has been The Westbrooks. The Westbrooks is BET’s latest original series about Instagram-famous India Westbrooks and her four Instagram-famous-as-well sisters. The show follows the sisters building their “brands.” I guess in 2015 the amount of likes you get on an Instagram selfie factors into your “brand,” because these girls do nothing but hang out with each other all day and take pictures to post on social media. They seriously have a TV show for having a lot of Instagram followers. Seriously. That’s it. They actually make the Kardashians look like hard workers. I watched the first two episodes of the show and the vapidity of it all caused me to lose brain cells.
That gets me to the heart of this post. When reality television and social media come together, it’s lethal. It seems like more and more people are being influenced by what they see on reality TV and social media. My Twitter and Instagram followers are predominately black. More and more, it seems as if we’re buying into other people’s ideas of success and popularity. I feel like there’s this growing trend where everyone wants to be rich, famous, and successful. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m a super ambitious person myself and LOVE seeing that in other people. Let’s talk about our goals and dreams. Our plans. What motivates us. That’s a good conversation to me!
However, I’m beginning to notice that while everybody wants to be rich, nobody wants to put in the work. Everybody wants to be famous, but not everyone is talented enough to reach the certain levels of fame they want to obtain. Everybody wants to be a CEO, yet possess the work ethic of a window washer. How are you going to get rich? How are you going succeed? What are you doing to prepare for what you want?
I may be completely off base here, but I can’t help but see a slight correlation in the new found motives for black people’s success being linked to reality television. We’re being fed shows like Love & Hip Hop, The Westbrooks, and Real Housewives of Atlanta where black people are making all of this money and receiving all of this fame, but what work is really going into it? Successful black people on reality TV are the baby mamas of athletes, Instagram “celebrities,” and washed up music artists. These people make it look easy, living their “lives” in front of the camera for profit. Are these people our models of success? If so, we’re in big trouble. The successful black people I know in real life put in the work and grind hard for what they have. Why aren’t they on TV? That’s who we should be seeing. They should be our models of success.
During my freshman year of college, my oral communications class that I mentioned earlier was required to attend a lecture by NFL analyst Herm Edwards. Something he said that still sticks with me today was, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” You want to be rich? Go for it. You want to famous? Great. You want to be successful? Perfect. What is your plan, though? What are your motives for success? What are you doing to prepare for it? Come back when you have an answer.
Take care of yourself,