Love and Hip Hop, Basketball Wives and The Real Housewives of Atlanta all feature well-heeled African-American women. They yell. They throw drinks at each other. They punch each other in the face.
While their drama is compelling, it is only a facade. The programs producers create the backbiting gossip that leads to conflict and subsequent fisticuffs. It often is revealed that the gorgeous clothes and jewels are rented. They parade around in homes and cars they cant afford.
The women on these shows are paid to play their parts. They have exchanged their authentic selves for a chance at stardom and audiences seem more than willing to help them make that trade. For me, the un-realness has become tedious and undesirable. I instead turn to my beauty salon for a picture of real life for the women in my community.
Entrepreneurs frequently own these salons. They are African-American women who trained for a year in the chemistry, biology and aesthetics of hair to build a career making other women feel beautiful. They stand on their feet all day, using their nimble fingers to support their families. They open salons in strip malls, converted garages or booths in a shop owned by another woman.
Arguably, these salons are economic hubs. The diverse needs and wants of the community walk through the door on a daily basis. It is not unusual to find salons where the owners sell chips, homemade sandwiches and sodas to their clientele -- especially useful if theyre in for a six-hour day in the swivel chair. I once went to a particularly enterprising salon where a woman sold red velvet cakes out of the backroom and stylists answered the phone Almighty God Bail Bonds after 4 p.m.
I suppose these types of incarnations should come as no surprise. After all, at the end of the day, the salon owners and those who visit them have the same goal -- transformation. For clients that means the merging of two versions of their true selves. One has graying hair that is cornrowed. The other has shiny hair that is relaxed or sewn over the cornrows.
And both versions are just fine.
They look at the salon as a place where they have to sit still, chat with women of different ages and stages of life and read a Jet magazine. Reality programs dont value these true moments of life. Instead, the versions of women on these programs include mean-spirited plotting and eye rolling.
These are not the women I see making their way to a sink so that the white creamy relaxer can be rinsed off their tingling scalps. These are not the women sitting under the hair dryer next to me for half an hour. The stars of these reality programs would never have been shown fighting the sleep that comes from the dryer while their bobbing heads bang against hard acrylic hoods. To show these real moments would mean that these women are more than caricatures exhibiting extreme greed, anger, and aggression.
The caricature of the Angry Black Woman is nothing new in television. From Sapphire on Amos n Andy to Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son to the malcontented Donna on Parks and Recreation, the outraged African-American woman has been used for comic effect. However, reality television programs now pit these women against each other for melodramatic entertainment.
Their incessant competition, antagonism and personal attacks are not depicted for fun. Instead, reality programs purport to show these women as they are -- in their natural habitat. For most of us, the televised settings of rented estates and elaborate dinner parties are far from real.
The hair salon is the place in my community where I have seen collaboration, creativity and community from the time I was a little girl.
The versions of the real me that have emerged from the salon have ranged from a prim first-grader with pigtails to a fifth-grader whose hair fell out after the first time she used a relaxer to the teenage fashionista with a Jheri Curl that ruined many a pillowcase and shirt collar.
The me who turned 40 this fall finds herself in a salon surrounded by real women who just want to be their best selves. The magic of the salon is that it can happen -- whether we are sitting in the chair or standing behind it.
Naeemah Clark is an associate professor of communications at Elon University. She can be reached at email@example.com.