Keep It Real: Reality TV’s Unrealistic Portrayal of Friendship Among Black Women

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by Janice Fuller-Roberts

The enormous popularity of certain reality TV shows would have us believe that true friendship between African American women is as anachronistic as rotary telephones and record players.  From the dramatic cuss-out, smack-down scenes featuring Nene, Phaedra, Kenya or K. Michelle, you’d think Black women were incapable of being friends at all.

On principle, I don’t have a problem with reality TV.  I don’t watch much of it, but that’s a matter of taste.  And the beauty of today’s television landscape is that with so many viewing options, there’s something out there for everyone.

My problems with these shows are that they’re marketed as “reality” and they lack balance.  We’re supposed to believe that these people, despite their wealth, are normal in terms of how they relate to each other.  They may be the wife of a famous athlete, but really they’re no different than you and me.

That’s crap!  I don’t know any women in real life who act like the chicks on these shows.  We may have our issues, but my friends don’t throw drinks on each other or cuss each other out in public.

I know all the bickering, back-stabbing and melodrama increases ratings.  And “reality” or not, TV is first and foremost about making money.  Ratings equal dollars and that’s all that matters.

But I’m an adult, able to discern what’s real and what isn’t.  My values and actions aren’t the least bit influenced by these shows.  Sadly, the same can’t be said of our young Black girls.  They’re watching this mess and like little sponges, they’re soaking up social cues and behavioral examples like water.

No matter how much we monitor what our kids watch, a lot of garbage still gets through. And despite our best efforts, their behavior and at least some of their values are influenced by what they see and hear.  Thanks to the internet and 24/7 television, our children are bombarded by negative imagery, especially of Black women.  We’re already stereotyped as promiscuous welfare moms, drug-addled prostitutes, video vixens and maids.  Now thanks to these so-called reality shows, we can add petty, vindictive shrews to that list.

Yes, white women act up on these shows, too.  However, television has a rich tradition of

portraying healthy friendships between white women.  From Lucy and Ethel to the gal pals on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; from “The Golden Girls” to “Sex in the City”, friendships between white women have long been celebrated on TV.  These characters nurtured and supported each other, standing by each other through thick and thin.  Sure there were squabbles, but they were always resolved within the half-hour.

On the other hand, with the exception of a few shows like “Living Single” in the 90s and “Girlfriends” in the early 2000s, Black women are rarely seen on television engaging in the loving, supportive friendships that exist in the real world.  And our young girls, so heavily influenced by popular culture, suffer for it.    

We need more shows about the kinds of friendships I’ve experienced.  I have friends I’ve known since before I lost my first baby tooth.  I’m still very close to friends I’ve had since before our first bras, our first periods or our first kisses.  My high school and college buddies are still some of my closest confidants.  And I’ve been blessed to have picked up some amazing girlfriends as an adult, as well.

Sure, we I bicker and disagree because we’re human.  But mostly we love and support each other through the ups and downs of our lives.  In my darkest hours, my friends are there.  They’re by my side for every triumph.  And we all learned long ago that boyfriends (and even husbands) come and go, children grow up and leave, but our friendships can last forever.

For African American women, with our tumultuous history in this country, our relationships with each other have often been the glue that’s held us together.  We sang together in the fields, our backs bent and our spirits nearly broken.  We bonded in kitchens as we labored for families other than our own.  We laughed and cried together in beauty shops, where we’ve always been free to be our most authentic selves.

Black women know how to be there for each other.  We understand sisterhood and support.  We know each other’s pain and struggles.  We speak the same language.  At times, we’ve been all we’ve had!

I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of real life examples of the drama seen on TV.  I’m just saying those shows don’t tell the whole story.  Our truth is bigger than all the name calling and neck rolling.  We’re more nuanced than that.  We’re deeper than that.  And that’s what we should see when we turn on the television, especially since our young girls are watching.

We have the power to change the narrative.  As our foremothers used to say, “money talks and bulls*&t walks, baby”!  We need to start talking with our wallets.  African American

women wield enormous purchasing power in this country, and we don’t even realize it.  Just think of the billions we spend on hair care products alone!

We need to harness that power.  If we unite and boycott the sponsors of shows which reflect us as catty she-devils, we can make a difference.  If we support only those companies which sponsor shows that present a more balanced view of Black womanhood, our little girls will see more positive images on TV.

I’m not trying to put our “reality” show sisters out of work.  But, we need to call a spade a spade.  These shows are no more “real” than soap operas, and representing them as anything else is harmful to our youth.  If little Black girls believe they’re seeing reality, then they’ll believe all that petty, foolish behavior is how they’re supposed act.

We need to take control of our imagery, and we have the power to do so.  Let’s model better behavior for our daughters so that they can benefit from the long tradition of sisterhood among Black women.  They don’t need to see anymore petty bickering and back-stabbing if those images aren’t balanced with more positive, nurturing ones.  Our young girls deserve to witness the joys of supportive and loving friendships between women who look like them.  And it’s on us to show it to them.

Janice Fuller-Roberts is a freelance writer, novelist and essayist living in the Detroit area. You can read more from her in “Ask Janice”, her advice column at, a site dedicated to health and pleasure for women of color. Her work has been featured in several online publications, including Corset and The Sexy Single Mommy.

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