Author Sabrina Lamb was looking forward to kicking off her New Year with a bottle of champagne and a quiet walk on the beach. Instead, on the first day of January she was greeted with a video link from a friend of a brand-new reality show that sent chills down her spine.
The video was for All My Babies’ Mamas, a new show developed by Oxygen Media featuring rapper Shawty Lo, his 11 kids, and 10 different mothers.
“My blood curdled just thinking about it,’’ Lamb told The Daily Beast.
So did mine. And apparently that was the reaction of the nearly 40,000 people who signed a petition demanding that the show not air. Though the network denies it, Oxygen is expected to announce that All My Babies’ Mamas won’t ever see the light of day, according to my sources—and that’s a good thing. Still, I’m more concerned with how it ever reached this point. How could a network ever assume that a show about an African-American rapper with 11 kids by 10 women would be OK and not immediately deemed racist? How could it not see that it was offending, insulting, and mocking an entire segment of the African-American community? The answer is pretty simple. The network saw it; the network just didn’t care.
The problem, of course, is not only Oxygen. I’ve been a critic of reality TV of all kinds since watching Anna Nicole Smith’s reality show so many years ago and wondering how people could be entertained or amused by a woman whose life was clearly spiraling out of control. In the show we saw Anna Nicole so drugged up she’d slur her words and be barely able to stand up straight for minute at a time. Watching someone else’s world fall apart isn’t my idea of a fun night at home. Smith would die from a drug overdose just three years after the show ended.
My disdain for these shows really grew by leaps and bounds as minorities began to appear more and more in them. In an industry that’s never been overly interested in showcasing people of color or their lives, the notion that now we’d all of sudden become interesting just seemed too good to be true.
Instead of scripted television shows featuring minorities in well-written, creative, and thought-provoking storylines, Hollywood decided that our stories were best told in the most extreme, dysfunctional, and, often, the most fabricated ways. From Basketball Wives to Bad Girls to the The Real Housewives of Atlanta, people of color—black women in particular—are routinely portrayed as violent, hot-headed loudmouths with absolutely no regard or respect for themselves or anyone else.
Now adding salt to that still very open wound is Shawty Lo and his less-than-desirable situation of fathering 11 children with 10 (mostly black) women. Shawty Lo is not a household name. I can only think of one hit song he ever had in his career, and that was years ago. Yet somehow Oxygen felt that this Atlanta-based rapper and former drug dealer’s story is must-see television. Why? Well, according to an Oxygen statement, All My Babies' Mamas “is a look at one unique family and their complicated, intertwined life.’’
Really? When did men of any color with multiple children by multiple mothers become unique in our society? Eleven kids is a lot but by no means the record. So what really was behind the idea for this show? It certainly couldn’t have been Shawty Lo’s very limited star power. All I can assume is that the network believed its young female demographic would be amused by the sordid lives of a black man with a criminal past and the many women and children who depend on him.
At first, Oxygen defended the project by offering this: “It was not meant to be a stereotypical representation of everyday life for any one demographic or cross section of society.’’ Unless I’m mistaken, the term “baby mama” is used almost exclusively in reference to black women, so Oxygen needed to do better than that. If the show was about a white man with 11 children and had the same title, we might be able to have a different conversation.
But it’s not. And even more upsetting is that the network never took into account the effect of its programming on audiences outside its core demographic. That is, people who only see minorities when they appear on their television sets. Regardless of the fact that the first black president is sitting in the White House, most of those viewers, lacking any evidence or experience to the contrary, are going to accept whatever they see on TV as the gospel truth.
Of course, as actress Holly Robinson Peete told me years ago, “there are plenty of white women on television acting a fool.’’ But for every Honey Boo Boo or Jersey Shore, there are shows offering white counter-examples—Homeland, The Good Wife, Mad Men, and on and on—to keep circumstances and people in perspective. When it comes to African-American shows, it’s only in the last year that networks have begun to air projects such as Scandal and Deception that feature black actors in well-developed and well-balanced roles.
For the record, Honey Boo-Boo, which showcases a poor, self-proclaimed “redneck” family, is equally offensive to me for the same reasons. It allows audiences to sit back in bewilderment and judgment as they peek into the lives of a group of people they’re probably not familiar with and most likely never will be.
Thankfully, I’m far from alone in my frustration with reality television and Oxygen. Lamb’s Change.org petition to stop production of All My Babies’ Mamas gathered more than 33,000 signatures in just 10 days. “I love that the people who’ve signed the petition are from all backgrounds, ages, and countries,’’ says Lamb. “This one elderly white man wrote me and said even he was tired of the stereotypical images of black people.’’
“This show is about more than a rapper and his girlfriends,’’ says Lamb. “This is a show about kids who had no choice in how they came into the world. This show sets them up to be ridiculed and made fun of. None of us should be OK with that.’’
Lamb had also threatened to lead a boycott of any sponsors who put their money behind the idea. Luckily, Oxygen apparently saw the light.