BET's Debra Lee seeks to improve black women's images with leadership talks

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bonnie McDaniel refused to let her now 24-year-old daughter watch Black Entertainment Television growing up.

She hated the oversexed, booty-shaking music videos. She thought the programming objectified black women. She would bad-mouth the network with her girlfriends.

This week, the author and entrepreneur joined 130 other successful black women -- influential in politics, entertainment and nonprofits -- at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to talk about portrayals of black women in the media, the problems facing black girls in urban schools, the state of the black family and other weighty issues.

The sponsor of this gathering of African American alpha women: BET.

"I've been invited to many events by BET, but this is the first one I have attended," McDaniel, who lives in Fairfax, said to the cable network's chief executive Debra Lee at one of the event's workshops. "I didn't like a lot of the messages and images that were coming out. But we have the power to change that."

Lee listened and nodded.

The two-day summit -- a first for BET -- was her idea. Lee said it came to her after the BET Awards last year, which included a controversial performance by hip-hop artists Lil Wayne and Drake, who brought underage girls onto the stage to dance while they rapped "I wish I could [expletive] every girl in the world."

The network has long come under fire for its music videos that critics say perpetuate racial stereotypes of African Americans and demean women. In 2008, a group called "Enough Is Enough" protested outside of Lee's home for more than five months.

"I just still feel like, as much as we've tried, it's still a heavily male dominated music genre," Lee said, describing her feeling after the 2009 awards show.

She said her thoughts turned from the show to the scene in Washington, where Lee has mingled with first lady Michelle Obama, presidential senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, domestic policy chief Melody Barnes and other African American women at the center of power. Then, Lee said, she took out her Rolodex of successful black women and phoned Essence's Beauty and Cover Director Mikki Taylor, political commentator Donna Brazile, journalist and author Gwen Ifill, actresses Tatyana Ali and Tasha Smith, and others.

"We are at the start of a new decade and a new opportunity. Our president and first family are shining examples that anything is possible," Lee said. "It's such an exciting time, [and] I said [to myself] how can we get powerful black women together and discuss issues that are important to us?"

The result, "Leading Women Defined," looks like a historically black sorority meeting on steroids. Women with important jobs in Hollywood, in New York and in the White House led portions of the conversation, including starlet Raven-Symoné and children's rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman.

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