In my academic life, I spend a lot of time thinking about issues of race, gender, religion and cultural production. In my free time, I watch a lot of tv. At times, the two interests converge, and I’m fortunate to have this community and forum to share the thoughts that come from it. A couple months ago, I started revising a paper I’d written a few years ago about the issue of cultural imperialism and in that process, I recognized that there had been a subtle shift in television programming that features black women. In the wide and ever-expanding reality tv genre, there are many shows that cast a black woman as a villain (the black bitch) or sexual object. But there are other shows that present alternative, positive images of black women as caring, capable, professional, and talented.[i] I’ve also noticed that several shows seemed to be overtly designed to combat the lack of positive images by celebrating the passions, skills, and abilities of women of color. I am encouraged to see black people claiming an active role in their own cultural production. The act of creating is self-affirming, and when used by marginalized peoples, it can be a source of empowerment to counter their mistreatment. In Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, bell hooks states, “It occurred to me then that if one could make a people lose touch with their capacity to create, lose sight of their will and their power to make art, then the work of subjugation, of colonization, is complete. Such work can only be undone by acts of concrete reclamation.” [ii]
Racism, sexism and oppression of minorities are ethical problems that assume varied forms. One form identified by Iris Marion Young as “cultural imperialism” is expressed through cultural forms that universalize a dominant group’s experience and make it the norm. It stereotypes and marks a group as “other” while also rendering the perspectives of those from inside the group invisible. By perpetuating patterns of invisibility and aversion, cultural imperialism pushes minority groups to the margins of a culture.[iii] Stereotypes of women and people of color are communicated through our society’s cultural forms like books, advertising, television and artistic images. But I believe that resources for resisting this marginalization can also assume cultural forms. Artworks and literature can be sites of resistance; galleries, museums, and schools can be spaces of opposition.
As a theologian and ethicist, I ask what role can religion, specifically Christianity, play in reclaiming cultural production. Ironically, answers may be found in three programs by BET – Born to Dance (which I discussed in a previous post), Sunday Best, and Black Girls Rock!. I’d like to briefly discuss the thoughts I had when I watched Black Girls Rock!, a celebration of the beauty, power, and courage of black womanhood. This special presentation, which aired on Black Entertainment Television in November 2011 highlighted achievements made by women of color. You can watch video of the show online. The show included performances by musicians including Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Estelle and the gospel duo Mary Mary. The show also honored girls and women of diverse careers and interests, presenting awards to women like Angela Davis, Taraji P. Henson, and Malika Saada Saar and Imani Walker and highlighting girls who are making a difference (M.A.D – a play on the stereotype of “mad” black women). The positive images of women inspired me, and there was a general acknowledgement about the role faith plays in sustaining the hope and efforts of women who aspire for change. However, there two specific points I’ll discuss that I thought could be adopted into Christian practice to support acts of cultural production and reclamation.
Angela Davis encouraged women to find solidarity and to form communities of resistance. I was able to find that in a Christian community, but sadly, I do not think it is so for many women. (Well, they may find solidarity, but resistance isn’t often encouraged!) I’d like to see more groups who encourage creativity, of not just copying others’ patterns but forming new ways of seeing the world and being in it. Christianity, as other religious traditions does, offers an image of a Creator who designs and constructs abundantly. The created world contains more colors, shapes, flowers, species than most of us ever imagine. What would it be like if we encouraged girls and women to adopt this same attitude, to abundantly create resources and objects and forms that sustain and promote them and their communities (as Black Girls Rock! creator Beverly Bond has done)? Could Christian organizations support them with artistic materials and equipment, tools and training, encouragement and love?
Tatyana Ali received an award for being an educational activist. In her remarks, she spoke about the importance of education. It made me appreciative of the religious education I received and the diverse experiences I have had. If religious education in churches and seminaries and religious schools could be broadened so that it is the norm, not the exception, to learn about women’s contributions, goddess traditions, and positive imagery of women within and beyond the Christian tradition, more of us would know the power women have and would be inspired to share it with others. If we could see the diversity of ways in which feminine or female Spirit is honored and affirmed, we would be better equipped to recognize and critique its denigration or negation.
What do you think? What can religious and spiritual communities, beliefs and practices provide that will help counter negative images of women of color?
Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express the commitments of their communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
[i] I’m thinking of shows like Braxton Family Values and I Do Over on Oxygen Network that show black women in their career settings. America’s Supernanny on Lifetime also features a black woman as the capable agent in transforming parents’ approaches to child rearing. Oprah Winfrey’s television network OWN has Oprah’s Masterclass and Oprah’s Next Chapter in which she plays a key role, as well the new show Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s and a documentary club which has shown Miss Representation and will premiere Louder Than a Bomb tonight (January 5) about other women and people of color. In a previous post, I discussed Born to Dance and briefly mentioned Sunday Best on BET. Black Entertainment Television (BET) also aired the special Black Girls Rock! in 2010 and 2011. Obviously, these shows are on networks that target women or black viewers. However, recent seasons of competition shows like Top Chef: Texas and Project Runway have also featured black women with considerable skill and talent.
[ii] bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995). xv.
[iii] Sharon D. Welch, Real Peace, Real Security: The Challenges of Global Citizenship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). 62-63. Welch cites Iris Marion Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference.
5 thoughts on “The Reclamation of Culture in Reality TV By Elise Edwards”
I’m between s06 e22 and e 23 of Grey’s Anatomy. Short chubby V-Ness of Willendorf Bailey has not only just slept with a hunk of a guy, she even told Torres that she did not intend to shave her “surgical area” or as she once called it her V-Jay-Jay–to get her guy. Bless her and bless Shondra Rhimes!
At some point, I’ll take a look at tv dramas and sitcoms. Although I do watch them, it’s for pure enjoyment these days, not for critical reflection.
I love that you are using Grey’s Anatomy (a favorite show of mine) in this context. You are right, God bless both her and Shondra Rhimes.
In the current season, Dr. Bailey is having two “hunks” fight over her now.
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Hi Elise, I so appreciate your post. I think you make such important observations here. I usually avoid reality tv and think of it simply as a way to demean people in order to get ratings. I’ve never thought of any positive side to it – so now you give me quite a bit to think about. Thank you for sharing this!