But this time, VH1 has awakened a sleeping giant – namely black Americans who are livid that the network’s newest show has dragged black Greek letter organizations into the miry world of reality TV.
After years of quiet disapproval about reality television’s depiction of black people — and black women in particular– “Sorority Sisters” has managed to bring a simmering anger to a full boil.
“We’ve always been angry,” said Robin Caldwell, who has helped organize the effort to boycott the show’s advertisers. “This is just like the straw the broke the camel’s back.”
The show follows the lives of nine women who are members of the four sororities that comprise the “Divine Nine” black Greek organizations: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho.
Most of them were founded by black college students at the turn of the 20th century, when they were an elite minority among minorities. For that reason, history of black Greek life is intrinsically tied to the fight for civil and human rights. As any member of those organizations will eagerly tell you, Martin Luther King Jr. was a member of the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, and Ruby Dee was a member of Delta Sigma Theta, and Zora Neale Hurston was a member of Zeta Phi Beta. The list goes on and on.
So when VH1 decided to apply its tried-and-true formula to take viewers inside the world of black sororities, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative.
Critics of the show say “Sorority Sisters” couldn’t come at a worse time, with black Americans fighting to draw attention to racial biases and inequities through the “black lives matter” protests sparked by the deaths of several black men in confrontations with white police officers.
Even the breakout star of “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” – a VH1 show that perfected the art of raunchy reality television — panned network’s decision to air black America’s dirty laundry.
“I am a Delta, I have acted a fool on TV; but at the same time, I didn’t do it with a Delta Sigma Theta tatted on my back in front of people,” singer K. Michelle said during a radio appearance last week. “You don’t get on TV in the name of women that came before us and do what you are doing.
“Especially at a time when our black community is struggling so much with things, the sororities and fraternities are the one thing we look to in college that uplift the community.”
K. Michelle is probably the last person critics of “Sorority Sisters” thought they could count on as an ally in this fight, but her comments highlight the biggest grievance against the show, which began airing last week and returns for a second episode on Monday night.
“Sorority Sisters” follows the women years after their stints in school and appears to use their organizational affiliations as a means of separating them into warring social groups. There has been little mention so far of the sororities’ significance and place in the history of the American civil rights movement.
“I think it’s really bothering people because in 2014 nobody knows limits anymore,” said Reynoir Lewis, a Alpha Phi Alpha member who started a petition calling on VH1 to drop the show when the first promotional footage appeared online over the summer. “We don’t have a feeling to say, ‘Hey we can’t go past this level of debauchery.’
“If you’ve never seen a sorority in action and you’ve never seen a fraternity in action and ‘Sorority Sisters’ is the first time you’re looking into the world of black sororities, it’s just a complete misrepresentation.”
Of course, no conversation about “Sorority Sisters” can take place without mentioning its antecedent (and VH1 lead-in) “Love & Hip Hop,” which follows the lives of hip-hop entertainers and their partners.
Similarly, no one can seem to talk about “Sorority Sisters” without also mentioning controversial Haitian American television executive Mona Scott-Young, who created “Love & Hip Hop” and, according to VH1, was a consultant on “Sorority Sisters.”
Scott-Young has become one of very few black women in the top echelons of television production. But her name has become synonymous with a particularly sordid strain of reality TV.
While she isn’t billed as a top producer on “Sorority Sisters,” everyone seems to hold Scott-Young responsible for how the show depicts black women.
“Mona, I’m not holding you independently responsible for the muck that is America at present,” one blogger wrote recently. “I am holding you responsible for the subpar depictions of young black women on television.”
Scott-Young hasn’t spoken out publicly about “Sorority Sisters.” But in the past, she has been a vocal defender of what her critics call “ratchet” reality television.
“I’m fine with it,” Scott said in 2013 when asked about the depictions of black women on her shows. “I sleep good at night.”
Scott-Young made a name for herself by managing the images of hip-hop stars such as Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes. Her shows seem to be an extension of that expertise: They feature fame-hungry characters who give the reality audience the drama it craves in exchange airtime on a prominent television platform.
“Do I try to provide [cast members] with a platform to help, you know, promote, leverage, take them to where they’re trying to go? Absolutely,” Scott-Young said in that same 2013 radio interview. “Do I always agree or subscribe to the way they choose to get here? No. But again, I’m not here to pass judgment.”
That hasn’t stopped her critics from doing just that.
“I think that this outrage should be towards all the shows on VH1 that are portraying black women in a negative light,” Tierra Clemmons, a 2012 college graduate and member of Zeta Phi Beta, told The Post in an interview. “We see this so much that it’s become normal.”
In the past, Clemmons said, some black Americans quietly expressed disappointment with VH1’s lineup, but it never led to organized opposition.
This time, VH1 hit closer to home.
“I’m just happy that people are getting mad in general,” she said. “If this is what it takes for people to see that we don’t need anything like this on TV, that’s fine.”
In a statement to The Post, VH1 said it stands by the show.
“There are currently no plans to change the series and it seems to be connecting with its audience,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “During its premiere – the episode was seen by 1.3 million and was the #1 non-sports cable program in the time period among Women 18-49.”
“Love & Hip Hop,” which comes on before it, was the top-rated non-sports cable program last Monday.
With the second episode of “Sorority Sisters” airing Monday, activists have turned their attention to discouraging rubber-necking, which could inadvertently result in higher ratings. And they have continued to put the full force of “black Twitter” behind the effort to pressure advertisers to pull out.
“Any time I see black women using their voices to degrade or demean other black women — the worst case scenario is the physical violence — to me that’s an extension of ‘black lives matter,'” said Caldwell, a member of Sigma Gamma Rho. “I don’t want us to be depicted that way. I don’t want to sanitize our image but I want it to be full bodied and multidimensional. There’s a historical context that’s been overlooked here.”