And Still More Drama!: A Comparison of the Portrayals of African-American Women and African-American Men on BET's College Hill

Article excerpt

The Historically Black College or University (HBCU) is one of the most important institutions in African-American history (Williams, Ashley, & Rhea, 2004). For instance, they allow African-American students the opportunity to develop a sense of community responsibility while learning about their own culture. In addition, they provide a nurturing environment for students of various ages and races/ethnicities to further develop their sense of self. For African-Americans who have not experienced life in a HBCU, the media are one avenue for acquiring information about this institution. Researchers state that the media can provide audiences with knowledge on unfamiliar issues in general (Brown, 1980; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002). Both scholars and viewers argued that the show utilized common stereotypes of African Americans to construct the narrative of the series (e.g., Dix, Gibbs, & Bannister, 2004; Leger, 2007; Native Son, 2007). Further, Parrott-Sheffer's (2008) textual analysis critiqued the show for presenting unrealistic and contrived narratives. He also implied the show relies heavily on gendered stereotypes of African Americans.

There has yet to be an analysis that produces quantitative data which allows for in-depth exploration of African-American stereotypes presented by a program that focuses particularly on HBCUs. Therefore, this study utilizes content analysis to thoroughly examine the gendered nature of traits and appearances of the cast members on College Hill (CH), as informed by literature regarding African-American stereotypes. This study is important because it can provide empirical evidence to support or negate critiques of the program, many of which centered on the portrayals of the African-American cast members.

Literature Review

RTV and African-American Stereotyping

Within the past decade, reality television (RTV) has recently become the most popular form of entertainment on the medium (Orbe, 2008). For example, the Nielsen Ratings for the week of November 26, 2012, revealed that the results show of ABC's reality show Dancing with the Stars received more viewers than some scripted series, such CBS' The Big Bang Theory and its network mate NCIS: Los Angeles (Nielsen, 2012). Because RTV is often valued very little in comparison to fictional narratives (Geiser-Gertz, 1995) and other TV programs, Pozner (2010) kindly refers to the genre as "guilty pleasure TV,"; Dehnart calls it "bastardized" (n.d., para. 1) television.

Despite the desire of many to ignore RTV, Orbe (2008) points out that RTV often includes several minority cast members. Whereas selecting diverse cast members helps to increase the drama in these reality situations (e.g., The Real World; Bell-Jordan, 2008), they also allow people of color to participate in the construction of their own identities. However, just how much agency these cast members have in creating their identities is debatable, especially because RTV, like other genres, relies on racial stereotypes to help audiences understand events and cast members' motivations. Orbe (1998) suggests that RTV actually helps to reinforce stereotypes rather than challenge them (Orbe, 1998; Orbe & Hopson, 2002).

BET and African-American "Reality "

BET: For Blacks or for entertainment? According to the corporate factsheet found on the public relations website for the BET Networks (n.d.), "BET Networks, a division of Viacom Inc.... reaches more than 89 million ... households ... and can be seen in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean" (para. 1). Robert Johnson sold BET to Viacom, Incorporated for $3 billion in 2000. It has become one of media's hottest commodities because of Johnson's unwavering focus on profits, in spite of what other members of the African-American community might have had in mind for the network. The fact that often "raunchy" (Pulley, p. 122) programming such as video shows and stand-up comedy shows carried low production costs but attracted a large number of viewers influenced Johnson's decision to maintain--and increase--BET's focus on entertainment over the years. …