Lifetime's new show Girlfriend Intervention is not subtle about its message. Its premise is four black women giving a makeover to a white woman on the theory that, as they put it, "Trapped inside of every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out."
They don't even have to say "weak white girl" or "lame white girl" or "ugly white girl" or "unfashionable white girl" or "boring white girl," because all those things are, before long, implied.
The four makeover makers are Tracy Balan on beauty, Nikki Chu on "home and sanctuary," Tiffiny Dixon on fashion, and many-many-many-time reality star Tanisha Thomas (most notably of Oxygen's Bad Girls Club) as your — this is real — "soul coach." Thomas lays out her philosophy early in the first episode, saying that black women are taught that no matter what else is going on in your life, "as long as you look fabulous, that's all that matters." On the other hand, she says, "with Caucasian women, you get married, you marry the man of your dreams, you have his children, and now it's time to stop taking care of you? Girl, I missed that memo."
Are you a black woman? You might find this offensive. Are you a white woman? You might find this offensive. Are you neither? You might be thinking at this point that you're lucky to be left out of the entire thing. (Be aware, though, that no one is safe. Near the end of the first episode, Thomas exaggeratedly compliments the hotness of the made-over white woman by yelling, "Muy caliente, salsa picante mucho!")
Like so much of makeover television, this is shaming dressed up as encouragement (they actually call the segment where the makeover candidate shows them how she currently dresses the "catwalk of shame"). It's conformity dressed up as individuality, and it's submission to the expectations of others dressed up as self-confidence.
Only now, with obnoxious racial politics slathered all over the entire thing!
It is not like those politics need to be introduced by the viewer, either: They are the premise of the show, and they are repeated over and over. Black women, we are told in so many words, are unerringly confident, gorgeous, stylish, unflappable, and — ah, yes — better at pleasing men, especially black men. In the first episode, the target, Joanie, has a good-looking black husband, which the women make clear makes sloppy dressing a worse crime than it would be otherwise. "A black woman would never let herself go with a man like that," the soul consultant announces. The second episode, in fact, also features a woman, Emily, whose partner is a black man. "Now, I know there's a hot mama hidden in Emily. After all, she got a black man!" says Tracy.
(By the way, just when you think the show can't get more awkward, the second episode brings a moment in which Emily explains that she met her husband when she reached out and, fascinated, touched his hair. Do we need to talk about how one does not do that? One does not do that. This goes unmentioned.)
Black women are also presented as more fundamentally honest. Your white friends are lying to you: "With Caucasian women, everybody's afraid to say how they really feel." Your new black friends, on the other hand, are here to save the day: We are told that they "have the guts to tell you what everybody is really thinking." But they're not mean! "We do it out of love. Tough love, as a sister to another sister."
All of this is overtly about the manipulation of identity. It is made clear from the beginning that dressing in the way these consultants suggest is, to them, fundamental to being truly black if you're black, and to bringing out your inner black woman (who is presumed to be superior to your outer white woman) if you are white. The fashion consultant, as she observes Joanie's clothes, says, "No self-respecting black woman would ever hide herself in this if she wants to keep her black card." And the hits go on and on: In the second episode, Emily is taken to a studio to rap. And she's given a gold chain. And a hoodie. For the empowerment, you know.
On this show, all toughness, and in fact all showing of spine among women, is associated with being black, as we learn when Joanie shoots one of the consultants an unhappy look about an unflattering outfit in which they've placed her, and they immediately seize upon how easy it was to bring out her "black woman." With all due respect to these particular four women, I learned the throwing of a proper stink-eye from my mother, thank you very much, and I would put my stink-eye up against anyone's.
The casually insulting way these consultants approach their white ... clients? ... is unappealing, certainly, but the show's approach to the consultants themselves, and to black women in general, is hugely problematic, too. The black women on Girlfriend Intervention, like the gay men who did the work on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, are supposedly being saluted for their (stereotypically) superior style and knowledge and backbone, but are cast as helpers and facilitators for the benefit of, respectively, white women and straight men, valued for what they can offer and required to display sass at all times in sufficient amounts. (Among other things, it's unfortunate that other than Thomas being the loudest, they don't much distinguish the four stylists from each other, either.)
Popular entertainment targeted to white women is thick with obnoxiously other-ish fairy godpeople: the gay friend, the keeping-it-real black friend, the Latina neighbor, the wise black boss. There's always some earthier, real-er, truer person whose task it is to flutter around to provide perspective, to fix what's broken, and often to embarrass you for your foolishness. This is problematic for white women who don't care to be cast as badly dressed, helpless dummies who need constant life coaching, but it's no better for black women who don't care to be cast as flashy-dressing, finger-waving, fast-talking fixers whose mission is making Cinderella presentable for the ball, or for gay men who don't care to be asked to tag along on shopping trips.
It's not your black friend's job to tell you how to believe in yourself and keep your man (the concept of not having a man one is desperate to keep is seemingly foreign to the interventionists); it's not your gay friend's job to style you. Friendship is not quite so transactional.
(It must be said, too, that one of the show's challenges is a simple and serious one: at least in the first couple of episodes, the woman doesn't look very good or very comfortable in the things they choose for her. It's one thing to be in charge of sewing Cinderella's dress, but if she looked better when she was cleaning out the fireplace, you have a problem.)
What makes this particularly disappointing as a Lifetime show is that Lifetime is a network that has actually tried to appeal to more diverse audiences, as NPR's Priska Neely reported just last month. It's entirely possible, moreover, that there's a good show to be made in which black women and white women talk about beauty, confidence, self-care, and how they may see and experience some of those things differently. There's such a thing as the politics and emotional weight of hair, of style, of body image. But you don't get there by appointing black women as essentially beauty and style assistants to white women they treat like dolts.
Speaking personally, I walked away unconvinced that I have an inner black woman. I probably have an inner white woman who's more confident than the outer one. I probably have an inner white woman who's better at dressing myself, and I probably have an inner white woman who's better at interior decorating. I definitely have an inner white woman who wears better shoes. But no matter what women I manage to raise from within, they will all be white women. Nothing I say, nothing I do with my hair, no color I put on my walls, will make that any less true. And frankly, I feel neither entitled nor required to act otherwise.