A new study of reality television suggests that much-derided genre falls on the negative side of the scale. It finds that, to a surprising degree, it relies on the stereotypes of the aggressively angry African American.
A comprehensive look at one week's work of popular reality shows found black contestants were "depicted as more verbally aggressive, and more likely to be the victims of verbal aggression, than other races/ethnicities," write Jack Glascock of Illinois State University and independent scholar Catherine Preston-Schreck.
This is driven by the fact that "African-American women were more likely than men to be involved in verbal aggression, both as aggressor and victim," they add.
The study, published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, examined "a composite week of the most popular prime-time broadcast and cable reality TV shows" at the beginning of the 2013–14 season. The researchers examined a single episode of 42 different shows, including The Amazing Race, Shark Tank, Project Runway, Duck Dynasty, Undercover Boss, and Top Chef.
They noted the gender and ethnicity of each character with a speaking part, as well as each incident of "verbal aggression." This included swearing, sarcasm, threats, mocking, ridiculing, "yelling or shouting," and "attacks on competence, character, background, and appearance."
Not surprisingly, they found huge differences between shows; one program, Little Couple, had no verbal aggression at all, but another, Black Ink Crew, featured 97 such interactions in an hour-long episode. On average, the shows contained 19 verbally aggressive acts per hour, which is "comparable to that found for other genres of TV programming."
"Six shows—all docu-soaps—had primarily African-American casts, and contained 47.7 percent of all African-American characters in the sample," the researchers write. "These six shows portrayed significantly more verbal aggressiveness than all the other shows in the sample," including the other shows that followed soap-opera-like formulas.
This was largely due to the fact that black women were portrayed as verbally nastier than their white counterparts. White males were more likely than white females to engage in verbal aggression, but the opposite was true for black contestants.
As writer and activist Franchesca Ramsey has noted, the "sassy black woman" known for her aggressive behavior is a pervasive and demeaning stereotype. This research suggests reality television is one reason it refuses to die.