Have you ever been watching a newscast, learned some awful crime has happened and images flash across the screen of news photographers rushing to line up and catch those first shots of the perpetrator? News producers call that the “perp walk.” I’ve seen probably hundreds of perp walks. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever prayed the silent prayer, “please don’t let the perp be a Black person.” This speaks to some real feelings of shame we are expected to feel when somehow, a single person represents an entire race of people. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to defend all of Black womanhood to some brotha who had a single encounter with a sista who was loud, obnoxious, and whose only goal in life was having a man with money, I could retire today. In style.
I was all set to experience something similar when I heard there was going to be a reality show portraying the lives of pastor’s wives, The Learning Channel’s The Sisterhood. After all, the odds of being ashamed by a reality show are in my favor, right? Reality shows that prominently feature Black women are not necessarily known for their flattering images of Black womanhood. The message these shows seem to yell at us from the screen is that Black women cannot get along with each other. So yes, I will admit a slight feeling of dread about The Sisterhood. After I watched the first four episodes, my dread meter was off the charts...but not for the reasons you might think.
The featured wives on The Sisterhood seem to have been selected at least partially because they do not represent typical Christian church pastors and their wives. The show is set in the Bible belt of Atlanta, Georgia, and follows the lives of Ivy; married to Mark, the pastor of the Emmanuel Tabernacle, Christina; married to Anthony, the pastor of the Oasis Family Life Church, Tara; married to Brian, the pastor of the Phenomenal Life Church (these two were asked to leave a church for reasons yet unclear); and Domonique; married to Scott, former pastor of the Good Life Church (it was explained in the first episode that their church had to close its doors for financial reasons and this is apparently putting some strain on their marriage); and DeLana, married to Myles, the pastor of the Worship With Wonders Church.
Although the churches themselves are not exclusively Black churches, they do appear to be evangelical churches. The Sisterhood seems to have gone out of its way to be both multicultural and fashionable. At first glance, The Sisterhood seems to be a blend of evangelical Christianity with Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta or VH1’s Love and Hip Hop. As Christina says, “I am not the typical first lady who sits in the front pew and wears a big hat.” As she puts it, she is “number two in command” at the Oasis Family Life Church. The wardrobe on the show seems to back up Christina’s claim that they are not “typical first ladies,” because they wear leather, stiletto heels, have tattoos, body piercings, and wear body conscious clothing with larger than life accessories.
This show has generated quite a bit of conversation—even outrage—since its debut on Jan. 1. After I watched the first episode, all I could do is scratch my head and wonder what the big deal is. The show has its problems, to be sure. But for me the show’s problem have less to do with the scathing indictments from people who feel the show is “unrealistic” (and what reality show is realistic?), and more to do with the fact that certain persons are outraged because the show may cast a negative light on the Black church.
The Examiner.com quotes Marvin Sapp as saying: “Let's pray for those who are on the show, as the show begins to move forward, that there is some discernment and discretion that comes forth. Why? Because there are certain things that the world does not need to see, know and understand about the church.” These words speak of a real need by some to hold the church in a pristine light without blemish or stain. Some people think that the church should always be presented in a positive light no matter what. However, having grown up in the church, I also get that not everyone’s experience of church is a positive one. Just ask some of our same gender loving brothers and sisters. Or ask anyone who has had children without the benefit of marriage. For some, the church has been a place where more shaming than transforming took place. The conversation where we acknowledge that both of these realities exist in our churches is long overdue.
And therein lies the rub. Apparently it is not a problem to show Black women in a negative light, but it becomes a huge problem once that light is shone on the church. Reality shows routinely bombard us with negative images of women, should we even be surprised that this lens has now turned to the place where women are nearly always the majority—the church?
And where was all this concern about negative images of women when Flavor of Love was one of the highest rated shows on VH1? I’m still trying to figure out The Bad Girls Club, and there seems to be a sista with issues on every episode of My Shopping Addiction or My Strange Addiction. The sad truth is there has been very little formal backlash about the content of these reality shows. Instead, we watch them. These shows would not be making money if they did not have loyal viewers. And the stereotypes about Black women equal big profits for the networks that broadcast these shows. There have been very few complaints from the Black community about the reinforcement of images of Black women as the sharp-tongued Sapphire, the oversexed Jezebel, and the angry Black women not to mention someone is taking these images all the way to the bank.
So rather than bash the show for following the highly profitable reality show format (the only difference here is that the pastors’ wives get together, argue, get together to apologize for arguing, and then argue some more) let’s talk about what the hoopla is really about: the masks we wear. Interestingly enough, revelation is problematic in the church. Most of the complaints about this show condemn it for revealing too much. These are, after all, church ladies whose only conversation about the Bible so far was to admonish Tara for quoting it too much. Maybe Marvin Sapp is upset about the sex toys Ivy and Mark admitted to using…as well their glee when describing how active their sex life is. And let’s not even start on Pastor Anthony’s condom demonstration for his daughters, because after all, if you are going to sin, sin smart, right?
In the second episode, “Thou Shalt Not Jump to Judgment,” Domonique made the following statement: “as a preacher’s wife I feel like there is this expectation that you have to be a strong Christian…so to be struggling with so many issues? It’s definitely going to be seen as a weakness.”
People in positions of power are often invested in keeping things as they are, and some would prefer not to upset the balance of power in some churches. Whether churches are conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive, women make up the majority of membership yet hold few places of leadership and/or authority.
The Sisterhood simply reminds us of those elements of the church we wish not to deal with and would rather romanticize than deal with. The Sisterhood reveals there is jealousy in the church, that there is gossip in the church, that there is intolerance in the church, and that there is judgment in the church. But rather than give us a bird’s eye view about the myriad ways the church has failed women, I would love to see the women featured on The Sisterhood have a conversation about how they can best affirm the women in their own churches, and likewise each other.
Ivy, Christina, Tara, DeLana and Domonique as a sisterhood do not represent all of the complexities that come with being married to a pastor. But they could certainly get the conversation ball rolling about why so many churches avoid conversations about how the majority of the congregation—its women—are faring in and out of the pews.