Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Projectionist: Why I Watched Basketball Wives and Why I Had to Stop

At the time that I learned I had breast cancer, I was taking little care of myself. For a few months I had let a few guilty pleasures devolve into unhealthy practices.  The occasional ice cream cone from el pillo (as my father calls Mr. Softee) became a nightly indulgence often followed by potato chips, cookies or some other junk food. Sometimes I would chase all this refined sugar with a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, a radical change for a woman who didn’t begin drinking socially until her early thirties and still could count on one hand how many alcoholic drinks she imbibed in any given month. I couldn’t find time to exercise, read or meditate, but there seemed to be endless hours available to watch some pretty horrific reality TV. 

I especially had the time and the mood for Bastketballl Wives. And watching episodes of the show wasn’t enough. I would seek to extend the experience across platforms, scouring the internet for opinions on all the show’s fuckery from running searches on the #BBW hashtag on Twitter to reading the comments posted under inarguably illegal excerpts of the show posted on YouTube.  

Yeah, I can be quite comfortable with my contradictions. Here I am cultural activist who emphasizes the importance of media literacy especially as it pertains to entertainment yet occasionally kicks back by engaging in some egregiously racist and sexist depictions of women of color that television has to offer. Nor do I always feign to do so in the name of conducting in-depth socio-political deconstruction. Of course I do that, but I’d be lying if I said that this was always my primary intention for tuning in. At my most conscientious, I often sought the kick of chopping up the drama with my tweethearts - equally if not more politically interested, astute and engaged sisters than me — as if we were just another high school clique (the honor students natch) side-eying the antics of  Evelyn, Jennifer and Shaunie’s mean girls across the cafeteria. We would tweet snark, psychoanalysis and, yes, sociopolitical commentary all hour long, using the trashy melodrama to inspire the fullest expression of our personalities one-hundred characters at a time. 

But when I was at what I can now accept was a period of mild depression, watching Basketball Wives and shows like it had morphed into a necessary and isolated activity. The compulsion became something far more insidious than an escape from life’s unfulfilled yearnings despite my constant striving according to rules that seemed only to apply to me. I was medicating myself... except that watching the show didn’t make me feel better. On the contrary, it gave me nightmares of getting into catfights with friends and strangers alike. Sometimes I even told myself that indulging Basketball Wives was a practice in gratitude albeit an admittedly high-minded one. At least I have real friends, I would judge from my recliner.  Thank God, I come from a good family.  I’d rather be single than be treated like that. 
Then I got the mother of all wakeup calls. “The smaller lump is nothing as we thought, but the one that you found is invasive ductal carcinoma… cancer.” And suddenly there was no more time for Basketball Wives and such bullshit. While the show went off the rails, I corrected course on a long neglected healing mission. I completed a liver detox and went on what I jokingly call a black supremacist diet (“If it’s white, it ain’t right.”) I quit telling myself that if I didn’t have at least an hour to spare, it wasn’t worth going to the gym and stayed consistent with an exercise regime of at least a half-hour of movement almost every day, and the thirty-plus pounds that had crept on me began to melt. Not only did I reinstitute my morning practice of inspirational reading, meditation and journaling, I finally achieved Reiki Level I, something that had been on my life list for almost a decade. And that is the just the beginning. 

And as I returned to steady self-care and enjoyed the results physically, emotionally and spiritually, I found that not only did I not have time for Basketball Wives, I didn’t miss those chicks not one bit. Since I wasn’t checking for them, it’s only now that I’m realizing how ugly the behavior on the show has become, and it was pretty bad when I was watching it. The tendency to go overboard was always there, no doubt, especially knowing what I do about how a reality TV show is no less concocted than a narrative series. The only difference is that the scripting takes place on the set and in the editing room. So why am I so disgusted now by the depths sunken to by a show I always knew was ratchet and no longer watch? Clearly, as the always problematic Basketball Wives "went left" (as cast member Tami Roman says ad nauseum) with its excessive violence and vulgarity, I had become and therefore came to the news a different person. 

And that begged the question just who was I when I was indulging the show so religiously? Or perhaps more accurately and fairly, which facet of my humanly contradictory being found the show so compelling? What was it feeding to that self?

