During the mid-2000s, Americans obsessed over the love story of rapper Flavor Flav and Tiffany "New York" Pollard. Every week on Flav's dating show, Flavor of Love, New York fought with other (mostly black) women to win Flav's love. She grabbed a white girl named Pumpkin's hair, cried in the back of a limo, and said, "You think I like watermelon just because I'm black." To some, this was just good TV, but others would argue that New York's dramatic portrayal—which went on to earn her a show of her own—had uncomfortable racial undertones. In the following excerpt from her essay "Selective Reuptake: Perpetuating Misleading Cultural Identities in the Reality Television World," Dr. LaToya Jefferson-James examines how VH1's iconic reality TV show promoted black stereotypes made popular in blaxploitation films.
The Pimp became an icon in African American culture and film in the Blaxploitation era. Definitively, "the Black Pimp icon is a reactionary image that emerges from the actual prostitution of female bodies that occurs in oppressed communities" (Osayande 57). Though I doubt glorification of sexual exploitation was part of Melvin van Peebles's original idea when he introduced the genre with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971, Hollywood certainly latched onto the sexuality portion and exploited it for increased revenue at the box office. The Black Pimp as interpreted by the Hollywood imagination is a macho, leather-wearing, handsome, financially secure, sexually viable man who is somehow above the law; in some cases, he is the law! He kills many men and sexually satisfies scores of women with the emotions of an iceberg and looks good while doing them both. This figure is also masculine enough to silence Sapphire through psychological manipulation or the threat of or actual use of physical violence. Oddly, the Pimp does not pose a threat to white men and certainly does not train his sexual aggression on white women like his Black brute predecessor. The Pimps are played only in predominantly Black casts, because a foundation was laid to make it acceptable to portray Black women as whores and prostitutes. With the patronage of Black audiences, Hollywood could safely Pimp out and profit from degrading Black people. Currently, the Pimp is a misogynistic figure who does not love women, and because the women he hates and exploits are Black women, America at large seems fine with that.
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The Pimp translates well in the music and reality television world, and one particular man proved to be a positive test case for the Pimp's transcendence and durability. One of the more interesting cast members from The Surreal Life was Flavor Flav. Viewers seemed to respond positively to his buffoonish antics. He received a spin-off, Strange Love, featuring a "love affair" with fellow Surreal Life cast member Brigitte Nielsen that lasted for three seasons. Ratings skyrocketed as the hip-hop generation obsessively consumed the blossoming relationship and "marriage" of the buffoon, Flav, and the Euro-American woman, Brigitte, who was also several inches taller than her beau. Like Jane civilizing Tarzan, she taught him simple things like how to eat from a spoon without biting it. Like Kurtz gone native, the world cringed and collectively gasped while Brigitte kissed Flav's foot. It could not last. Brigitte married a European man, and Flav was left alone once more in the reality television world.
In 2006, Flavor Flav, the world's greatest hype man and member of one of the most aggressively anti-colonial rap groups in America, was given his own reality show, the Flavor of Love, on VH1. It was to be a dating show in which the contestants won a shot at love with an aging rap star who, through his ventures with previous reality shows on VH1, was thought to possess a modicum of star power and a modest amount of money. This concept was not unfamiliar with American audiences: "By the time Flavor of Love debuted in 2006, eight seasons of The Bachelor had taught viewers what to expect from dating shows: pretty white people, faux sincerity, and the trappings of 'fairytale love'" (Pozner 179–180). In the series premier, Flav proudly announces that he is the "blachelor." Even the setting seems familiar: a huge mansion on stately grounds, immaculately clean and lavishly furnished. A butler or assistant dressed in a nice uniform meets the ladies. So, in every way, the setting resembles other dating shows and is, for the most part, not groundbreaking.
For the price of one man, VH1 received several Black stereotypes.
