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The evil sista of reality television

If you've ever seen a reality TV show, chances are you've seen her: a perpetually perturbed, tooth-sucking, eye-rolling, finger-wagging harpy, creating confrontations in her wake and perceiving racial slights from the flimsiest of provocations.
Alicia Calaway of the Chapera tribe on "Survivor: All-Stars".
Alicia Calaway of the Chapera tribe on "Survivor: All-Stars". Bill Inoshita / CBS
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

If you've ever seen a reality TV show, chances are you've seen her: a perpetually perturbed, tooth-sucking, eye-rolling, finger-wagging harpy, creating confrontations in her wake and perceiving racial slights from the flimsiest of provocations.

At the very sight of her, her cast mates tremble in fear.

And no wonder.

She's the Sista With an Attitude.

She's the one with a boulder on her shoulder, screeching through endless catfights, a sight so pervasive that Africana.com has trademarked the expression The Evil Black Woman to describe these African American denizens of Unreality TV.

The SWA is all sharp edges and raw nerves, an angry, aggressive know-it-all, presenting a one-sided view of black womanhood, the brainchild of some network suit screaming into the speakerphone: Bring me the sassy sista!

The latest entrants in a long and loathsome line of offenders: Alicia Calaway on "Survivor: All-Stars," she of the Finger and the forked tongue. The lithe and lanky Camille McDonald (a Howard University student) on "America's Next Top Model," pilloried on Internet message boards for her "stank attitude." And let us not forget the elegantly icy Omarosa "I'm not here to make friends" Manigault-Stallworth, the star of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" and arguably the most hated woman on television.

They seethe. They sulk. They sneer.

And they've all got their shtick.

Like Alicia, who isn't afraid to stick her Finger in the face of anyone who gets in her way.

'Really angry'
"There's a talent to the Finger," she says in a video profile posted on CBS.Com. "You can't do it without the head and you can't do it without the Finger. It has to be both.

"You've got to be really angry. You know what I mean? You have to be in the moment. So you have to be a little ghetto; you have to have a little rhythm and you have to be mad."

Such disclosures make us pause and ponder the prefab nature of Reality TV, where the participants, grasping for those Warholian nanoseconds of fame, manufacture an Image, the better to garner maximum airtime.

Camille McDonald
Camille McDonald

And so we have stock characters: The small-town naif struggling to hold onto those down-home values -- not to mention his/her virginity. The bumbling bigot who doesn't realize that he's an Archie Bunker in the making. The Troubled Soul who's one step away from rehab. The Vamp/Party Girl who likes to toss back the shots, especially if that means slurping tequila out of someone's navel. And then there's the SWA's male counterpart: The Brother With an Attitude, aka The Angry Black Man. (Though "The Apprentice's" Kwame Jackson, a Harvard MBA, is an easygoing sort whom everybody wants on their team.)

"We know all these shows are edited and manipulated to create images that look real and sort of exist in real time," says Todd Boyd, critical-studies professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television and author of "Young Black Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture." "But really what we have is a construction. . . . The whole enterprise of reality television relies on stereotypes. It relies on common stock, easily identifiable images."

To be fair, not all of the black women populating reality TV come armed with an attitude. Notable exceptions are to be found in Keshia Knight Pulliam and Ananda Lewis on "Celebrity Mole Yucatan," the sweet-natured NFL wives of a few seasons back on "The Amazing Race" and the female half of the lovey-dovey African American couple on "Fear Factor." But more often than not, the one who'll get the airtime, the one who gets invited back in endless reunions of MTV's "Real World" and "Road Rules," is the one who brings the drama.

Regarding Coral ("Real World 10"), the abrasive perennial on countless MTV spinoffs, the network's Web site enthuses that she is known for "stinging one-liners" and "Being a major bee-atch when she feels like it." Perhaps this is why it's Alicia ("Survivor II"), not the even-tempered Vecepia ("Survivor IV"), who is now duking it out with the other Survivor All-Stars. Attitude, it seems, wins every time when it comes to television.

Or, as the singer Kelis observes in an interview on VH1's "TV's Illest Minority Moments Presented by Ego Trip," a documentary about television stereotypes:

"We're known for being like, very -- " she pauses to snap her fingers and roll her neck -- 'Uh-uh. Let me tell you something.' People put us in that category."