Could it be possible that Basketball Waves spoke to a baser part of my nature that had not found a safe place for exploration or a healthier form of expression anywhere else? Looking back now on how watching the show made me feel before I embarked on my cancer journey, I can see how as much as I criticized them, I still wanted to be more like Ev and Tami. Not sleeping with ballers, being on TV or stacking weaves and implants (yes, I’ll eventually be undergoing reconstructive surgery, but trust that I would much rather breast cancer had missed me if that was the only way off the Itty Bitty Titty Committee.) Deep down I hungered to be that unapologetically self-centered. That ambitious. That entitled to and uninhibited in expressing my rage.  

The problem is that the things that make me want to behave outrageously are much bigger than she-said-Susie-said. Rape “humor” makes me want to throw wine bottles. I want to run barefoot across conference tables when colleagues make racist jokes.  I’d leave so many dead fish in the cars of men that harass me as I walk down the street, you’d think my name was Jesus. 

But as a socially conscious person, spiritual seeker and, you know, mature adult, that kind of behavior is not supposed to be available to me. I’m too painfully aware that if I were to indulge these impulses, the likely target of my fury would be someone who looks like me just as in Basketball Wives. Look to none other than Tami Roman who has revealed on the show and in follow up interviews the amount of abuse and violence she has survived. Being close in age to Evelyn Lozada and having grown up a stone’s throw away from her in the Bronx, I would bet that she has experienced similar traumas.  But if 14 year old Amber Cole can become the target of malicious vivisection when she most needed sympathy and consolation, how much compassion do you think these women have ever experienced in the aftermath of their woundings whatever they may be? And I don’t know if other women were ever the perpetrators of these transgressions, but I understand intimately that it’s very hard to resist the constant message that you courted and deserved your mistreatment and too easy to lash out the nearest approximation of yourself. The one who seems the most like you, the one whose eyes mirror your own pain and indignation, the one who could be your best healing agent like a blast of cool air in claustrophobic heat is the one you immediately label enemy and set out to vanquish.

If you are a woman of conscience, however,  you make efforts to restrain, reflect and resist, sometimes to our own detriment.  How many times have I checked myself while someone - most likely a sister — has wanted to jump bad with me on the subway over trivia.  I will politick and spiritualize myself out of throwing my hands up even as she comes for me. I don’t think there is a progressive woman of color who hasn’t been in the same situation and later said herself, “I'm reminding myself that somebody has probably hurt her when homegirl didn't thinking twice about hurting me.” It's a scary thought that douses our anger with fear. Where has our instinct for self-preservation gone and what will become of us if we do not recover it? 

Despair builds upon acrimony, and no amount of socio-political understanding of internalized oppression diffuses it. Something must be done with these feelings. Something acceptable. And lots of self-destructive shit is acceptable.  I chose to suppress my ugly feelings with unhealthy food or project them onto someone on TV. Usually I did both at the same time. 

Yet I would watch Basketball Wives, telling myself that I was so much better than Ev or Tami because I know how to act, perhaps all along wishing I could bring wreck with no consequences except maybe a legion of fans who will respect how real I keeps it, a pseudo-celebrity boyfriend, and maybe even my own TV show. But that doesn’t happen in the real world (no pun intended) to sisters who play by the rules never mind those who elect to live down to the stereotypes. No wonder the more heinous the cast of Basketball Wives behaved, the more cathartic it became to my wounded and furious psyche. As with all addictive substances, however, the medicinal effect is short-lived yet the toxicity lingers. Just like an undetected cancer, it feeds on its host and others around her.  

As I discover and practice healthier ways to explore, accept and express my darker emotions, it becomes easier to walk my talk not only as a cultural activist practicing and promoting media literacy but also an evolving spiritual being committed to limiting my ingestion of toxins. That said, I know that I am still far from impervious to the highly addictive drug that is reality TV.  After all, the original toxins — oppression in all its forms — endure unmitigated. But just as the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, the very reasons why Basketball Wives appeals to me are the same reasons it is imperative that I tune it out. 


Carolyn said...

Great post. So many people justify and excuse shows like "Basketball Wives" and "Love and Hip Hop" as entertainment. You show it's much deeper than that.

jaz said...

YES! Thank you so much for this discussion of the complexity we feel watching these shows. It's true that once I stopped watching, I didn't miss it and finally realized how much anxiety it was giving me. But it was part of that online camaradarie that kept me watching. Well said, sis, thank you!