Sassy Stereotypes

Lifetime’s ‘Girlfriend Intervention’: The Fairy Black Mothers TV Doesn’t Need

The tagline of Lifetime’s makeover reality show Girlfriend Intervention is that ‘Inside every white woman is a strong black woman waiting to bust out.’ 

I had no idea that I was supposed to be a fairy black mother who fluttered, excuse me, neck rolled into the lives of plain Jane white women, broke them down like improper fractions, and then built them back up by dressing them in all the colors found inside a Lite-Brite container because, as one of the stars of the makeover reality TV show Girlfriend Intervention says, “Black women aren’t afraid of color.”

That’s right, when black women see a neon color late at night, they get their Ray Parker on and go, “I ain’t ‘fraid of no green,” and then smack their lips together three times to teleport to the nearest incense and oil shop. Yes, I’m being flippant here, but it’s not without reason.

The powers that be at Lifetime wanted to get African-Americans to tune into their network since having programming mostly filled with white women in peril tripping over tree branches that the rat from Ratatouille would simply step over was not getting the job done. So the network created a makeover show in the vein of Bravo’s series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

On Girlfriend Intervention, four black women—interior decorator Nikki Chu, fashion guru Tiffiny Dixon, beauty maven Tracy Balan, and soul coach Tanisha Thomas of Bad Girls Club notoriety—travel the country to help clueless white women come alive or as the cringeworthy tag line puts it, “Inside every white woman is a strong black woman waiting to bust out.” And what prey tell is a “strong black woman?”

According to the GI quartet, who speak as though black women are a monolith, in addition to the unafraid of color thing, there’s looking fabulous despite one’s life being in utter shambles, not missing a red carpet event due to lack of confidence after gaining weight, and in regards to Joanie, the former dancer and middle-aged mother wearing frumpy clothing in public, Tiffiny proclaims, “No self-respecting sister would ever be caught hiding.”

Hmm, I can think of one self-respecting sister who would hide. Harriet Tubman. Hiding was kind of her jam. In all seriousness, these absurd bon mots are tossed around by the cast as if they were fact when not only are they fictional, but they do nothing other than reinforce harmful stereotypes that persist today. Ahem, Alessandra Stanley’s ludicrous New York Times article about Shonda Rhimes and being an “angry black woman.”

Just like anyone else, black women are multi-layered, complex, different, and most importantly, they are not relational. They are beings unto themselves and do not merely exist to help white women find themselves, fix their lives and then disappear. Or as I like to call it, The Legend of Bagger Vance effect.

This concept of the Magical Negro who has no wants, needs, desires outside helping a white person grow essentially renders black people as inhuman. And if you’re not human, things such as struggling with self-confidence, being affected by the trials and tribulations of life, and you know, general concerns outside of “looking fabulous” don’t affect you, so then you can carry on taking care of everyone else. Dehumanization like this is dangerous.

The expectation that black women are to always be strong, to always have it together puts an unfair amount of pressure on black women and explains why discussion of mental health and eating disorders remain such a stigma in the black community. But because this show is an equal opportunity offender, white women don’t get a fair shake either.

All of them are plain, boring, unadventurous, and blush when the topic of sex is brought up. If only their inner black woman could come out. You know, the fun, loud, “uh uh” sounding, handbag carrying, eight pounds of weaving wearing, black man dating—actual quote, “I know there’s a hot woman in there because after all, she got a black man!”—superficial black woman. But what about the eloquent, book smart, interesting, quirky, inquisitive black woman, you ask? Boo! Who wants that? Take her to Tavis Smiley and his TV show airing in 380p.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh here. Perhaps if I attempted to do what the Girlfriend Intervention quartet did then I wouldn’t feel the show was racist and ignorant. Well, that’s exactly what The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams and I did this past weekend when we ventured out into New York City, looking for hapless white women who are need of a couple of sassy sisters to help them free their inner black woman.

And guess what? My and Jessica’s original misgivings about the show weren’t wrong. A real life Girlfriend Invention is exactly as ridiculous as it is on the small screen: