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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Like Poison for Medicine: Understanding, Arbitrating, and Negotiating the Mark of Collective Dysfunction in Reality Television

  • Author(s): Mayers, Quintarrius Shakir
  • Advisor(s): Lipsitz, George
  • Raymond, Geoff
  • et al.

Reality television has faced intense criticism for its negative depictions of African American women and their husbands engaging in personal and group disputes. “Reality shows often cast relatively diverse groups with the intention of seeing whether conflict or harmony will result” (Montemurro 2007:84). The tension between conflict and harmony provides dramatic tension that builds audience investment and engagement. It is a commonplace of reality television to portray families riddled with gendered and generational tensions and antagonisms. When the main characters in the show are Black, however, conflict and harmony take on an added resonance.

The history that has given African Americans a linked fate makes harmony a survival strategy while rendering conflict as a threat to that survival. Moreover, the long history of imputing pathological dysfunction in Black families as the cause of Black suffering, a move that absolves white racism of responsibility, makes representations of Black family fights damaging to all Blacks in a way that does not apply to similar representations of white families.

Presentations of dysfunction in Black families and social circles can be used to indict all Black people through the dynamic that sociologist Albert Memmi calls “the mark of the plural,” the process through which any failing by any member of a socially subordinated group is taken as evidence of the unfitness of the group as a whole (Memmi 2013:129). Yet Black families and social circles are not immune to the dysfunctions that appear in all social groups. The cumulative vulnerabilities created by generations of exploitation, oppression and cultural demonization impose intense pressures of Black sociality and solidarity.

In this thesis, I argue that the same reality television portrayals that may well reinforce impressions of Black social pathology also provide Black viewers with a forum for understanding, arbitrating and negotiating the mark of collective dysfunction.

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