But in walk the characters and the contrast begins. In casting, VH1 deliberately created an all-Black television show that stood in stark contrast to white dating shows. Flav is an aging rap star whose almost 50-year-old haggard face betrays the all-night parties, around-the-world concerts, physical fights, and stints in jail. Unlike the quiet, romantic sets of white dating shows, Flavor of Love looks like an extended, corporate-backed rap video in which 20 manipulative women fight for the attention of one man who was fully dressed most of the time. For the price of one man, VH1 received several Black stereotypes. Flav, already a veteran reality show star from previous endeavors on VH1, went into this venture without other quasi-famous cast mates or the members of his rap group, and it had a profound effect on how he was portrayed: "Politically neutralized without Chuck D by his side, VH1 reduced Flav to a shucking-and-jiving fool. (At one point, he proudly wears a jester's crown.)" (Pozner 182) On camera, Flav is an ignorant thug who cannot remember names, so he renames the girls to suit his memory. He occasionally coons and clowns for the camera and the watching audience by playing basketball on a tennis court in animal print pajamas and making a mockery of his own physical traits by showing a portrait of himself and calling it "fine art." In the news, Flav is an absentee father who took advantage of an insecure younger woman and then left her to care for their children. His jail stints for domestic violence are well documented and widely reported. One of the ladies even confesses that she is aware of his personal demons but believes Flav rehabilitated his image on his previous VH1 reality shows.
Flav, for the most part, seems to relish the attention given him by the women and manages to embody the Sambo and the Pimp simultaneously while the women humiliate themselves in order to gain his attention. First, the environment resembles a harem as the girls surround Flav and join him in unison yelling, "Flavor Flav" at the beginning of most episodes. In addition to sending the women on ridiculous missions, he spends individual time becoming intimately connected—to put it politely—with each woman while he remains relatively idle. In season two, in an episode called, "She Works Hard for Her Honey," Flav takes the girls to one of his favorite restaurants, M & M Soul Food. Rather than dine with the women, he tells them that their jobs are to work the restaurant as waitresses and cooks. The lady who performs the best job wins a date for the night with him. In this challenge, he is positioned as the Sambo while the Sapphires work to support their "man." When Flav assesses and critiques their skills, he compliments Delicious on her rear end. Furthermore, Flav exploits the women's labor in order to assist one of his friends. Like a Pimp he sexually exploits the bodies of the women who work for him while he remains conspicuously out of sight: Flav never dirties himself with these tasks. Instead, he watches and laughs as they perform the menial tasks while he is perched atop a symbol of his elevated economic status—a stretch limousine. The women's arguments are a source of personal entertainment as he chuckles with the male butler or driver. Like a Pimp, he occasionally steps between the women to reassert order and male dominance—effectively silencing and controlling his legion of Sapphires.
Perhaps no Black woman in the reality television show embodied the Sapphire and the devious rap woman more than Tiffany "New York" Pollard.
Film critics and historians argue about the purpose of the Sapphire's invention: "It is argued that the Sapphire construct emerges in an effort to promote intra-racial gender and class antagonisms – a divide and conquer approach" (Spencer 36). Though the Pimp, with his exploitation of Black women's bodies, may have some kind of verisimilitude in respective communities, the Sapphire seems to be without grounding in African American culture. Critics, historians, and sociologists agree that "historical accounts do not support those characteristics as being a real component of the Black woman's attitude or interaction with Black men, which may explain why the wrath of the Sapphire is not projected onto White men in mainstream films" (Spencer 35). There are no personal accounts or formal historical records that show evidence that Black women hold their male partners more accountable for economic peonage or their personal transgressions than their white counterparts. Furthermore, evidence of Black people's internalization of the hegemonically produced Sapphire is manifested in a reactionary Black male stereotype that counters Sapphire and increases the hostility shown in African American heterosexual relationships.
In film, the Sapphire is normally the only person employed in the relationship, supporting the entire family with her wages. She unleashes her anger on the Sambo, who is lazy, trifling, uneducated, lacking ambition, gullible, and apparently allergic to gainful employment. In some aspects, the tense Sapphire–Sambo quarrelsome relationship is reflective of and justification for economic discrimination in larger areas. Black women usually found gainful employment as domestic workers while Black males remained largely unemployed once major wars were over. Sapphire blames her Black husband for the family's dire economic straits, unleashes her fury on her husband, and never targets the real root of their poverty. The dominant culture escapes blame and has a convenient, new stereotype to justify discrimination: the lazy, Black male Sambo. The fact that these characters were played in all-Black films and were produced by Black men sometimes lent veracity to the original Sapphire–Sambo construct.
Flav sits on his hallowed perch of male domination and laughs.
