Throughout my entire winter break, I was home flipping through television channels trying to find one – just one – network television show with a plot that was somewhat reflective of my life, with characters that looked just like me. I wanted to watch a show that would inspire me to get out of bed, change from my pajamas and challenge the world. As a young, black, college-educated woman, I was searching for a show that showed me I could do anything I set my mind to.
But I ended up watching “I Love New York 2.”
I remember growing up in the 1990s. I looked up to Laura Winslow from “Family Matters” and Tia Landry and Tamera Campbell from “Sister, Sister” because all three of these characters were smart, beautiful, popular, Christian and family-oriented. They each made dumb mistakes that teenagers make, but they learned from those mistakes. There was something sophisticated, powerful and dynamic in their personalities. They looked like me, and I wanted to be like them.
Ten years later, I wish I could still say the same thing for the young, black women on television. If they aren’t obnoxious divas, they are spoiled brats, video vixens or flat out hoes.
A good example is VH1, home of the infamously obnoxious shows “Flavor of Love” and “I Love New York.”
I have never been more embarrassed to be a black woman than when I watched these two shows. Yeah, I’m guilty of watching them because they are both hilarious, but that doesn’t eliminate the fact that both of these shows are labeled “reality TV.” This sends a message to the world that in “reality,” black women are desperate, promiscuous, gold-digging hood-rats who don’t have careers, morals or self-respect. It portrays these women competing against each other for the “love” of a 47-year-old man with seven kids and a bad dentist. To millions of viewers, black women are ignorant and immature.
Even on “America’s Next Top Model,” where contestants are judged in part on class, it seems that every black contestant is the token “bitch” of the house. In Cycle 4, it was Tiffany Richardson, an around-the-way girl from the streets of Miami, Fla., who was always arguing with one of the other contestants or talking back to the judges. After not being selected in her first audition, Richardson persevered and won the hearts of viewers and the show’s host, Tyra Banks, with her heartwarming struggle to get out of the ghetto. Although she was on her way to achieving an impossible dream, she got sent home for her attitude. She failed to recognize her opportunity, playing into the common stereotype of young, black women.
Then there are my personal favorites: video vixens. I have completely given up on watching Black Entertainment Television. If I see another black girl washing a ’66 Chevy Impala SS in a thong I’m going to scream. Even female artists like Ciara parade themselves around in their videos as objects of sexual gratification. And to think that BET’s own president, Debra Lee, is a black woman with two kids of her own.
At least daddy’s little girls Vanessa and Angela Simmons on MTV’s “Run’s House” have dreams and aspirations of having successful careers, whether it’s in modeling and acting or fashion design and business. They seem to be two of the only young, black women that use more than their bodies to succeed. Unfortunately, they are among the only black women who are raised filthy rich and have a powerful dad who can hook them up with opportunities in the snap of a finger. So, their lives still don’t reflect my life or the lives of most other teenage black women.
It would be a lie for me to say that young white women aren’t misrepresented in the media as well. But at the same time, these women can flip the channel and see other positive images of themselves in the media to counteract the negative ones. They can watch “Gilmore Girls” and see Rory graduate from college. Meanwhile, I have the privilege of seeing Saaphyri graduate from “Charm School.”
In the past, I had the characters of Laura Winslow, Tia Landry, Tamera Campbell and Rudy Huxtable to look up to. Even though they didn’t truly reflect my life, they represented the life that I wanted and gave me hope that someone just like me could have a better quality of living.
As an adult, I can turn to the real-life media moguls like Tyra Banks and Oprah Winfrey as inspiration for the type of woman I am striving to become in the next decade. However, who are my younger cousins looking up to on TV?
Although I do all that I can to personally be a role model for them, it’s a harsh reality that New York just might be my 13-year-old cousin’s hero.
Shakira Smiler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.