When the reality television boom began in earnest, I did not flock to it. I automatically equated it to fool’s gold; glittery with little value much like soap operas and novellas. The genre’s ‘unscripted’ dating, relationship and competition shows troubled me: The Real World (1992), Making the Band (2002), Bachelor Franchise (2002) The Real Housewives Franchise (2006), I Love NY (2007) and Love and Hip Hop (2010). I could not find inspiration or value in shows that were neither real nor true; for me they were not even entertaining. I would not decline the label of cynic; I questioned the motives and sanity of ‘reality stars’, especially those that expect to find real love on these shows. Had I a megaphone, I would shout, “love and reality TV is an oxymoron.” Reality TV is the epicenter of superficiality and materialism or as the kids say, ratchetness and thotery. My accusatory judgment was as high as Westboro Baptist Church congregants outside an abortion clinic.
The ubiquitous nature of reality shows pushed me to explore them, mining for the specks or flakes of gold it had to offer. I had always thought of TV as a book of short stories I get to curate and place in my mind palace or bookshelf next to J California Cooper, Walter Mosley, Sadie Smith, Zora Neal Hurston, etc… After countless hours of reality TV, what I find most troubling isn’t its inauthenticity and materialism, but its limited portrayals of loving relationships, especially LGBT. The genre is surely a therapist’s candy shop of personality disorders and dysfunctions. The reality show trifecta is not a realized, secure and grounded person. Reality stars use the medium to fill an emptiness that it cannot fill. Surprisingly, what I really wondered was: is there much difference between Pride and Prejudice and Bachelorette or I love NY? Sure the societal norms and use of language are different, but is the pursuit of love really any different? I imagine that a hundred years from now, these shows for better or worse will be examined for clues about life and love in the early twenty-first century.
Reality shows hold-up a mirror, funhouse or true mirror, showing a heightened reality. Is it real, scripted or just an unmasked self? I am not sure that it matters. We can’t deny that young people are developing their ideas of love in part from reality TV, is that any different than soap operas? I can remember when America was enamored with the Luke and Laura love story on General Hospital though the relationship was born of rape. If we can find value in that story, we can also find value on reality shows. Love on reality TV is unexpected, if not demonized, especially on black shows. Unlike RJ and Princess, Kourtney and Scott, Apollo and Phaedra and the love triangle that is Peter Gunz-Tara Wallace and Amina Buddafly, love on reality tv is possible and can be instructive, inspiring and healthy.
Rapper Remy Ma and Papoose’s relationship on Love and Hip Hop is as passionate and tragedy filled as any soap opera relationship. When Remy Ma was sentenced to prison for eight years for assault, few expected her relationship with Papoose to flourish but they were determined to keep their love strong. He visited her every day during her first year and she called him regularly to improve their communication skills.
[Papoose and I] would [argue]…it took up to three hours sometimes. I would sit there with a pen and paper and he would sit there with his pen and paper on his end and let me talk until I’m done. It’s so crazy how once we even started doing that everything was easier than it was before because [we] feel like [we] have a voice and [we] feel like [our] opinions matter. Remy Ma’s Five-Step Guide to Keeping a Man
They even married while she was incarcerated. Now free, six and half years later they are resurrecting their rap careers. Their story magnifies the importance of intention and communication in a relationship. They used her incarceration to work on their relationship. Had she not been incarcerated, their relationship arc may have been very different. Their fierce and protective love is most reminiscent of Janie Crawford and Vergible Woods’ (Teacake) from Their Eyes Were Watching God. Remy Ma and Papoose’s relationship maybe non-traditional, one that does not look like our European literature or children’s stories of happy ever after, but it is real in its complications and triumphs. Their relationship is different than Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter’s who met on Bachelorette in 2002, married in 2003 and now have two children. Different is not better or worst. Trista and Ryan’s relationship timeline is more typical of western relationships.
