On last night’s X Factor, Gifty Louise lost her place in the competition to girl group 4 Of Diamantes. She looked upset and unimpressed, which is completely understandable when you’re one of the only contestants who can hold a tune. But nonetheless, she was dragged on Twitter, with people calling her arrogant and questioning her attitude.
Just 10 minutes earlier, Ryan Lawrie pulled a near identical face when he found out he was saved. Then there’s Honey G, who declares that she is the greatest rapper in the game every time she opens her mouth (it’s almost like it’s one of the few things she can say in that accent). Yet, the one who is getting dragged is the black woman.
The arrogant black woman stereotype is one that appears time and time again on reality television. On The X Factor alone, the likes of Tamera Foster, Misha B and Rachel Adedeji all struggled to shake off the stereotype. Let’s not forget Alexandra Burke’s ill-fated stint as a judge, too. In fact, the representation is so common that I was allowed to write a 12,000 word dissertation on it.
This isn’t something that is confined to The X Factor though. Back in January, the whole Celebrity Big Brother house argued that Tiffany Pollard should walk after the confusion regarding which David had died. Over on The Apprentice USA, Omarosa was portrayed as being an evil black woman. Writing about experiences, she argues: “Minorities have historically been portrayed negatively on reality TV… these types of show thrive off of portrayals that tap into preconceived stereotypes about minorities (ie that we are lazy, dishonest and hostile).”
It’s hard not to see what she means when looking at the way black women are treated on The X Factor. When Tamera Foster forget her words, the performance was called “excruciating” by the panel. This almost certainly had a knock on effect, and was probably the reason she went home. However, during the first week of the live shows this year, Emily Middlemas was told off for being lazy. But she is the only one with any chance of beating Matt.
Let’s also not forget the time Tulisa and Louis called Misha B out for being a bully. Now this may have been true, but it certainly did not improve the public’s perception of her. Up until that point, Misha had polled well in the votes. However, the week after, she found herself in the bottom two (she received the least votes on three occasions). The thing with reality television is that viewers naturally gravitate to people they see themselves in, and Jonathon Bignell argues that viewers distance themselves from people who show undesirable qualities. Which explains the downfall of Misha B because let’s face it, no one wants to be a bully.
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room (well, she did bring the phrase to the UK): how did Alexandra Burke manage to win the competition? Kimberly Springer believes there’s another, more positive stereotype: the back superwoman. This is a woman who is successful and extraordinary. Alexandra Burke has the range: she can sing, dance and perform incredibly well. Leona Lewis is an extraordinary vocalist. The problem with contestants like Gifty and Tamera is that they’re not perfect, so their confidence is perceived as arrogance when really one of their average performances is miles better than anyone else.
L.S. Kim did some research into representation on America’s Next Top Model, and found that there are three things that black woman must to do be successful on reality television. The first is that they must show gratitude, the second is that the viewer must be able to sympathise with them and the third is that they must have a strong work ethic. It could seem as though Tamera Foster didn’t have a strong work ethic because she forgot lyrics, which could be why she struggled. And it’s hard for most of the audience to sympathise with someone like Misha B after they’ve been called a bully.
Producers do try to tackle this though. We may have to wait until the end of the show for the voting stats, but you can normally tell how well a contestant is doing based on their look. It started with Rachel Adedeji’s bob, but since then, many acts have got a haircut after languishing near the bottom of the votes. With black women, they usually get given a more Western look (see Tamera Foster going blonde, for example). In Chris Rock’s documentary ‘Good Hair’, Paul Mooney says: “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, white people aren’t happy”.
Misha B’s most successful week was the week when her hair was the most relaxed:
Rachel Adedeji topped the vote the week she debuted her bob:
What is clear is that if the viewing public don’t respond to a black woman, they will (even just for a week) respond to a black woman with a western aesthetic. But most prominently, they seem to respond to a white woman appropriating black culture, which is probably why Honey G’s rap parody has seen her through week on week. Whereas Gifty was criticised for being upset at leaving the competition, Honey G goes through despite saying that she is a victim of reverse racism.
Now, you might argue that there are other reasons why Gifty went home last night; the rubbish song choice didn’t help and you might see this ‘potential’ in 4oD that the judges do. But, the influence of racial stereotypes is difficult to see past.