I can’t believe I’m actually going to type the words “reality TV has hit a new low.”
But it has, with “All My Babies’ Mamas.”
If you aren’t already depressed about American culture and the entertainment pimps who produce such garbage, check out the saga of the rapper and his 10 former girlfriends and 11 children.
I’m not going to do it. So you’ll have to.
It’s scheduled to debut on the Oxygen cable channel this spring. Already there’s an online petition blasting the producers for creating what amounts to a “minstrel show” — as one blogger called it — stereotypically demeaning African-Americans, especially black women.
I understand why the petitioners are angry. But the show doesn’t demean only black women. It demeans us all.
It stars Atlanta rapper Shawty Lo, whose real name is Carlos Walker. In a publicity still, he poses with his co-stars, all 10 of his babies’ mothers, who live with him in a fancy mansion in the Atlanta suburbs. His skinny new girlfriend is as old as his eldest child.
Yes, it’s predictable. The women scheme and have catfights for our amusement. And after watching the trailer, I hoped for one thing: That Bill Cosby would show up on the set, unannounced, with an ax handle and start swinging.
“This bold new series shows every second of the drama-filled lives surrounding a unique ‘modern’ family unit, as they navigate their financially and emotionally connected lives,” said a recent news release. “As the household grows, sometimes so does the dysfunction, leaving the man of the house to split his affection multiple ways while trying to create order … sharing your man with several opinionated women is bound to create issues.”
Here’s an issue. There were more than 500 homicide victims in Chicago last year, most of them minorities. Black and Latino children are gunned down in America’s streets every day by other black and Latino kids. Many of the shooters and the victims are raised by single mothers or grandmothers. The pathology isn’t merely demeaning, it’s deadly. And America is being invited to laugh at it.
“I had a lot of girls,” says rapper Shawty. “They was in love and, I probably was too. And it just happened.”
It just happened, Mr. Shawty.
The temptation is to engage in some show of racial politics and slam the program for its depiction of African-Americans. So I’ll play along, too, for a bit, and say that Mr. Shawty should change his name.
To Stepin’ Fetchit.
That name belonged to a character created by a black man years ago, a man who had to play to stereotype, as did so many other black artists. His character was often terribly frightened of ghosts, and his eyes got big and his knees buckled, before another stereotype, Charlie Chan, told him not to be so scared.
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who created the character, felt he had no other choice. Yet his Stepin’ Fetchit became a touchstone in the civil rights era, ridiculed because it promoted a negative image. The problem is that “All My Babies’ Mamas” isn’t fiction. What’s dangerous is that there are bits of reality in it, depressing bits, particularly the out-of-wedlock parts.
The producers of this show, Liz Gateley and Tony DiSanto, are white. They’ve done the eminently forgettable “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.” But a much better reality show would have Liz and Tony in meetings with network executives, pitching reality TV shows based on stereotypes.
America would love to see this Hollywood reality, and hear how Liz and Tony’s families are so proud of them. Somehow, though, I don’t think that show will make it into production.
It’s easy to decry “All My Babies’ Mamas” as racism. But what of Italian-Americans lampooned on “Jersey Shore,” and the ridiculed country folk in “Buckwild” about the West Virginians? They’re white. And what of the Beverly Hills wives showing off their bling, locked in surgically enhanced sexual combat, so ridiculous, so sad. None of these botoxed cougars have bore Mr. Shawty’s babies, yet.
What does the chunky blond girl called Honey Boo Boo — who is sold these days as some kind of new Shirley Temple — tell us about our culture? To get her energy level up, the 6-year-old Boo Boo’s parents give her a combination of Mountain Dew and Red Bull. They call it “go-go juice.” That’s not the Good Ship Lollipop. That’s child abuse.
So what’s the next big reality TV hit? They should call it “The Geek.”
It won’t be about techno-nerds. “The Geek” will rely on the earlier usage of the word, with illiterate poor living on a dilapidated carnival set. Each week, the host will dress like a carny barker and cry out the contestants’ names.
Then the players will bite the heads off live rats and so win fame and prizes.
That’s what geeks did at the circus. They bit the heads off of live creatures. And Americans rushed forward with their dimes to see others so debased. It made them feel better about their own lives.
That’s what reality TV is: Land of the Geeks.
And those of us who watch are invited, again and again, to bathe in our own lowest common denominator.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.