Wives' Tales: Women Beat Holy Hell Out of Race, Gender Issues on VH1 Reality Shows

Categories: TV
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VH1

VH1, once known for playing "lite rock" hits that MTV would never deign to air, has become the undisputed champion of sensationalistic reality programming. The channel's lineup features many a woman breaking wine glasses across another's tightened face and having her personal parts digitally blurred during brawls. This demonstrates 1) apparently women cannot meet for drinks at a local watering hole without physically attacking someone and 2) tube dresses really limit one's range of motion during fisticuffs. Despite how clearly problematic these tropes around violence, profanity, and gender are, I can't help but join the other loyal viewers who tune in each week for these various schadenfreude extravaganzas.

The show that has epitomized lady violence and general verbal abuse is Mob Wives, which kicked off its second season on New Year's Day and airs Mondays at 8 p.m.. 

What better way to ring in 2012 than checking in with the pugilistic Staten Island (ex-)wives and daughters of incarcerated Italian Americans with mob ties? Especially when Basketball Wives is on hiatus?

The show, like other iterations of the "wives of so-and-so" genre, focuses on the dramatic interactions between its cast members with mafia life as a secondary device to nudge the narrative along. (Loved ones go to prison, get out of prison, make phone calls from prison.) Included in the cast are Karen Gravano and Renee Graziano (daughters of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and Anthony Graziano), Drita D'Avanzo (wife of bank robber Lee D'Avanzo) and Carla Facciolo (ex-wife of inside trader Joseph Ferragamo). The ladies' criticism of "rats" and of federal raids on mobsters (rather than the criminal acts that prompt such arrests) is juxtaposed with the embattled state these women and their children live in as a result of their mafia connections. It certainly seems like a conflicting existence -- to be the "straight" one in a couple or family, to love and go to bat for someone who commits crimes, crimes that happen to make these women's lifestyles possible. And perhaps such conflict spurs the cast members to excoriate each other with obscenities and knuckle up in nearly every episode.

And while Mob Wives certainly isn't without its critics (such as the city of Staten Island, Italian American groups, and even mob associates themselves), there's a certain privilege these women have as white middle-class Americans as compared with their nonwhite counterparts in similar VH1 programming. The aforementioned Basketball Wives series features a predominantly African American female cast, ex-loves of former and current NBA players who are all African American. Fights and oft-bleeped diatribes are also motifs on the show, but the cast members have faced significant heat for purportedly portraying black women negatively.

The backlash -- including a letter penned by Ebony.com pop culture editor Geneva S. Thomas, who called the show "damaging, sloppy, and humiliating to watch" -- prompted cast member and producer Shaunie O'Neal (ex-wife of Shaquille) to defend the show on CNN.com while simultaneously acknowledging that reality TV often vilifies black women. It was a bit of a tenuous argument in which O'Neal considered her show to demystify the supposedly glamorous lives of athletes and their significant others and also to present the ladies as more than just the combatants in an hour-long chick fight each week. I say it's tenuous because the appeal for many viewers lies in that very conflict, more so than the nuances of each cast member's personality and life story.

The argument got even more turbid when the cast took to the VH1 blog to argue that children and young people shouldn't be looking to them and other reality TV shows for role models, a bit of self-admission that their behavior is less than admirable. These women face an issue of racial and gender representation that is, categorically, a hot mess.

Another one is that the ladies of Mob Wives are privileged enough to not have to sweat. In response to Staten Island's condemnation of the show based on the cast's actions on the air, Renee Graziano simply said: "I'm not so concerned about this being a negative thing for Staten Island. ... If we did this somewhere else, it would be a negative somewhere else."

Bada bing, bada boom.

There's no onerous sense of responsibility for the Mob Wives to dispel stereotypes of Italian Americans or even Staten Islanders. Much like the water that rolled of the overly tanned backs of the Jersey Shore cast, the ladies of Mob Wives don't feel the pressure of cultural representation as their African American counterparts do. Imagine if the two shows swapped casts. A series that follows the black wives who scream and scrap while they talk about their imprisoned black male relatives who have killed and robbed -- try getting that one greenlit.

Yet the casts have the same flashy wardrobe, curse-laden vocabulary, and fight choreography in nearly identical narrative structures. The decidedly more benign show (wives of ballers versus criminals, that is) has to bear the burden of representation for African Americans who have been constructed over time to match various race-based generalizations. And while Italian Americans have consistently tried to distinguish the many facets of Italian culture from the archetypes shown in mafia movies and certain fist-pumping reality shows, the privilege of whiteness still allows a mafioso's daughter a chance to gain stardom by being profane and violent at a much lower price than an African American ex of a professional point guard using the same schtick.

Mob Wives airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on VH1. Season 4 of Basketball Wives premieres in February, also on VH1.

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