The Categories exist because, well, that's entertainment. Says Andy Dehnart, creator of realityblurred.com, a daily compendium of TV's top reality shows: "If you have footage of Alicia sitting around chatting about her favorite foods and if you have footage of her wagging her finger, screaming, it's much more interesting. These shows aren't documentaries."

Visual shorthand
(We were, alas, unable to personally speak with Alicia, since at press time she was officially still in the game and sequestered in whatever place it is reality TV hides people before viewers are privy to their fate.)

Reality TV, Dehnart says, relies on the visual shorthand of recognizable stereotypes. This becomes problematic when there's only a handful of people of color on these shows. An obnoxious white guy can just be the obnoxious guy and not a stand-in for his entire race.

"Race or sex," Dehnart says, "can be a particularly easy target," one that plays off the conscious or unconscious prejudices of the viewer.

Indeed, the SWA feeds off preconceived notions of African American women. After all, she's an archetype as old as D.W. Griffith, first found in the earliest of movies where slave women were depicted as ornery and cantankerous, uppity Negresses who couldn't be trusted to remember their place. Think Hattie McDaniel in "Gone With the Wind," bossing and fussing as she yanked and tugged on Miss Scarlett's corset strings. Or Sapphire Stevens on the much-pilloried "Amos N' Andy," serving up confrontation on a platter, extra-spicy, don't hold the sass. Or Florence, the mouthy maid on "The Jeffersons."

Then there's Whoopi Goldberg on NBC. (And what's with her "Whoopi" co-star, Elizabeth Regan, playing Rita, a white woman who thinks she's black, and sets out to out-Sista the other SWAs?) Or Queen Latifah playing the snippy ex-con schooling a clueless Steve Martin in "Bringin' Down the House." And Comic Wanda Sykes reaming a clueless Larry David in HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Sometimes attitude is looked at with approval if it's all for the greater good: to help hapless white folks become Better People. And sometimes it's used as a way of dismissing a black woman, nay, any woman, who's got a legitimate beef: Shrug and say, "She got an attitude."

'She's fierce!'
Which brings us to Omarosa.

Scott Duncan

She's tall, she's gorgeous, she's a former White House political appointee, she's not shucking and jiving, but she is perpetually on edge. As the NBC publicity people spin it, "She has a PhD" -- actually, she's a doctoral candidate at Howard -- "but she has her real education from the streets. . . . She's fierce! She's feisty!"

And, as is played out in NBC's "The Apprentice," where 16 tycoon wannabes jockey for Donald Trump's favor in various entrepreneurial endeavors, she butts heads with just about everyone on the show, most notably the other women (mostly white, with one Latina and one Asian). She takes racial offense when one of the cast members tells her "that's the pot calling the kettle black." She condescends. She skipped an apartment rehab job because she said a chip of plaster had fallen on her head and she had a headache, while her teammates (including one who'd just found out that her mother had cancer) labored on. And most famously, she tells Trump that her teammate, Heidi, had no class.

"You were rude," The Donald tells her. "You are rude. I've seen it. . . . It was very repulsive to me."

Later, Omarosa and Heidi walk into the suite, having narrowly escaped hearing The Donald's dreaded "You're fired." Everyone rushes to hug Heidi, but no one embraces Omarosa. No one shakes her hand.

Her response?

For just a moment, she looks wounded. And then she rallies. Dons her armor.

"Whatever. I'm still here."

"What you see on the show is a gross misrepresentation of who I am," Manigault-Stallworth writes in an e-mail. "For instance they never show me smiling, it's just not consistent with the negative portrayal of me that they want to present. Last week they portrayed me as lazy and pretending to be hurt to get out of working, when in fact I had a concussion due to my serious injury on the set and spent nearly . . . 10 hours in the emergency room. It's all in the editing!"

Most of the women who complain about her on the show, she says, are now her very good friends. "This show is about ratings," and The Donald pitted her against the other women, she says, because he was "just being dramatic."

"Minorities have historically been portrayed negatively on reality TV," she continues. "These types of show thrive off of portrayals that tap into preconceived stereotypes about minorities (i.e. that we are lazy, dishonest and hostile). Reality Television's 'angry black women' portrayal strikes again! It's really unfortunate!"

Actually, we're secretly rooting for Omarosa, completely intrigued by her I-don't-play-that stance, the deliciousness of her evil ways, much as we were cheering on the Queen Witch Alexis Carrington back in the "Dynasty" days.

Too bad that in television's retro racial landscape, a witch is never just a witch when she comes wrapped in chocolate-brown skin.