Essence Fest 2012: Is Reality TV Still Not Diverse Enough?

Reality TV stars at this year's Essence gathering in New Orleans debate the role of their medium in shaping our views about racial and economic diversity

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Cynthia Bailey with Kroy Bierman on the Real Housewives of Atlanta episode "Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained"

Does diversity matter in reality TV? The question came up in the first moments of a panel at Essence Fest in New Orleans, when Tamar Braxton of Braxton Family Values, on WEtv, explained why her family chose to do a reality show: she noted that it was important “especially for our black community” to show audiences people to whom they could relate. Braxton was one of six women on Friday’s “Families in the Name of Love: The Truth Behind Reality TV” panel at this, America’s largest annual celebration of African-American culture, organized by Essence magazine (which is owned by Time Inc.).

The panel came on the heels of an appearance by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who spoke about how “diversity, in New Orleans, is our strength.” To follow that with a discussion of six television stars’ relationships with their sisters and how they deal with each others’ love lives seemed at first a strange scheduling choice—but it turns out that diversity, in reality television, is also a strength.

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All of the panelists agreed that those sisterly relationships may end up a bit distorted by television process. “They have to edit it down and usually you guys get the most dramatic parts,” Cynthia Bailey of The Real Housewives of Atlanta (Bravo) tells TIME, “and all of the nice, sweet stuff doesn’t usually make it.”

But reality TV doesn’t seem to discriminate when it comes to depicting participants acting badly. And according to Vicangelo Bullock, Executive Director of the NAACP’s Hollywood Bureau, in many cases, non-scripted TV is doing better at diversity than scripted TV is. Case in point, the recent flap over the all-white cast of HBO’s new series Girls, which debuted in April.

“Most people, if they live in America, live in a diverse society,” says Bullock. “If you’re doing a scripted show you can create a Manhattan without any minorities in it, if that’s the world you’re creating within your own mind. But if you’re going to do a reality show, there’s no way.” And it makes sense for the network’s bottom line, he adds. The success of diverse shows like American Idol is no coincidence, according to Bullock, because they can attract a wider cross-section of the population. (One exception is The Bachelor, which is successful but has been sued over allegations of discrimination against non-white potential contestants.)

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“From what I can see with my variety of channels that I can choose from, I definitely feel like I see black people being represented on TV more than I feel like I did in the past,” says Bailey, who believes that her own show, despite the editing, does present a variety of realistic examples of African-American family dynamics. “My only thing is sometimes I don’t think that representation is always a hundred percent accurate to black families.”

It may go without saying that the families on reality television can’t be used to generalize about families of any race: the six panel members were sister pairs from Braxton Family Values, where one sister (who was not at this event) is singer Toni Braxton; The Real Housewives of Atlanta, part of a franchise where affluence is one of the only shared qualities of participants; and Mary Mary, a show on WEtv about the Grammy-winning gospel duo of the same name. But both Cynthia Bailey and her sister, Malorie Bailey-Massie, note the lack of socio-economic diversity in television representations of African-American families, reality and scripted alike, a lack of shows they could have related to when growing up. “Me personally, I would like to see shows like Good Times or Sanford and Son, more about the struggles and how families stuck together,” Bailey-Massie tells TIME. “I would like to see shows that cater to not only the rich and middle class.” Cynthia Bailey agrees, noting that when she was younger she didn’t even relate to the gold-standard Cosby Show. “That wasn’t what my family was like,” she says. “In my mind, that was almost a rich black family.”

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Because television, particularly reality television, purports to show what society is like, on-screen segregation and lack of economic and racial diversity is problematic, says Catherine Squires a professor at the University of Minnesota and author of African Americans and the Media. “Looking at rich, black people acting out after you’ve looked at rich, white people acting out, does that give people who aren’t rich and black any sense of what the black people closer to their lives are like?” And even a show like Real Housewives, which is relatively diverse across the franchise, represents each racial group as largely cut off from the others. Squires says that, while the monoracial nature of television does reflect ongoing segregation everywhere from schools to Hollywood, such mirroring means it’s all the more important to notice. “It all hinges on whether you think entertainment is part of our acculturation as citizens,” she says. “If you believe that, then TV is falling down on the job.”

Cynthia Bailey has a theory for why that might be, at least when it comes to reality: “Maybe nobody wants to see that,” she says, “because it’s too real.