How A Misogynistic Reality Show Made Me A Better Feminist

D. Smith is not here for this shit. (Screenshot: Love & Hip Hop Atlanta)
My problematic fave ‘Love & Hip Hop’ helped me realize how I’d been failing trans women.

Franchises like Love & Hip Hop, the VH1 reality-show series about hip hop artists, are aggressively problematic, to say the least. The show is richly entertaining in the worst way possible, like watching the nastiest, dirtiest, messiest brawl break out in slow motion. Unabashed cliches and glimpses of the ugly side of humanity are peppered with best-of-Jerry-Springer plot-twist quotes like “That old bitch got a sex tape” and “Why this female calling our house talmbout she had your baby, Kurk?” The show’s success depends on just how much schadenfreude the viewers crave when it comes to entertainment and Black female humiliation. The answer, it seems, is that their appetite is bottomless.

As a feminist, though, why do I fuck with this stuff? All I can say is that ratchet queens like Cardi B and Joseline Hernandez are absolutely incredible on-screen. It has to be their ability to stand that exposed and flawed in front of millions of viewers. Their willingness to be open to such torment seems almost courageous, or at least, it’s something that I could never personally subject myself to — all those zeroes on a check be damned.

The show’s success depends on just how much schadenfreude the viewers crave when it comes to entertainment and Black female humiliation.

But Love & Hip Hop isn’t my only Problematic Fave. Take prominent feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who came under fire for her thoughts on trans women and male privilege. Initially, I was personally confused by the outrage. How was it transphobic to claim someone who had lived as a male had indeed lived with privilege for a given amount of time? A friend of mine suggested I read Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness to get some perspective. I’m a hardback/paperback type of bitch, so I ordered the book, and when it arrived I flipped on VH1 for some ratchet-manic background reading noise. A preview for the new Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta came on, and sitting there with Mock’s novel and trans issues fresh in my mind, the absence of the series’ first transgender participant, D. Smith, had never seemed so jarring.

Smith, a Grammy-winning producer, had appeared as a regular cast member in season 5 of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. She was framed as the main antagonist to rapper Waka Flocka and his wife Tammy Rivera. Their entire storyline played like a 500+ comment Facebook fight: Waka says some transphobic shit about trans people like Caitlyn Jenner rebuking God, D. Smith tries to educate them, the Flocka family hits her with “We aren’t transphobic! We have gay friends! We just don’t agree with your lifestyle,” D. Smith again tries to educate them, and then suddenly it’s the season finale and she’s being accused of being reverse-transphobic or some hullabaloo. Needless to say, D. Smith expressed that she felt unsupported by the network, did not attend the reunion, exited the show quietly, and life callously moved on.

Love & Hip Hop’s troubling narratives are often blamed on the film editors and a producer’s willingness to foster paranoia in the castmates for the sake of drama. But regardless of TV magic, hip hop cannot run from its misogyny, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and so on. This subset of rap music has always fetishized glamor. It has thrived on the ambitions of achieving proximity to the idea of white aristocracy mixed with the essential black cool. Hip hop artists aspired to be the Black Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette pre-that-whole-French-revolution-thing: Let them eat cake. Fuck bitches and get money. That ambition demands that artists pay homage by constantly making extravagant gestures — whether it be gold, new sneakers, or women, women everywhere, it is meant to be flamboyant. So when I watch Love & Hip Hop, and listen to constant clucking of who’s the brokest, who has 10 babymamas and takes care of their kids, who just bought an Audi, whose Louis Vuitton is a knock-off, and the inevitable outing of a Black male hip hop artist as gay, I understand that these are the ugly and truthful offsets of hip hop culture. Frankly, it’s this thinking that allows the franchise to duck any social responsibility, citing the idea that all they do is “point a camera” and everyone else does the rest.

While the franchise has come under fire for reflecting hip hop’s misogyny, it was never held responsible for allowing a dangerously transphobic environment to blossom.

But while the franchise has come under fire for reflecting hip hop’s misogyny, it has never been held responsible for allowing a dangerously transphobic environment to blossom. This was something that had never crossed my cishet mind until now. When D. Smith was effectively run off the show, there were no protests, no systematic boycotts, not one think piece on how ratchet TV had failed Black America, at least none that I could find; instead, my Google search brought me articles on D. Smith’s flaws, like her use of “transgender” as an insult toward a cis castmate. Waka Flocka’s mom Deb Antney had even gone so far to say that the trans community was better off without D. Smith as a representative, because Smith had an “attitude problem.” It was all very Mike-Brown-search-on-a-conservative-website looking. The show had been pushing me a narrative that D. Smith did not deserve support because she and her on TV best friend Betty Idol were no angels, and I hadn’t noticed or questioned it. Maybe I unconsciously decided I wouldn’t notice because it was inconvenient. I enjoyed having the human flaws of hip hop culture packaged and served back up to me by Viacom.

Like the gawkers who watch Love & Hip Hop to envy artists’ money or sneer at their ratchet drama, I was a TV tourist.

I had to ask myself, had I toured D. Smith’s life as a trans woman? I had sat back on my couch every week and watched her dwindle under the abuse of the camera and her castmates. I’d scroll through my phone before bedtime and roll my eyes at the transphobic comments on social media that blamed women like D. Smith for now not only the “state of the Black community” but the emasculation of Black men.” I flinched and raised my eyebrow when Smith broke and slammed her hands on a podium, tired of the rampant miseducation among her cast, but I never spoke up or raised a red flag, and when D. Smith left the show, I promptly forgot her.

This is what trans people mean when they call us cis women worthless allies. We may not agree with their mistreatment, we may even get out to a highly televised protest or two, but we stay silent when we see no issue, and we see no issue because transphobia has been normalized to a degree that is hard for our cis minds to parse. And for cis Black women, our race and gender issues are very intertwined in informing our existence, and our existence has been so controlled and confined that it’s hard for even the most brilliant of women, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to truly understand the trans experience or understand her own bias toward it.

No matter how well-intentioned, cis women cannot fill all the seats of the feminist revolution. When trans issues are the focus, no matter how supposedly inconsequential to life, it is a cis woman’s job to lift that trans woman’s voice up, not shout it down. When D. Smith appeared on Love and Hip Hop, women like me should have immediately spoke out against her mistreatment, instead of letting it fade into the background noise of reality TV drama.

No matter how well-intentioned, cis women cannot fill all the seats of the feminist revolution.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie now has the chance to do better for women. Instead of digging her heels in and insisting she has no reason to apologize, she could admit to the public that even she, in all her intelligence, must recalibrate the way she views trans women, instead of demanding trans women and the “American Left” recalibrate to her. That isn’t to say that we must all use “the same language” in order to stand righteous, as Adichie defended, but if an entire marginalized group of women stands up and says, “Hey, your perception of our lived experience is very uninformed, therefore harmful, therefore prejudiced,” it is our duty to each other to become informed.

No woman left behind.

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