How Reality Court Shows Exploit Black Communities

As I got ready for school, dramatic TV-court shows like Paternity Court and Divorce Court, or “chat” shows like Maury served as background noise. Yet, these shows display and, quite frankly, exploit problems that are anything but in the background of Black communities. As I watch the shows for the dramatism that makes them entertaining, I can’t help but notice stereotypical and damaging portrayals of Black women, Black love, and Black family structures. 

Divorce Court, a 36 season TV-series dating back to 1975, claims to deliver “powerful human drama, suspense and a resolution – making for a compelling 30 minutes of television.” Yet, it accomplishes this mission while profiting off the damaged relationships and dangerous dependence (financial and/or romantic) between couples, especially among young Black ones.

In the episode Coleman vs. Wyatt, Laquia and Joseph had been together for 14 years and married for 7. Laquia opens with, “I’m here today because my husband is a cheater and a pathological liar. I kicked him out of the house because of all the lying, all the cheating. I see myself spending all the rest of my life with him, if he changes. But, I don’t think that that’s gonna happen.” She continues to explain how he often leaves home for prolonged segments of time, even when she desperately needs him. When she called him in need of comfort and aid during a miscarriage, he stayed at the bar and didnt help her, because “he was not a doctor, he can’t stop it” and told her to handle it. Joseph blames his actions on her jealousy and suspicious relations. He also claims that her assumptions about him cheating due to his past actions are making their relationship weak.

Though the couple is separated to divorce, Laquia still says that love is keeping her from fully leaving. And evidently, they’ve come on Divorce Court in hopes to redeem this relationship. Judge Lynn Toler ultimately told them she has faith in the restoration of this relationship. Yet, how with these obvious signs of infidelity, insecurity, toxic dependence and physical assault? Joseph gaslights Laquia for her distrust and anger even though he gave her reason not to trust him. While he is the root of her insecurity, he bashes her for being the very person he caused her to be. This is unsurprising though, as gaslighting is a common manipulative force in most damaged relationships. Conversely, this insecurity led to both physical and verbal violence from Laquia toward Joseph, heightening the danger of this union. Nevertheless, there is a dependence and hope from both parties in the relationship, speaking to lack of self worth and incapability to leave abusive relations. There is a clear lack of respect and anger that is confused for passion. The normalization of abusive relationships in the media especially, can make it hard to even recognize that a relationship is so. The longevity of this relationship, also perpetuates the “ride-or-die” belief.” 

Still, none of this was discussed on Divorce Court. Judge Lynn Toler encouraged this behavior, in a household of children who will have to grow in this toxic environment. I suppose she doesn’t always have to think about the children, which is why there is a Paternity Court.

Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court, a court-show currently in it’s 7th season, states that “these emotional cases can have life-changing consequences for participants and sometimes new beginnings for individuals. While most suits relate to a child’s paternity — including deadbeat dads and DNA-test determinations — others involve things like grandparents fighting for visitation rights.” Sure, this court does deliver paternity truths that change configurations and doubts within families. However, it exploits the instability of Black households (majority of the features on the show), an issue that stems from slavery. The show often features single mothers who also grew up with absent fathers.

In the episode “Jones v. Fowler,” Iesha Jones grew up without her father, and wanted to end the cycle by making sure the supposed father Jonathan Fowler was in her son, Adonis’s, life. She says that Jonathan is not present in Adonis or their other child’s life, and that he is only around for sex when he is drunk. She proceeds to say that she loves him and wants to be a family, to which he responds “I don’t love her. I don’t wanna be in a relationship with her.” They had been sexually active for the window of conception, yet he doubts paternity because he thinks she slept and conceived a child with her ex-boyfriend. Iesha says that Jonathan disrespects her in front of the boys, which is not surprising if he could do it on national television. At the end of the episode, Jonathan was not Adonis’s father. Iesha claims that this will be what she needs to detach herself from Jonathan, but that seems unlikely with their past history. And now, just as she grew up not knowing her father, her son will have to go through the same experience.

Throughout the episode, Iesha refers back to Jonathan’s statement that he doesn’t love her, and asks “why would you sleep with me if you don’t love me.” Judge Toler redirects the bickering to how it surrounds two innocent children in a toxic household. The judge emphasizes that the two are not good for each other, which triggers Iesha into an emotional cry. Despite her anger and hurt, Jonathan failed to blink an eye. He has managed to use Iesha at his disposal, given that she is clearly emotionally attached and suffering from low self-esteem issues. She doesn’t have the self-love it takes to create boundaries. This dependences on men are psychologically common amongst children who grow up with absent fathers, along with self-esteem issues, depression, becoming sexually active earlier, heighten susceptibility to addiction, and difficulty navigating relationships.

According to Our Everyday Life, boys specifically, like Adonis, who grow up with absent fathers tend to have negative behavior, difficulties bonding, emotional distress and anger. This common trope of absent fathers is not a complete and accurate reality of all Black families. Yet, for those it is, it often finds route in the separation of families during slavery and the fact that Black men weren’t given the chance to be fathers. As Judge Lauren Lake attempts to resolve holes in families due to systems issues bigger than themselves, it does also unfortunately exploit their vulnerability and problems. Yet, we may assess the intent of her and Judge Lynn Toler as Black  women, differently than Maury, a white man, profiting off the same issues.

Maury is a 23 season chat show that features hour long episodes who aim to “tackle volatile issues with his guests and studio audience.” Majority of the guests on Maury are young, troubled Black teenagers. Maury exploits damaged Black family structures through dramatized scenes of stereotypically loud overreactions that ensure high TV-ratings. 

A Complex article writes, “Maury’s eponymous talk show has faced plenty of criticism since it transitioned from serious news topics to tawdry, mean segments that perpetuate racist stereotypes…. The dramatic reading of the DNA results is followed by even more dramatic reactions, which range from tears to screams to breakdancing.” On Maury, a young woman is often defending a case as to why she thinks the defendant is the father. Maury is either sympathetic or laughing at the situation. Then, the alleged father comes out shouting and denying the claim. The crowd makes a prediction through boos and nays, before Maury reads the DNA results. Depending on the results, the people either yell “I told you so,” or run away from embarrassment. 

This show is clearly exploiting the damaging systemic family structures within the Black community. Daily Easter News states, “This show seems to change people. Couples who said they once loved each other end up yelling and cursing at one another to prove a point on TV that they were right…. [It promotes] chaotic behavior. Instead of simply telling these people the truth, Maury and the audience basically pit the couples, or friends or family or whomever, against each other so the final verdict is more entertaining. On top of the sensationalism, the show targets minorities and those of the lower rungs of society for its entertainment.” And why exactly is it that the majority of the features on Maury are Black? And why are we ok with a white man profiting off the pains and trauma within Black families? 

Certainly, all the three mentioned shows profit off the televising of problems from majority Black guests. It is important to recognize that these shows are contributing to the commercialization of Black trauma found within Black love and Black family structures. They often present Black women in a demeaning light that doesn’t allow them sexual liberty, emotional independence or the ability to seek self-love, and that needs to change.

Art credits: Stormy Mae Nesbit, @_stormae on IG

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