Remy Ma and Papoose’s biggest test maybe the difficulties of balancing career, family and privacy in a publicized and public relationship. Two celebrities who travel this particularly hazardous terrain are Rev Run and Demetrius Lucas.
From the rap group RUN DMC, Joseph Simmons better known as Rev Run has long left music for ministry. Married for twenty-one years, Rev Run and his second wife Justine have shared their relationship on reality and talk shows: Run’s House, Rev Runs Around the World, Rev Run’s Sunday Suppers, Rev Run’s Renovations, Rev Run’s Happy Holidays and Its Not You, Its Men. He has said, “Our brand, our gift is modeling love, black love and family.” This is a difficult mission but they have prevailed. Their love and commitment is as large as their blended and thriving family. Their love is mature. Their roles are very traditional and grounded in biblical principles. Their testimony is not as heavy-handed as Jim Bob and Michelle Duggars from 19 Kids and Counting. The Simmons have a thriving faith-based marriage.
Married last year, Demetria Lucas and Greg D’Oyley is not a new public couple. Their wedding was featured on Blood Sweat and Heels. Those familiar with her blog, A Bell in Brooklyn remember when Greg was simply called Chocolate. Though she wrote about him on her blog which was released as a book in 2012, she respected his and her privacy and with the skill of a journalist and the promise of a therapist she pulled back the relationship curtain to show truths that were void of gossip and the intimacy that should remain private. If only we could all be that objective when we go to our friends and family to vent or ask for advice, we too could protect the dignity and intimacy of our relationships. Of the reality couples I have watched, they are the most savvy, articulate and realized. They have managed to share in a way that breeds familiarity while holding tightly to the things that they deem sacred. I have read about their dating, wedding and vacations but I have not learned about things in their relationship that would irrevocably damage my perception of either. To some degree this can also be said of Snooki (Necole Polizzi) from Jersey Shores fame who has also evolved from party girl to wife and mother. She and her husband Jionni LaValle have found a way to protect their relationship and growing family while in the public eye.
How important are intention, communication, support, faith, maturity and privacy in your relationship?
Intimacy is built upon the trust you develop with the one you share your most sacred stories, dreams, fears. But what happens when your friend circle expands and you share more and more of yourself with the ever growing group? There is an ever decreasing distance between the public and private sphere. Consider not only reality or celebrity relationships like Ciara and Russell Wilson, but the countless relationships we encounter on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc…. What makes that one relationship special, intimate, loving? Is it proximity, choice, chemistry, connection? Reality Relationships force us to reconsider privacy and intimacy. We all have to redefine relationships in the 21st century.
Remy Ma and Papoose, Trista and Ryan, Rev Run and Justine, Demetria and Greg and Snooki and Jionni demonstrate a dynamic bond that the glitz and gleam of reality TV has not tarnished. They respect and understand each other’s love language, set familial and individual goals, are strict defenders of each other, and have defined clear public and private selves. Their love is not primarily for public consumption. Their love is given room to change and grow; they realize that today’s love may not be the same as next week’s or next year’s. All relationships are dynamic. The truth we all want to closet is that relationships are difficult. We point to celebrity relationships as goals because we only see the veneer. If we are to look deep and long to the patina, we would see that it takes time and work to keep it sparkling.
If the HBO musical event Lemonade has taught us anything, it should be the need and power of forgiveness and inventiveness. Reality shows exploit relationship troubles; they enjoy arguments, revel in separations, and ride divorces to ratings glory. They are not optimal venues for teaching us how to propel ourselves through the stages of grief when the relationship you’ve known dies to infidelity or any other offense. They rarely model the power of intention and forgiveness. They don’t show how inventive couples must be in guarding their relationships, in redefining needs, expectations and goals. But they can. They can help us define what we will and will not accept. Real relationship goals are personal, political and private. Like Beyonce’s Daddy’s Lessons, reality relationships offer difficult truths, if we are willing to unearth them, one by one.