The spectacle held in Bad Girls Club’s mass appeal was the promise of anti-Black violence, misogynoir, and the narrative exploitation of women who needed real help.
By Monika Estrella Negra
Bad Girls Club, in which a group of self-proclaimed “Bad Girls” are given the opportunity to hash out their toxic social skills together in a mansion, was a major sensation in the early 2000’s. Now, the controversial reality television show is back in action on Hulu. The original series found acceptance in queer circles and lovers of the mundane. However, it quickly became criticized for its depictions of Black women and women with mental health struggles.
While the framework of the show was advertised as a “reform school for wayward girls,” the premise fell flat in its analysis as to why these young women felt so much despair. “Jobs” and therapists were provided in the various seasons as a means of “curing” the women, but the spectacle held in its mass appeal was the promise of anti-Black violence. After all, the spectacle of violence against Black bodies and the misogynoir of social media go hand in hand when it comes to ratings. Many of the women picked for the show lived with mental illness, addiction, or garnered their reputation of being a “Bad Girl” by living on their own terms and shunning respectability and propriety.
The show has held a cult-like status in my social circle for its petty drama, but one does have to keep in mind the real-life effects of alcoholism, mental health negligence and toxic respectability politics between women. In retrospect, I believe I watched the show because it reminded me of how far I had come in my own healing process, after years of coping with trauma and substance abuse. However, my personal life has never been put on display for others to judge and witness, which is why I felt the need to explore the toxicity of the series now that it has returned.
Bad Girls Club is blatant in its misogynoir and anti-Blackness. The final products seen on television are a microcosm of what the editors and producers want to tell us about these specific people. Therein lies the power of production and editing: they have the power to reinforce harmful stereotypes. They also have the power to twist narratives using footage obtained during the three month period of filming. The women featured are products of their environment — specifically in regards to the non-Black participants. They also lack the power to control their own stories and context behind some of the most vile behaviors ultimately seen on television.
Because the show operates through a narrative crafted by white producers, it’s no surprise that anti-Blackness and racist undertones find their way into the final product. It also proves that the producers were irresponsible and failed to protect these women while they were in vulnerable positions. The houses they were put in always held a bevy of alcohol and the fights that occurred were only broken up if they appeared too violent. The real intention of the show was to create a loose narrative of the relationships filmed for a wide audience. White women’s “badness,” in this case, is predicated on how well they can weaponize Black slang and engage in “questionable” behaviors that remove them from the angelic image attributed to white womanhood. Despite their rebuttal of those cultural expectations, their tendency to espouse racist microaggressions and unbridled privilege persisted.
The lip injections, the boob jobs, the wanton display of wealth and sexuality helped create an atmosphere for non-Black women of color and white women to internalize Black culture and profit off of it. Social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter only amplified the culture vulture aesthetic, making it highly lucrative for media moguls and the like. Perez Hilton, the show’s reunion host until season 7 and a figure who is known to harbor the worst attributes of cis, white, gay male in Blackface, was a nod to the type of audiences the show was largely aimed at.
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In season 7 of Bad Girls Club, we were introduced to a diverse set of women who were placed in a luxurious mansion in New Orleans. This particular season continues to resonate with me because of its racist depictions of “voodoo,” Black spiritual agency, and blatant demonizing of assertive Black women. The house was fairly balanced in regards to ethnicity—the social order being drawn along the lines of class, race and size. As with most of the franchise, the women all took a liking to each other until alcohol broke the uncomfortable truths. Judi, a light-skinned Black woman from Chicago, was the first to break the mold with her drinking and outlandish tactics — which caused her to be public enemy number one. It was clear that Judi had relied on alcohol in order to self-medicate, and instead of getting upset, the other Black women in the house tried to meet her where she was. This is often what happened in the houses, no matter the season. Black women tended to care for one another, whereas non-Black women of color and white women often grouped with each other. While the others dismissed, mimicked, and mocked the Black women of the house, they still managed to utilize and appropriate the slang, mannerisms and the fashions. Tasha and Shelly were the most glaring examples of non-Black women utilizing Black culture while being harmful towards Black people, particularly Black women.
Tasha was the epitome of a non-Black woman of color who perpetuated anti-Blackness within her social circles. A Persian socialite from Miami, Tasha willingly exposed herself as anti-Black in the inaugural episode. Upon meeting Anastasia, Tasha confidently explained that a lot of her friends back in Tuscaloosa were Black and they would probably get along great. Tasha’s proximity to Blackness was expressed solely through her personal taste in men. Throughout the show’s series, she referred to the Black women in the house as “ghetto,” “trashy,” “loud,” “dirty” — dog whistles for the non-Black person who already knows what Black women are considered to be. Shelly, the show’s token lesbian, was a “progressive” white woman who dated another woman serving in the military. On the first night, she was combative with Judi, claiming that Judi was being trashy and classless at a club. From the start, Shelly tried to assert her dominance over the house, while claiming that she was the “mother” figure of the bunch. Not too long after, Shelly performed a racist joke in the limousine and was promptly called out by Judi. Shelly’s response was violent, especially considering the ways she continuously played up her “liberal” identity.
Reality television will never be able to tell the unfiltered stories of Black women. While the experiences are real, the editing complicates the way these women are received by people who have no idea of what their struggle encompasses. The syndication of Bad Girls Club still resonates with so many young women who are just trying to figure it out. For some of the participants, it was an experience that followed them forever and for others, just a consequence of being “young and carefree”. While the “solutions” provided by the producers were offered in the form of “fixing” the women, the larger discussion of how society played a part in their self-sabotaging behaviors was ignored. Could it be that these women—particularly Black women—were reacting to a world that never heard their pleas for help to begin with?
With my own history of destructive anger and self-sabotaging, I can speak to the experience of what happens when the world seems to be against you. Therapy did aid in curbing some of my recklessness but it did not solve the issues of consistent misogynoir and discrimination I faced which caused the inflammatory reactions. Becoming a “productive” citizen by way of getting a “good job” would not eliminate the defense mechanisms I had internalized in order to survive. This is probably why my friends and I found ironic solace in the show, because we knew the advice being given to these women was just as shady as the show’s premise.
Bad Girls Club is simply a reminder of the fallacies of society, especially when it comes to aiding Black women in crisis. Regardless, the Black women of Bad Girls Club leave a lasting impression on other Black women who feel as if they are constantly screaming into the void. In the end, we can only rely on the power of our own narratives to truly be seen. Reality television will never be able to accomplish such an incredible feat.
Monika Estrella Negra is a freelance journalist, filmmaker and curator of all things radical in media. Her first short titled “Flesh” is about a Black femme serial killer navigating the Chicago DIY punk scene (of which was included in the ‘Horror Noire’ syllabus). She has directed three additional shorts, ‘They Will Know You By Your Fruit’, ‘Succubus’, and the in production ‘Bitten, A Tragedy’. A writer, a nomadic priestess, spiritual gangster and all around rabblerouser – Monika has written essays for Syfy Fangrrls, Wear Your Voice Mag, Black Girl Nerds, Grimm Magazine, Black Girls Create, Black Youth Project, Rue Morgue, Fangoria and is the author of a zine series (Tales From My Crypt). In addition, she is the creator of Audre’s Revenge Film and Black and Brown Punk Show Chicago, a GRRL Haus Cinema Resident Filmmaker (2019) and editor for Decoded Pride. Twitter: @negramonika1. IG: @audres.revenge.film
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