Lifetime’s new makeover show Girlfriend Intervention can easily be compared to Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The quick pitch must have included the phrase “Queer Eye but with black women,” and I’m sure it was a conscious attempt to bring diversity to a network that primarily focuses on made-for-television movies about white women in trouble. I’m obviously all for diversity on TV, but if this racist mess of offensive caricatures and broad stereotypes is what Lifetime has to offer, then I’d prefer to see them stop trying.
In Girlfriend Intervention, a team of four sassy black women with made-up jobs — beauty pro, fashion maven, home and sanctuary guru, soul coach — make over a “BW” or “basic [white] woman,” with renovations extending to her home and personality. It’s unbelievable from the very beginning; the intro proudly proclaims that “trapped inside of every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out,” which evokes images of a horror film where a black woman is scratching at a white girl’s insides, dying to show her a brand-new world of sequin dresses, rap songs, and unwavering confidence.
All of the BWs are meek and childish, crippled by body-image issues and unable to dress themselves properly. The black women are devastatingly confident, loud, and tell it like it is. They are “real” women, but are also every poorly written black sidekick on any TV show. They are head-rolls and Z-snaps, witty insults and sexual innuendos. They, at first, horrify the unsuspecting basic white woman (“I don’t understand why they are four women in my house telling me I need an intervention. … I’m upset. They went in my home and went through my underwear drawer”) but soon win them over. Everyone is happy at the end except for the viewer. The viewer is now the horrified party.
Practically every other sentence the makeover team says is prefaced with the phrase “as a black woman,” to remind you that they’re black but their canvas is white, and that there are vast differences between black and white women — although the show claims it’s just about women in general, regardless of skin color, and how we all want the same thing (“to look fabulous”) and should all love ourselves. Well, as a black woman, it’s hard for me to feel good about Girlfriend Intervention, because it’s actively trying to make me hate myself and who I am.
The unfortunate truth is that there have always been limited roles for black women in media because we’re often relegated to a few archaic stereotypes: we can be maids or nurses or hairstylists or background extras; we can be the Magical Negro who swoops in to save the white woman in her time of need; we can be, more often than not, the confident, sassy, single (and occasionally “oversexed”) sidekick who gives dating advice to the white heroine, with insights ranging from, “Look at this white girl!” eye-roll exasperation to “Girl, just do you!” positivity. Girlfriend Intervention is a mixture of these, amped up to the extreme, and it’s more harmful than entertaining.
Two of the stars, Tiffiny Dixon and Tanisha Thomas, remarked on the controversy around the show before it aired. Dixon said that Girlfriend Intervention is about “bringing the races together,” so everyone can “merge and learn from each other.” Thomas said the show has a universal message about women empowerment. But you don’t empower women by making them feel like shit, and you don’t promote universal understanding by breaking women down and dividing them into strict categories. Lifetime’s official site doesn’t even mention the race aspect of the show (the press release did), even though each episode is overwhelmed by questionable racial politics at every turn.
The pilot centers on Basic Woman Joanie, a white mother with a cute black husband. “A black woman would never let herself go with a man like that,” one expert quips. They determine Joanie’s “biggest problem is that she doesn’t feel sexy enough for her fine chocolate man.” There is an uncomfortable underlying snark here: Joanie’s frumpy outfits are bad enough, but they’re even worse now they mean she’s disappointing her black husband. The episode continues with the hyper-confident, brutally honest makeover team pointing out Joanie’s flaws in terms of race. On an outfit: “No self-respecting black woman would ever hide herself in this if she wants to keep her black card.”
Joanie’s body image issues are quickly dismissed as a “white girl problem.” According to the show, white women are “nervous and scared” if they are not a size two. 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.
On Girlfriend Intervention, they always “tell it like it is” to the white women by harshly insulting them (“I don’t think they’re trying to hurt my feelings…”) but are unknowingly doing more damage to the black community with their strict ideals of what a black woman must be like. “A black woman would never be that comfortable,” says one of the experts upon learning someone wore pajamas to the grocery store. In the third episode, which airs Wednesday, the experts tackle a nerdy woman and dismiss her interest in LARPing — and her overall love for “nerdy” things like comic books — as “not a black people thing,” effectively writing off all of the black women who do share these hobbies.
In a show where just about everything is awful and offensive, this is perhaps the worst part. There are many uncomfortable moments of sweeping generalizations on Girlfriend Intervention when I’m being told, by a panel of experts no less, that essentially I am not a black woman. How could I be, if I read comics and wear pajamas? Why does a show that employs black women to make white women feel good and confident — the Magical Negro strikes again! — result in making black women feel the exact opposite? Girlfriend Intervention makes diversity seem like a no-win situation: Black women are cast to act a certain way in order to fit in with television’s existing mold, but they make the rest of us feel like outcasts, like there’s still no one on TV who is like us.