My aunt Yvette "Kinyozi" Smalls, whom I've cited in previous columns, passed away on April 16, 2012. To deal with the realness of her transition, I've been indulging in lots of television. There was one weekend when I sat around in my bathrobe mainlining episode after episode of "Psych" (Dule Hill, mmm), "Law and Order" and "Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta." And then there's my alarming addiction to VH1's "Basketball Wives" and HBO's "Girls."
On the surface, these shows couldn't be more different. VH1's "Basketball Wives" is a reality show centered on working and lower middle class black and brown women who have been in relationships with NBA players. "Girls," as many critics have noted, is a dazzling display of millennial white privilege.
Still, I see parallels in the way these programs use racism and sexism. And I'm chagrinned to report how numb I've become to these hijinks. In the interest of detoxing, I'm going to point out what is likely obvious to professional observers of race and pop culture and vaguely nauseating to others. Here, three ways "Basketball Wives" and "Girls" are disturbingly similar:
1. "Basketball Wives" and "Girls" deploy casual racism:
On "Fantasy Island," last night's episode of "Basketball Wives," resident party girl Suzie Ketchum repeatedly asks if the indigenous people of Tahiti are "still cannibals." While her cast-mates dismiss her question, the producers are sure to reinforce her racist air-headedness by showing a group of Tahitian dancers and singers trailing "the girls" all the way to their suites.
Meanwhile in Episode 2 of "Girls," "Vagina Panic," Hannah's sadistic lover Adam tells her he wants to "make the fucking continent of Africa on your arm" before pulling out and ejaculating.
In modern American entertaiment, this tired brand of racism is designed to show how empty headed, vile or irreverent some white characters are. Of course, this character exposition comes at the expense of the people of color they invoke. I'm thinking of Suzie's "cannibals" and Adam's Africa-shaped ejaculate as an exponent of the Magical Negro. But instead of existing to enhance the spiritual lives and happiness of the white folks, Suzie's and Adam's chosen people are there to establish them as antiheroes. It's a cheap trick.
2. "Basketball Wives" and "Girls" reinforce the idea that women are shallow.
On "Basketball Wives," middle aged black and brown mothers schedule brunches, lunches and island getaways for the express purpose of abusing one another physically and mentally. They dog each other out in their confessionals, build alliances based on slick talk, and lay the groundwork for confrontations in public places. It baffles me how four seasons into this top-rated display of luxury minstrelsy, the characters still pretend that the irrational anger and self-regard of professional reality star Tami Roman and the meanness and self-righteousness of Evelyn Lozada aren't active ingredients. Creator and executive producer, Shaunie O'Neal, alternately minimizes, laughs at or rationalizes the bullying. Supporting characters, most recently Kesha Nichols, make an effort to fit into an on-camera clique of grown women who call one another "bum bitch," take self-defense classes in anticipation of further attacks, and display loyalty by giving one another free samples from their various product lines. The women of "Basketball Wives" may not be stupid and shallow in real life, but the on their reality show they certainly look that way.
Now, on "Girls," youth and class privilege is supposed to account for how mindless Hannah (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) can be. We get Hannah, a writer who tells a rape joke during a job interview. While preaching unionization to black, brown and Asian nannies in the park, Jessa loses the young children she's being paid to babysit. Marnie shares a kiss with a womanizing older artist that her employer represents--then reports to the bathroom at his art opening to masturbate over his machismo. And Shoshanna, a technical virgin at 22, says things like, "In the STD world..." Taken together, this group of young women with Oberlin educations or world travel under their belts, are universally clueless. I would argue that their quartet is a more soulful, (and admittedly, more entertaining) take on the ditzy white female archetype. In the characters' DNA lies Chrissy from "Three's Company," Parker Posey in "Party Girl" and any role that kept Goldie Hawn famous. I suspect that what insulates Dunham from this kind of critique is her willingness to be nude on screen. Displaying her untoned body counts as moxy or bad-assness. What would really be transgressive, though, is if she had her body and brain on display.
3. "Basketball Wives" and "Girls" remain guilty pleasures.
You'd think after this breakdown, that I and other politicized and thinking women wouldn't enjoy these shows. But that wouldn't be true. I like "Basketball Wives" for the same reason that I can bump Rick Ross--because unabashed ignorance fascinates me. And "Girls" has a lot of genuinely funny moments that I can enjoy from a distance because, so far at least, they haven't rounded out their cast with an African American token who will complicate things with by talking off-brand jive talk, or crying about being the only black girl at their adult slumber parties. So for now I'm going to continue watching these shows. Everybody has their vices. These are two of mine.