Sapphire, the loud-mouth, emasculating tyrant, survives and thrives in hip hop culture. In reality television, we see her repeatedly, and she is usually a brown body. The women of FOL, the Flavorettes, were mostly Black caricatures of the worst dehumanizing stereotypes ever leveraged at Black women. They stand in stark contrast to white women who populate other dating shows: "Unlike ABC's perky Stepford Wives in training, VH1 seemed to go out of its way to cast women who had worked in strip clubs, porn, and other sex industry jobs—only to frame them as promiscuous, vulgar train wrecks" (Pozner 180). These Black women with horrible dispositions cannot communicate without being aggressive with one another. They demand sexual healing from a man almost twice their age. In addition to frequently highlighting semi-pornographic shots of the girls lavishing Flav with sexual attention in hot tubs and in other places around the house, these ladies perform ridiculous tasks such as cleaning human excrement in the aforementioned episode. After all, Flav needed to know that his woman could keep a clean house. As with the restaurant scene, Flav sits on his hallowed perch of male domination and laughs. He arrives to dinner wearing a gleaming crown of authority; the house is clean, his food is prepared perfectly, and he is refreshed. In scenarios like the ones described above, Flav is clearly the Sambo/Pimp surrounded by a room full of Sapphires.
Perhaps no Black woman in the reality television show embodied the Sapphire and the devious rap woman more than Tiffany "New York" Pollard: "We heard her moan breathily one minute and rant in irate, Sapphire-esque tirades the next, always in getups that revealed as much of her breast implants as allowed on basic cable" (Pozner 187). In the very first season, New York, like one of the manipulative women of rappers' nightmares, began to work her agenda. She randomly targets a woman to aggravate in each episode. She states that her reasoning is to "see if I was powerful enough to twist her mind." After instigating a fight with a fellow cast member during the very first episode, New York triumphantly proclaims, "She got mind-screwed by me." Though she manages to have women removed from the show and to sleep with Flav in several seasons, he treats New York as a Pimp does: He coldly has sex with her, then discards her in favor of women who seem less aggressive and manipulative.
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The producers behind this show took a calculated risk. Mark Cronin (Mindless Entertainment) and Cris Abrego (51 Pictures) "made an intentional choice to give this particular man a dating show specifically because he'd reliably act the fool—and then they cast, edited, and framed women of color in ways that intentionally played off deep-seated racial stereotypes" (Pozner 185). They gambled against the historical amnesia Americans tend to suffer from, and they won big. According to Pozner, "They received the highest ratings in their network's history, when nearly 6 million viewers tuned in for FOL's first finale. VH1 broke their own record later that year when 7.5 million people made season 2's finale the number one nonsports telecast on basic cable in 2006" (Pozner 187–188). Cronin and Abrego successfully introduced several stereotypes at once to a new generation of people who would not be familiar with the fight against these stereotypes less than 50 years before. As stated earlier, the hip-hop generation is far removed from the days when these stereotypes regularly appeared on daytime television, and they neither witnessed nor have been taught about the various struggles that African American actors and various civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), overcame in order to improve the images of Black people on television and film. The show and its producers casually dismiss the fact that many people's only contact with African Americans is through the television screen and that such portrayals of African Americans could possibly do real damage. Instead, they and millions of African Americans who supported the program through viewing it brushed FOL aside as harmless entertainment. The numbers confirmed it: Minstrelsy was not only back in vogue, it was downright fun!
Flavor of Love, through the use of a Black male as quasi-Pimp/Sambo who reigns over uncivilized, lower-class women, set a precedent for how Black women in reality television are portrayed. FOL's numbers demonstrate that Sapphire is not only popular in her new format, but also profitable. Unlike FOL, Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) offers Black audiences a whole host of Sapphires without the Pimp. The women of RHOA, though not the lower-class variety of women who appeared on FOL, are just as uncouth as New York. The show is one of the highest-rated shows on Bravo. There is also a concurrently running spin-off for the most confrontational, opinionated, vociferous housewife, NeNe Leakes, who just like New York, received her own spin-off on VH1. These shows send the message that no matter how much money a Black woman amasses and no matter how big the house and how immaculate the neighborhood, she just cannot behave. In reality television land, Sapphiric behavior is innate. And no matter how badly she is exploited by men, a Black woman's behavior, so far askew of what is considered normal for white, middle-class, feminine behavior, warrants such exploitation.
LaToya Jefferson-James is the author of "Selective Reuptake: Perpetuating Misleading Cultural Identities in the Reality Television World" in the volume Real Sister: Stereotypes, Respectability, and Black Women in Reality TV, edited by Jervette Ward and available from the Rutgers University Press.