There’s been a lot of criticism that Lifetime’s new reality series Girlfriend Intervention is racist. And it is, starting with the show’s intro sequence boasting that, “Trapped inside every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out” and throughout every “sista,” and “mhm” sprinkled into every group conversation to portray the four stars — Tracy, Nikki, Tiffiny, and Tanisha — as “sassy black women” setting out to make over “basic (white) women.” It’s a kind of racially-tinged version of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. As noted in a critical Flavorwire article, a lot of statements begin with “as a black woman” or “white women do xyz,” perpetuating us/them rhetoric and simplified representations of white and black people.
But buried under all of that, the show actually has one positive quality: It takes the trope of reality TV makeover show and brings to it four leading women reclaiming standards of beauty on their own terms.
Girlfriend Intervention is body positive. Tracy, Nikki, Tiffiny, and Tanisha define beauty in their own words, and try to pass that onto the people they’re making over. That is a big departure from the regular makeover script of a show like What Not to Wear — in which tall, thin Stacy London and Ken-esque Clinton give women with frumpy styles a head-to-toe makeover meant to ‘downplay’ the faults in their bodies. The sad victims on Girlfriend Intervention, meanwhile, are transformed by four women with varied body types. And told that those body types are okay.
In each episode, the basic woman saunters down the Catwalk of Shame while the four experts critique her clothing. In the pilot, it’s Joanie, a former Flygirl dancer who’s lost her “sexy.” In the second episode, it’s Emily, a young mom and wife who never had a chance to fully develop her own sense of style as an adult. After the victim is told exactly what’s un-sexy about her, the four leading ladies jump into their roles as fashion and lifestyle experts. Tiffiny is in charge of purchasing new outfits (the “Rack Attack”), Tanisha chooses an activity, like recording a rap song, to inspire confidence in the woman of the week. Tracy is responsible for the physical transformation, which consists of a new hair style and makeup regimen. Nikki redesigns a room in the “basic” woman’s home, making sure to include a lot of color (because black women really like bright colors, apparently). With the help of the black sisterhood, the “basic” woman becomes less basic: She’s confident, magically develops a personality, and is super grateful. She struts her new look down the catwalk, while family and friends cheer. The show is a combination of What Not To Wear, America’s Next Top Model, and Project Runway. But it does something none of those shows do by giving black women a chance to own their curves and take pride in their bodies.
Girlfriend Intervention does rely on an oversimplified take on body image. Pilot Viruet of Flavorwire hit the nail on the head with her assessment that the show also relies on sweeping generalizations about black women’s body image vs. white women’s body image. “According to the show, white women are ‘nervous and scared’ if they are not a size two,” Viruet writes. “Black women are always confident — ‘as a black woman, we definitely embrace our size for what it is’ — and don’t have body-image issues. As a black woman, I can assure you that’s false.”
Yet this show has given the four women a platform to talk about bodies, and many black bodies in particular, without mainstream pop culture analyzing them or validating them. At the very least, these women have a platform in which they can discuss black bodies in a public way. They feel glamorous in their clothes, and take pride in their bodies. And they are the ones telling white women that curves are beautiful. For instance, since Joanie is a former dancer who hides her body in unflattering mumus, Tanisha takes her salsa dancing so that she can “embrace her curves, shake those hips, and get her sexy back.”
One thing I particularly love is that the show offers a counter-narrative to recent claims that butts are a hip, new commodity. Vogue would have us believe that we’re in the “Era of the Big Booty,” thanks to celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, and Nicki Minaj. At least the magazine credited black women for the heightened visibility of curvy girls, unlike Vanity Fair, which applauded Instagram sensation Jen Selter for making butts cool. But this show flips the script by allowing black women to say “yes, we have curves and have had them before society said they are ok.” It’s putting the power in the hands of women of color and giving them the credit, letting them hold the reins. As Tiffiny says in the pilot, “Just like race, your dress size is not indicative of your self worth. It’s just a number, a characteristic of you. It’s not everything that you are.”
More than anything else, the show is interesting because it speaks to the common disconnect between race and gender issues. So many times, pop culture — and society in general — calls on us to empower women without acknowledging the connection of women’s issues and race. Last year, Mikki Kendall started the #solidarityisforwhitewomen Twitter trend, which spoke to the division between women of color and mainstream white feminists. Her argument, one that trended worldwide, was that mainstream feminists ignore marginalized women and the intersectionality of women’s issues, race, class, and other structural norms.
Girlfriend Intervention — in a deeply flawed way — puts a spotlight on that schism, reifying racial stereotypes while touting women’s empowerment. It’s problematic because of that, drawing deeper dividing lines between races while telling women they need to change. But if a show like this is going to air whether we love or hate it, we may as well find the upside. And Girlfriend Intervention reshapes the way we think of body representation.