Is Reality TV a Revolution for Race or the New Minstrel?

It's opened up more space than ever for people of color on TV--but that's not necessarily a good thing.

By Neelanjana Banerjee Oct 12, 2010

On a recent episode of "The Jersey Shore," vertically challenged Nicole "Snookie" Polizzi got downright post-racial. She remarks to plastically enhanced Jenni "JWOWW" Farley: "I’m not white, I’m tan." The comment has been widely tweeted and will probably end up riding across the rear end of a pair of short shorts near you soon.

Polizzi, who was adopted into a New York Italian family from her birthplace of Chile, identifies as a "guidette"–a reclaimed Italian American slur that cost MTV advertising from Domino’s Pizza. Polizzi’s words are mostly being written off as another uneducated, Ron-Ron-juice fueled remark, but she’s become the poster-child for the newest reality television formula: two parts drunkenness and one part ethnic identity.

Nearly 20 years after MTV first put seven strangers in a New York apartment, there is no doubt that "unscripted programming" has increased the number of people of color who appear on mainstream television. Sheer volume aside, a few of those faces–such as Pedro Zamora in "The Real World" or, more recently, Isis King in "America’s Next Top Model"–have also been catalysts for some of television’s most transgressive moments.

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.

Still, cultural critics argue that overall portrayal of black people has remained negative and one-dimensional–Exhibit A: the Flavor of Love franchise. Hip hop writer and radio personality Davey D says that the same rules that applied to black stereotypes on regular TV apply here.

"Look at who gets [a show]," he says. "It’s people who already fall into the stereotypes. Flavor Flav got one without Chuck or Griff, without the context in which he works best. We got one with Michael Vick, we got one with DMX, Lil’ Kim–all people either on their way to jail or out of jail."

Reactionary or Revolutionary?

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.

Yet, the genre has managed to create mainstream TV space for people of color who may have been unimaginable to white people–and sometimes, those characters make a profound cultural impact.

In the 1990s, before the mainstreaming of reality television, there was an even greater chance for this to happen. Pedro Zamora remains the leading example. The 22-year-old Cuban-American AIDS educator died just months after sharing his life on "The Real World San Francisco" in 1994. Pedro’s appearance on the show shifted the way young Americans thought about HIV, giving an entire generation the feeling that they had known someone who lived with AIDS.

Nearly a decade later, reality television broke out on mainstream networks with shows like "Survivor" and "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire." Reality shows provided media corporations an irresistible economic model–they’re relatively cheap to produce–that led to their rapid replication. When they proliferated as mass-market brands, the editorial voices changed, too.

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.

"American Idol," the most popular show in the history of American television according to the Nielson ratings, has always been a place where you can tune in and see brown folks. When 19-year-old Fantasia Barrino won the third season of the show, she highlighted her struggle as a black teenage mother who had dropped out of high school. Barrino followed up her "Idol" fame by releasing the controversial song "Baby Mama," an anthem for the struggle of young mothers everywhere. 

The song was criticized by some for encouraging teen pregnancy–’cause now-a-days it’s like a badge of honor / to be a baby mama–but to many it was a moment of never-before-seen empowerment. Barrino injected pride into the sticky and often-shameful identity of "unwed mother."

Similarly, 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."

Making Us Cringe, And Like It

Meanwhile, "Korean American Survivor: Cook Islands" contestant Yul Kwon had no qualms about his activist intentions.

"When Yul went on that show, he said he wanted to win to show that Asian Americans can be on television and can be successful and he did it. It was really impressive," says Phil Yu, the voice behind the Angry Asian Man blog. Yu says he had a similar feeling of excitement about the majority-Asian American dance crews who have been champions on "America’s Next Best Dance Crew."

"On that show, it is definitely cool to be Asian American. I don’t know how many shows you can say that about," Yu says.

Media buzz about an upcoming reality show staring a Korean-American cast that will mirror "The Jersey Shore" has also caught Yu’s attention. "I’m not going to lie, I’m looking forward to seeing it. It’s another example of Asian Americans getting the chance to be part of mainstream media’s flavor of the moment." For a community too often fighting the "model minority" stereotype, it’s the inverted pride of being considered human enough to be screwed up.

But Asian Americans aren’t the only ethnic group that may get to show the world their GTL (Jersey Shore slang for gym-tanning-laundry). There have also been casting calls for Russian Americans in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, Iranian Americans in Los Angeles and Jewish American princesses in Long Island. 

This latest reality trend is a fascinating departure from the genre’s original idea: Put very different people together in intimate situations, where they can realize how much alike they all are, or not. Now, producers have dumped "the melting pot." Suddenly, the mainstream is fascinated by communal identities and relationships. Not only is it OK that the Italian-American kids are sitting together in the lunchroom, America wants to be there for every minute of it.

And the more cringe-worthy those moments, the better.

Kristal Brent Zook wrote in The Root earlier this year that reality television has been focusing more and more on the lives of black women, with shows like VH1’s "Basketball Wives" and "Brandy & Ray J," and BET’s "Tiny and Toya." But Bravo’s Atlanta version of "The Real Housewives" has drawn the most attention, and criticism. 

The show’s break-out star, Nene Leakes, has become something of a cultural icon. Her mixture of vulnerability and strength, of gregarious wit and self-defeating rage has resonated deeply with many black women (and gay men). Yet, the show’s editors have put Leakes’ foolish side forward as much as possible, like in the first season, when Leakes’ math block while helping her son with his homework is played for laughs. "The paradox is that poor people and people of color watch these shows because this is the only place where they show up," says Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice.

Be that as it may, Leakes’ larger than life personality connects. Of all the Housewives’ shows, the Atlanta version has the most to do with culture–and Leakes isn’t shy about representing black culture on her own terms. Today’s "reality" TV is surely entangled in the manufactured plot points that create high ratings–cat fights, drunken hookups and general idiocy. But it can’t be denied that reality television allows for moments that push the conversation about difference. Perhaps after watching every ethnic group in America do body shots, we’ll come to a whole new understanding about identity. Or not.