Black Lesbians on Reality TV: The Good, The Bad, the In-Between

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A few weeks ago, as my wife and I watched VH1’s biopic about TLC, CrazySexyCool (because duh), a trailer during the commercial breaks for the reality show Love and Hip-Hop kept showing two women making out in a bathtub. And while perhaps I should have been leery about it from the start, my first thought was, “Well, gonna watch that.” So although I’d never watched or even heard of the show before, I tuned in for the first episode of the fourth season. And it was weird.

It was weird because it’s one of those overly-produced reality shows where everything seems orchestrated and fake to an awkward degree, and then when we finally arrive at Erica Mena, the bisexual of the show, we first see her in a lingerie store, looking for props for her new sex book, which will include things about how she can please a lady better than a man. OK. And then she tells the camera this: “It’s been over between me and Rich for quite some time now. The events that came along with being with Rich drove me way out there somewhere. So right now, I’m batting for the other team. I gotta say, I’m loving a woman’s touch.”

"Love And Hip Hop" Season 4 Launch

Hoo boy. Now, it appears that Erica Mena does in fact have a real relationship with her girlfriend, Cyn Santana, so, props to them. But the way this is presented to us is that she’s now a lesbian because she had a really bad relationship with a dude. Because that’s the way it works. And while I didn’t watch much more of this season past the first episode, suddenly everything about their relationship as it’s portrayed on the show–making out in the tub, making out in skimpy bikinis on the beach, and the fact that they are both ridiculously gorgeous and feminine–now made sense not in a black queer visibility way, but once again, in an extremely male gaze-y way.

For those of you who are critical about reality TV in general, you might think this is par for the course, but it really doesn’t have to be. Erica Mena is miles away from Monifah on R&B Divas, who portrayed her sexuality as a very serious, very real part of her identity, and whose relationship with her fiance Terez was real and touching, showing them not making out in skimpy clothes but buying groceries together and talking over the phone as they struggled through a long distance relationship. Monifah also engages in heart-wrenching discussions over sexuality, religion, and acceptance with her uber religious daughter.

Monifah's "In Her Skin" Showcase

But the Erica Mena portrayal of lesbianism not as identity but as sex symbol bothered me more than others, partly because of what Melissa Harris-Perry talked about in a segment titled “As NOT Seen on TV” on her MSNBC program last month. Harris-Perry begins the segment by challenging viewers to think of five people on TV right now who stand for positive representations of black women. The segment was prompted by an Essence magazine study that found a majority of TV viewers still see black women portrayed most often as “angry black women, baby mamas, and golddiggers.”

Keeping the historic hypersexualization of black women in mind, I think the black lesbian who “bats for the other team” seemingly for funsies fits right into these negative portrayals that persist, even with Kerry Washington and Nicole Beharie breaking into the scene in attempts to change all that. While Scandal and Sleepy Hollow are groundbreaking in bringing black women to the forefront of mainstream dramas, the realm of reality TV is important because, well, that’s still the area of media where black women have the highest density, and that includes queer women of color.

Director X Pre-MTV VMAs party

The amount of black lesbians currently on reality TV is actually quite impressive, especially when compared to how many appear in scripted comedies or dramas. In addition to Love and Hip-Hop and R&B Divas, you have Po and Dice on the great La La’s Full Court Life, Sassy on Black Ink Crew, and the take-no-bullshit butch Bernice on South End Tow, who says in an interview with Stacks Magazine, that if she could only take three items to a desert island, she’d take an iPad, a vibrator, and bottled water. This is not really related to anything, but I had to mention it because it is amazing.

And if you’ll allow me one more Melissa Harris-Perry mention, MHP had another segment on her show earlier this summer that focused on black women in reality TV specifically, when she had on Kenya Moore, former Miss USA and star of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, widely known as one of the most ridiculous and dramatic reality shows out there. Harris-Perry says, interestingly, that she despises that contrast between “negative” and “positive” representations, but instead is interested in “complicated.”

Moore argues that in fact, women watch shows like hers because they relate to them, and that the negative stuff is a small portion of it. “It is what it is, and it’s real. And sometimes it’s ugly, and sometimes it’s really beautiful.”

So am I being too harsh about Erica Mena? Does Love and Hip-Hop add to a satisfactorily “complicated” world of black lesbians on TV? Because not all identities have to be portrayed as seriously as Monifah’s on R&B Divas, and obviously, not all lesbians have to be as tough as Bernice. Maybe if Mena hadn’t introduced her current love life in that first episode in contrast to her last relationship with a man, I’d be happy to see a feminine lesbian couple flaunting their stuff and being sexy on TV. Because as Joy Reid says in the Melissa Harris-Perry conversation, what we need is balance and complexity. You can have both Monifahs and Erica Menas, and it’s fine. Maybe it’s even good.

And if it is? The next step is to turn the complexity that queer women of color are building in reality TV and translate it to dramas, to comedies, to the movies, to everywhere and everything. We are ready, and we are waiting.

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