A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day

This year, VH1 kicked off the month of February by bringing back 14 Days of Love, a marathon of love-themed series and movies from the first of the month through Valentine’s Day. If you’re anything like me, you were most excited about the return of the iconic shows Flavor of Love and I Love New York.

Flavor of Love first came on when I was in middle school. I was captivated from start of this show to the end of the spin-off, Tiffany “New York” Pollard’s, I Love New York. I wasn’t alone, as many of my peers were enthralled as well. I remember my mother would shake her head whenever she found me glued to the television screen.

However, after reliving my fucked up adolescence more than a decade later, I started to recall the problematic themes one of my professors pointed out in college. I also started to recognize how poorly the shows aged, and I’m not just talking about the production value. As I’m entering my quarter-life crisis, I’m beginning to understand why my black parents had such an issue with me watching shows like this.

When I was 12 or 13, I was about as aware of the problematic nature of the tropes featured in the show as a fish would be regarding being in water.

When Saaphyri knocked out another girl for stealing her bed, I saw the angry black woman trope, but I didn’t understand why exactly it was bad. Although Buckeey pushing Krazy near a balcony made me jump a little, I didn’t see anything problematic about the framing. I didn’t see what the big deal was with making fun of Smiley, Nibblz, and Toastee for their past in the sex industry. “They’re whores. Why shouldn’t we?” I’d think to myself. When Hoopz complained that she looked like RuPaul, I didn’t blink. When the women said New York looked like a drag queen during the reunion special, I didn’t think twice.

When I Love New York aired, I didn’t see anything wrong with New York’s mother, Sister Patterson, questioning the sexuality of her suitors. “She’s annoying, but she’s looking out for her daughter.” I thought the concept of Midget Mac, a little person, being featured on the show, was hysterical. When Frank “The Entertainer” Maresca’s mother and Sister Patterson got into a heated exchange, Mrs. Maresca called Sister Patterson a transvestite. I didn’t give it much thought. When “Tailor Made” was putting on a Korean facemask, David “Punk” Ortega questioned his masculinity. I agreed.

In the mid-2000s, these women were making jokes about “trannies” and drag queens. Since then, RuPaul’s Drag Race brought drag queens to the mainstream, and brought about a cultural revolution.Today, we’re also beginning to become more understanding of the trans community.

Although “Midget Mac” was a name Torrey Samuels  gave himself, there is something oddly antiquated about referring to people with dwarfism as a midget, and I found myself cringing as the cast seemed to find comedy in everything he did, purely because he was a little person. I cringed even more at both New York and Sister Patterson’s reaction to seeing him for the first time, and retroactively, knowing he was likely cast because of his condition. They thought it was hilarious.

There were a few themes in which men would flex their masculinity and question that of their competitors as well as their sexuality. It’s hard to really say if their has been a cultural revolution in this regard, but the themes still aged poorly. If I found out if my mother was asking my boyfriend if he was gay, I’d never speak to her again, as it’s none of her business to ask such an inappropriate question.Tailor Made, who ultimately won, was mocked for his skincare routine. I’m not sure what men did to their face once their acne cleared up, but the idea of a skincare regime isn’t unmanly, it’s just as important was brushing your teeth in the morning.

When “Smiley” and “Nibblz” were revealed to be strippers, I didn’t think of them as women who were trying to get by like anyone else. When it was revealed that Toastee had done porn, I thought she was icky and shameful. I never really thought of strippers or adult film stars as anything until reality television, and its likely the fault of Flavor of Love for conditioning me, and reinforcing others, to see such lifestyle choices as vile, but going on a reality show where most of the challenges involve showing off your curves and dancing provocatively is not only okay, but encouraged.

When it came to Saaphyri and Buckeey, both attacking some of the few white women in the house, I didn’t see it the way Mo’nique did a couple years later. When she hosted Charm School, I understood you shouldn’t hit people, but what did some girl on TV have to do with me?

Media critics and feminists have long criticized the franchise for its portrayal of black women as hypersexual, loud, and melodramatic. I didn’t realize it then, but this show was priming my white classmates to wonder why I was I didn’t have a big butt, why I didn’t didn’t have a thong peeking out the top of my jeans, why I didn’t talk in class unless I was spoken to, and why I rolled my eyes at any girl who wanted to start a fight.

People at my school would tell me I “talked white.” But I now understand where such an idea came from. Because I wasn’t the loud black girl in class snapping her neck and waving her finger in someone’s face or being practically aggressive, there was something about me that wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t acting like New York or Bootz. I was acting like--to white people– a little white girl.

Could Flavor of Love and I Love New York run on television in its current form today? No.

Are they problematic? Yes.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re becoming too “PC” (I’m looking at you Bill Fucking Maher), it means that times are changing, and the way we represent black men and black women are starting to catch up, as they should.

And despite the racist, sexist, transphobic and homophobic nature of Flavor of Love and I Love New York there was something about the show that was still so addictive, and I hope that its seasonal revival will make media and culture critics remind everyone of how far we’ve come in terms of representation in the media.

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