Thursday, February 27, 2014

Black Feminist Critique: The Real Housewives of Atlanta

         From Left: Kandi, Nene, Phaedra, Cynthia, Kenya, Porsha

The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA), featured on the Bravo Network since 2008, portrays a group of predominantly African-American women, striving for success and independence, shattering the gender and racial boundaries typically portrayed of black women in television. This offers an opposition of change from the minstrel performances of early 19th Century American entertainment, and even from the portrayal of female characters in television in the 20th Century, as RHOA represents a positive transition from the degrading, to a worthy depiction of independence, affluence, and African-American female spirit.
In the currently running sixth season of RHOA, portrayed are the lives of six African-American women in Atlanta. This collection of possibly Atlanta’s most powerful women includes Kenya Moore, a former Miss USA winner, and a current CEO of her own media conglomerate. In addition, the show features Kandi Burrus, a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, as well as Cynthia Bailey, a working model and owner of her own Fashion School. Nene Leaks is a working actress, breaking out in several other television shows, as well as Phaedra Parks, who is one of the leading attorneys in Atlanta, as well as aspiring to become a well-respected mortician in the city. As the newest and youngest member of the RHOA cast, Porsha Stewart offer s a positive portrayal of a newly-divorced single woman, aspiring to create a beauty empire within the Atlanta area (The Real Housewives of Atlanta Season 6).
This remarkable diversity of roles and professions led by the cast of women in the show, account for one of the most unique collection of successful minority women in prime time television. The connecting thread of professionalism and independence, interwoven throughout the lives of these women, creates a vastly different portrayal of women than was seen on the hit-TV show All In The Family only thirty years ago.
Edith Bunker from All In The Family
 Within this 1970’s sitcom, Edith Bunker is depicted as living within a working-class familial setting, with her only profession and dedication in her life being to serving in the kitchen, and offering support and loyalty to her husband. It is clear that Edith lives in a very patriarchal-centered world, her life constantly revolving around and catering to the whims of the men in her house. Throughout the show, Edith offers her opinion on certain topics and engagements to her husband and several other characters within the show, yet to no avail; Edith’s voice is often ignored, and as a result her husband refers to her as a ‘dingbat’, as if she’s being scolded by her husband for even opening her mouth to speak.
Black Feminism
In comparison to the women on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Edith seems to be trapped within a pre-Betty Friedman role of suburban women, without the ability to seek a career beyond the constraints of the familial unit. The women in RHOA offer a large array of career possibilities for its young minority female viewers, offering something to yearn for beyond the role of the housewife. Ironically, the show is entitled The Real ‘Housewives’ of Atlanta, however, it is clear that none of these six women are housewives at all; in fact, they are far from it. These women are ruthless, willing to put everything on the line for the success of their businesses and careers, often backstabbing each other in order to get ahead in the world. Perhaps if these characters in the series were men instead of minority women, the many critics and viewers of the show would not use labels such as ‘bitch’, ‘catty’, and ‘cold’ to describe them. RHOA offers the perspective to a viewer that it’s okay for one to be centered on a career, and for a woman to devote her life to fulfilling her own satisfaction, unlike the character of Edith in All In The Family.
African-American Portrayal of Rosie the Riveter
In contrast with the typical depiction of affluent Caucasian women in television, the women in RHOA offers a very different contrary portrayal of women who may not be as proper and poised as the ‘formalized’ characters within the Netflix series House of Cards. The women in RHOA can be compared to the writings of Sun Douglas on MTV’s Jersey Shore, as she explains: “they are empathetically proudly defiant about their deviance from mainstream, conformist, middle-class mores about appearance, decorum, and ethnicity” (Thompson 151). Douglas is relating the prominence of the ‘Guido Culture’ within Jersey Shore, offering a very different representation of marginalized populations in America. This is much like the women in RHOA, as the characters are usually speaking in more colloquial slang and conversation. The women are seen breaking mainstream norms centered on class and etiquette, and often get into brawls with each other, asserting their dominance and power. These kinds of outbursts were typically not seen before the introduction of reality television, for the early 20th century assumed the image of women being pure, virgin, morally inclined, and a homemaker. The women of RHOA shatter this common misperception, and assert the claim that women can exercise their sexuality without shame.  Almost all of the women within the series, excluding Cynthia Bailey, are seen to have fluid relationships with men, often choosing to have side relationships, yet focusing on their career and lively independently from their sexual partner.
This notion of non-conformist minority female representation in television relates to the current wave of Feminism we see in the United States, focusing on the equality of the sexists not just politically, but socially, culturally, and romantically as well. The writings of 3rd Wave Feminism proclaims, “BECAUSE we are angry at society that tells us Girl=Dumb, Girl=Bad, Girl=Weak… BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid anger be diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexism as witness in girl/girl jealousy and self-defeating girl type behaviors” (Freedman 396). The women in RHOA greatly represent these 3rd Wave Feminist ideals, countering the stereotype that women are dumb, bad, and weak. Not only are these actresses going against many sexist ideals in society, but also are asserting their success as achievable, overcoming the boundaries that come with having a minority status in the United States.
3rd Wave Feminism
The feminist theory is crucial in preaching ways that society can elevate the status and ideals of women, in everyday situations, leading to a more progressive and equal society. Media is a powerful outlet to express these ideals, and television serves a for-the-people, massively consumed platform for social thought to be put into the minds of millions of viewers. Perhaps young viewers will expect more for themselves, and for others, thanks to the variety of representation of all walks of life in reality television. While the Real Housewives of Atlanta may not be without its flaws, the series offers a never-before-seen depiction of affluent, African-American women, overcoming the shackles of various social barriers relating to their gender and race. Television serves to mirror various social and political efforts that are surfacing within society, and in turn helps to create a better reality; the power comes from the influence television has on millions of viewers around the world.

Vinny Battaglia

Freedman, Estelle B. The essential feminist reader. New York: Modern Library, 2007. Print.

"The Real Housewives of Atlanta Season 6." Cast Info. Bravo TV, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

Thompson, Ethan, and Jason Mittell. How to watch television. New York: New York University, 2013. Print.


  1. I think you bring up a very good point about minstrelsy! What is interesting that I've found about this show is how they act like they don't want to be "hood" and show that they have class. But almost every time I watch this show they are just going "ratchet" on each other haha

  2. Thanks Karrin, I should have definitely made mention to that point on "ratchetness"!


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