So-Called Reality Shows Are Not So Harmless

Originally published on June 6, 2011 2:42 pm

The economic recovery is lagging, we're bumping up against the debt ceiling, we're still fighting two wars — maybe three if you count Libya. We're in a mess. So why do I feel the need to talk about some of the latest television offerings, especially the so-called reality shows like Basketball Wives? The third season premiere was last week on VH1.

Basketball Wives follows the exploits of a cast of women who are, or were, or are sort of married to professional athletes. It's executive produced by Shaquille O'Neal's former wife Shaunie O'Neal, the mother of the five children they had together. Of course, this is only one of the reality show genre.

There are shows these days about people who make cupcakes, detail motorcycles, get tattoos. But the big-deal shows are the shows aimed at women: Teen Mom, The Real Housewives franchise, and of course, Basketball Wives.

My quarrel is not just with Basketball Wives. All fake real women shows are essentially the same: They're mostly white with the token Latina or black woman. Or they're mostly black with a token Latina or white woman thrown into the mix. Everybody's wearing expensive clothes, living in lavish homes and driving fancy cars. And in between all that, they're very busy shopping and drinking champagne and cursing each other out. And generally, doing a whole lot of nothing much else. Which is why I call them "so-called" reality shows.

Because, I don't know about you, the expensive clothes and big jewels and nice houses in the lives of the people I know who have those things come from working. And we don't see a lot of that on those shows.

Isn't it strange that in a world where the buzz attracting possible presidential contenders is about women; where the big advances in fighting poverty around the world center on women; where human-rights causes of the day often concern women, what we get is television about women whose only claim to fame is whom they are more or less married to?

But even if it's a little out of sync, you can see why people think it's harmless fun.

Can I just tell you? It's not harmless. The problem is these shows are teaching a whole generation of people exactly how not to behave in life and in a relationship — with anybody — not just a husband.

The drink-throwing, the yelling, the fingers in the face, the B-word thrown around like rain ... it's exhausting. It's dysfunctional and it is exactly how you don't want to behave if you ever want to succeed at anything except being a reality show star.

And it's amazing to me that nobody seems to have noticed that in the case of Basketball Wives at least, Shaunie O'Neal, the executive producer, casts herself as counselor and peacemaker while letting the other women roll their necks and act crazy. And why is that? She has said in interviews it's because of her children and the need for her to maintain cordial relations with her ex.

So how about everybody else's kids? Why isn't it important that other people's children see adults treat each other with respect, especially at a time when in some communities the majority of children are being raised in families where almost no one lives in a two-parent household? So guess who are the role models for how to behave in an intimate relationship?

And I contrast this with the story we brought you last week about the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas. Instead of embracing bitterness, he has partnered with a Palestinian man to create both scripted drama and less-scripted reality shows by which he hopes to create a means for Israelis and Palestinians to see each other in a different light. Elsewhere in the world, television and radio programs are being crafted to educate people to fight the spread of HIV-AIDS, to teach women how to have safe sex, to resolve conflicts peacefully, and so on.

I guess the people who put on these shows don't think we need any of that here. But we do.

Years ago, I moderated a panel for a foundation, and a large group of high school students was invited as guests to talk with an eclectic group of lawmakers and other bigwigs. Those high school kids were giving the adults the blues about everything under the sun. Meanwhile, a big name hip-hop star came late, left early, took no questions, but got huge ovations every time he opened his mouth. After he left, I asked the kids why they were giving him all this love when he'd stayed for half an hour, and when these members of Congress had been with them all afternoon and got none of that. One young man named the hip-hop star and said, "That's who we listen to because that's who we see."

Exactly.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Finally, the economic recovery's lagging. We're bumping up against the debt ceiling. We're still fighting two wars, maybe three if you count Libya. We're in a mess. So why do I feel the need to talk about some of the latest television offerings, especially the so-called reality shows like "Basketball Wives?" The third season premiere was last week on VH1. I'll give you a little taste from season two in case you missed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETBALL WIVES")

EVELYN LOZADA: Do you think I like research whose dude was with? It was like you didn't even exist. I'm not...

TAMI ROMAN: And I'm certainly not going to let you sleeping with him mean something to me. That wasn't the issue. You're not (bleep) the point of what the (bleep) I'm saying.

LOZADA: You're missing the point of what the (bleep) I'm saying...

MARTIN: "Basketball Wives" follows the exploits of a cast of women who are or were or sort of kind of married to professional athletes. It's executive produced by Shaquille O'Neal's former wife Shaunie O'Neal, the mother of five of the children they had together. Of course, this is only one of the reality show genre. There are shows about people who make cupcakes, detail motorcycles, get tattoos. But the big deal shows are the shows aimed at women, "Teen Mom," for example, "The Real Housewives" franchise and, of course, "Basketball Wives."

And my quarrel is not just with "Basketball Wives." All of these fake so-called reality shows are essentially the same. They're either mostly white with a token Latino or black woman. They're mostly black with a token Latino or white woman thrown into the mix. Everybody's wearing expensive clothes, living in lavish homes and driving fancy cars. And between all that, they're very busy shopping and drinking champagne and cursing each other out. And generally doing a whole lot of nothing much else, which is why I call them so-called reality shows because I don't know about you, the expensive clothes and big jewels and nice houses in the lives of the people I know who have those things come from working - and we don't see too much of that on those shows.

Isn't it strange though, that in a world where the buzz attracting possible presidential contenders is about women, with the big advances in fighting poverty around the world center on women, where the human rights causes of the day often concern women, that we get television about women whose only claim to fame is who they are more or less married to? But even if it's a little out of sync you can see why people think it's harmless fun.

Can I just tell you? It's not harmless. The problem is these shows are teaching a whole generation of people exactly how not to behave in life and in a relationship with anybody - not just a husband. The drink throwing, the yelling, the fingers in the face, the B word thrown around like rain, it's exhausting. It's dysfunctional. And it's exactly how you don't want to behave if you ever want to succeed at anything except being a reality show star.

And it's amazing to me that nobody seems to have noticed that in the case of "Basketball Wives," at least Shaunie O'Neal, the executive producer, cast herself as counselor and peacemaker while the other women roll their necks and act crazy. And why is that? She said in interviews it's because of her children and the need for her to maintain cordial relations with her ex.

So what about everybody else's kids? Why isn't it important that other people's children see adults treat each other with respect, especially at a time when in some communities the majority of children are being raised in families where almost no one lives in a two-parent household? And I contrast this with the story we brought you last week about the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas. Instead of embracing bitterness, he has decided to partner with a Palestinian man - also a father - to create both scripted drama and less scripted reality shows by which he hopes to create a means for Israelis and Palestinians to see each other in a different light. Elsewhere in the world, television and radio programs are being crafted to educate people to fight the spread of HIV AIDS, to teach women how to have safe sex, to resolve conflicts peacefully and so on.

Years ago, I moderated a panel for a foundation and a large group of high school students were invited as guests to talk with an eclectic group of lawmakers and other bigwigs. Those high school kids were giving these adults the blues about everything under the sun. Meanwhile, a big-name hip-hop star came late, left early, took no questions but got huge ovations every time he opened his mouth. And after he left I asked the kids why were they giving him all this love when he'd stayed for half an hour when these members of Congress had been with them all afternoon and got none of that? And one young man named the hip-hop star and said, that's who we listen to because that's who we see. Exactly.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.