Open Thread: Stereo-type-casting on Reality TV Shows

by Latoya Peterson

Commenter EvilAngelFish wrote in to Racialicious, describing something she had seen on TV that was mildly disturbing:

I know it’s been covered on the site before but I wonder if you might consider an open thread on the perpetuation of minority stereotypes in reality programming (and the internalization of said stereotypes). I tend to avoid reality programming but because of the strike, I ended up getting hooked on a few Bravo offerings (namely, Make Me A Supermodel, which ended last night) and I’m sure that there are others, who under normal circumstances wouldn’t watch the stuff, that got sucked in as well.

Anyway, last night I caught the premier of Step It Up and Dance, a Bravo dance competition (it was on right after MMAS) and there was one bit that made me want to scream. At the end of the program, three dancers were singled out by the judges (among whom was Mel. B a.k.a. Scary Spice) for possible elimination. One of the dancers, Tovah, a classically trained ballerina, was criticized for not standing out more in the choreographed piece. Tovah offered the excuse that hip hop wasn’t really her thing and Mel B. exclaimed “But you’re BLACK!” and there were general murmurs of assent all around. Did the judges actually AGREE with that statement!? The issue of versatility of a dancer aside, why does everyone still think being able to dance in hip hop style is some kind of black birthright? And why is this stereotype still being fed to us? Yes, some of us can tear it up but I was appalled that the judges chose to call Tovah’s skill into question because she wasn’t shaking it like some girl in a BET video.

I’m kind of shocked at Mel. B here – a classically trained ballerina moves, thinks, and performs differently than a professional hip-hop dancer. The two styles are completely different, so I am not at all surprised to hear that someone accustomed to moving quietly and gracefully across the stage would have trouble channeling the necessary energy, attitude and aggression that makes a hip-hop sequence work. So why did Tovah’s racial background trump a lifetime of training?

So, three main questions here:

1. Why do you think reality show producers (this also counts hosts and judges) encourage minority cast members to play to stereotypes?
2. What are some other examples of reality shows that have people playing to a type? (I know, all of them – try to think about some of the most egregious examples you have seen recently.)
3. Are there any reality shows that offer a break from rampant stereotyping?