Whether it’s a table-flipping catfight or stinging allegations of a marital affair between castmates, the bar keeps getting raised for reality television year after year. But particularly in the Black community, a chorus of critics have accused shows like Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop of propagating painful racial stereotypes, especially regarding Black women, in order to drive ratings. In the following open letter written exclusively for BET.com, Carlos King, executive producer of Real Housewives of Atlanta and Hollywood Divas, answers his critics.
I often get asked the question, "Do you have any guilt for perpetuating negative stereotypes of Black women on reality television?" And my answer is always a simple: No. I then always ask myself if my white counterparts get asked the same question, and I highly doubt they do, so why the double standard?
I am beyond blessed to have worked on two of the top reality shows in the history of the world; I executive produced Love & Hip Hop and I am currently the executive producer of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Please take a look at my reality as a Black gay executive producer in Hollywood, and in doing so I hope that you'll come to understand the difference between being transparent and being stereotypical. Too often individual behavior is implied as a direct reflection for an entire race of people and justified as a stereotype. This is an unfair double standard that I must address.
I don’t agree that Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop or any show that predominantly stars Black women is perpetuating any negative stereotypes. I think it’s unfortunate that when it comes to this minority group of Black women, they are held to this image and standard of positivity and have to hold themselves in a certain light when the basis of being a reality star is being transparent and showing your imperfections, showing who you are as a woman navigating through life and trying to survive like everyone else. I think it’s so interesting that as it pertains to Black people, every single thing that we do, we have to make sure that we’re representing everyone in our culture and are not allowed to represent ourselves and who we are as individuals.
I think there’s beauty in imperfection. I think there’s beauty in looking at yourself on the screen and saying to yourself, Wow that may have not been the smartest decision, but at the end of the day it was my decision, and I own that. When it comes to white reality stars, no one says, “Look at Kyle Richards on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, she misrepresents us." Or, "Oh my gosh, look at Snooki on Jersey Shore, she makes Italians look bad.” I think that when it comes to the Black race, we give each other such a harder time, which is totally unfair because we fight for equality and being seen in the same light as others. But when we are awarded those same opportunities, we tend to be much more critical of one another. The amazing women that you see on screen have courageously shared their everyday reality with the world, and just like everyone else, they are entitled to make mistakes and have a bad day. That is not reflective of them being stereotypical in a negative way; it’s reflective of them being human.
While I think it’s important for mainstream America to see the very diverse representations of human beings that make up our world, we should be very mindful that not everyone on television is the designated spokesperson or example for their race. When you think of a show like Scandal, the show isn’t about a Black woman who’s having an affair with the white president of the United States. I think Scandal is about a Black woman who’s trying to navigate life by balancing her job, her relationship with her father and her coworkers, and just balancing being a woman who’s at the top of her game and one who sometimes makes unfortunate decisions.
I see it as Shonda Rhimes doing an excellent job at telling all of these amazing, interesting stories in such a compelling way that you don’t even think of race when you watch her shows. I think when it comes to mainstream America, they just want to be entertained.
At the end of the day, this is a very lucrative business and when you look at the ratings of these [reality] shows, you’ll see that they are a very in-demand television product. This is the reason that you’re seeing more African-American ensemble shows on television because cable networks have started to take notice and say, “Wait a second, there’s a demographic out here that really wants to see content starring Black females.” Black people are really interested in seeing a reflection of themselves on television and not only that, white folks like to see us, too.
For those who seem to speak poorly of these shows, I ask them to look at the reality of the ground that these shows have broken, the jobs they create and the opportunities they have created for us in Hollywood. For instance, Real Housewives of Atlanta paved the way for African-Americans to have more ensemble reality shows that reflect our culture. Without RHOA you would not have Love & Hip Hop, Hollywood Divas and the like. And let’s be crystal-clear: RHOA single-handedly changed the game when it came to Black women on reality television. This show has definitely set a very lucrative trend in television, and as long as RHOA is the No. 1 show on Bravo and continues to break records, you will see more Black female ensemble shows being created.
Being a Black gay man, I have my share of hardships and turmoil that I go through, but I like to look at the positives. The truth of the matter is that I’m able to really follow my passion and produce shows about women. I love telling a woman’s story. I want to do with reality television what Aaron Spelling did with dramatic series such as Dynasty, 90210 and Melrose Place. That’s my gift and being in the presence of so many women has definitely helped me to understand them more.
Women are crazy, but they are entertaining and crazy...in a good way. This is why we love watching them have debatable conversations on television. I remember talking to my Hollywood Divas cast, and I told them that nothing excites me more than to see women debate. Let me be clear: there’s a distinct difference between debating and arguing. I don’t have to see women fighting or getting physical with one another. That does nothing for me personally or professionally. However, there’s something about myself and my audience that just loves to watch these fascinating women debate and have a heated discussion.
It is my sincere hope that these women will be recognized for their unprecedented achievements in television and not be held to a standard that the average person can’t live up to. Their reality is just that — their reality. They should be applauded for being open to sharing their lives with millions of people and not looked down upon as negative or stereotypical simply for being human.
Hear more from King when he hosts the two-part Hollywood Divas reunion special, beginning Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 10 p.m. ET on TV One.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Derek Blanks)