"Seriously?" was my only reaction upon reading a press release announcing the new series "Desperate Housewives: Africa" for Summer 2014. I thought the line had been crossed way before "Real Housewives of New Jersey," but I was sadly mistaken.
The title, at least in my opinion, just seems offensive. The first image that comes to mind when you think of African wives is far from the stereotypical blonde and botox-ed airheads most of series chronicle. However, the show will follow an upper-class, affluent Nigerian community in the Lekki suburb of Lagos, Nigera's economic center. The show is sure to be plagued by the same catty-ness, but, as EbonyLife TV's CEO Mosunmola Abudu promises, "with an African soul."
Abudu, often referred to as the Oprah of Africa, said the show offers, "the opportunity to engage African audiences through locally relevant and entertaining storytelling." However, I can't help but be suspicious. The show, just by the title alone, is sure to be taken as a joke by American audiences. The stereotype and pictures of Africa we have ingrained into our minds are of famine, helplessness, and infantilism. As sociology scholars Nikki Van Der Gaager and Cathy Nash published in their "Images of Africa" research, even when we see a picture of a smiling, satisfied African individual, we intrinsically believed that we must have helped them in some way. This show doesn't seem poised to adjust anyone's preconceptions in a productive way.
Yet Abudu wants EbonyLife TV and its programs to change this stereotype. She wants to introduce a new era of media in Africa, and let people know that, "not every African woman has a pile of wood on her head and a baby strapped on her back." EbonyLife TV, Africa's First Global Black Entertainment Channel, has become very popular with a demographic of Africa that many Westerners don't even know exists. Media is on the rise in Africa as a result of political, economic, and social development and a growing middle class. Those who take the time to watch the show will be surprised that this Nigerian community is a lot more like the affluent communities in the United States.
However, the emerging pop culture atmosphere in Africa doesn't quite match up with that of the United States, where citizens have been able to afford and value leisure and entertainment for centuries. Hopefully, it never will. The effects celebrities and reality TV have on the American psyche are detrimental. It's human nature: every society has individuals they admire for certain attributes — whether those attributes be athletic ability, artistic talent, or looks. Yet the extremes of celebrity culture in America should not be aspired to elsewhere.
American celebrity culture, and the act of putting fellow humans on untouchable pedestals, has even led to serious mental health problems. "Celebrity Worship Syndrome" has become a diagnosable psychological disease, extreme borderline-pathological cases categorized by uncontrollable behaviors and fantasies regarding scenarios involving celebrities. The not-so-extreme effects of this celebrity and admiration culture can be seen in the amount of body-image related mental health problems in Western countries vs. non-Western countries. Girls, boys, men, and women, not only idealize what they want themselves to look like in comparison to their favorite role models, but also what they want their potential partners to look like.
It's easy to see how our obsession with celebrities has lead us to our love of reality TV, especially in this realm of fantasy. Reality TV has an undeniably seductive quality about it. There's something about seeing others break social taboos and behave badly in their daily lives that viewers find cathartic. Theater and TV have always been an escape from the monotony of everyday life — notably during the Great Depression — however, there are serious complications when that escape from reality is confused for a normative version of real life. The lives of reality TV stars seem more real to us than we are to ourselves because we can see their lives in a way that we cannot see our own. Everyone else's lives have come to seem more exciting than our own, making viewers feel insignificant.
As Africa looks to reinvent and modernize itself in the 21st century, media will play a huge role. Along the way, African media gurus will have to be careful not to fall into the same societal traps as many Western countries. Channels like EbonyLife TV must do more than just prove that they are more "Western" than the world thinks. Desperate Housewives Africa may not be the best way to do that.