Redeeming NeNe


I’ve been addicted to “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” since I started watching it by accident a couple of years ago. Yes, I accidentally caught a glimpse of the show while at a friend’s house-party. The TV was muted, but amid all of the ruckus I learned, by reading the captions, that Kim (wearer of waxy white-woman wigs) had paid $60,000 cash for a brand new Escalade. What I saw was kind of funny, fascinating, and train-wreckish all at once, but I didn’t think I’d get sucked into “The Real Housewives” of Anywhere, though I’d narily missed the “Desperate Housewives” phenomenon that had hooked the world a few years before.

Lo and behold, I caught myself watching one of those day-long Bravo marathons during a cold and dreary, stay-in-the-house day. Now the only show that rivals episodes of the “ATL Housewives” for space on my DVR is the entire farewell season (so far) of “Oprah.”

Admittedly, I was totally struck by NeNe, the amazonian spitfire with a round-the-way girl rasp in her voice and punchlines that had me laughing for weeks. My trove of favorite NeNe quips —“You touch me girl, I will wear that wig off you head!” “Is that wig squeezing your brain too tight heifer?!” and “Lindsay Lohan daddy!”—has seen the recent addition of “I would never put kool-aid, candied yams, peppermint candy, or pancake syrup in my va-jay-jay.”

NeNe, more so than the other Black housewives on the show, became a major player in the “representation conversation”—a dialogue that re-ignites when a Black personality, movie, or television show gains mainstream notoriety. NeNe Leakes had, after just one season, emblazoned herself in the canon of popular recent Black media imagery, particularly that of the Black female—a canon which has often relegated the Black woman to one of three categories: the asexual mammy, the hypersexual video vixen, or the neck-twisting, fingersnapping, aggressive sass-box.

Black intellectuals and pundits had a field day, womanists went ape shit, and Anderson Cooper loved it. Black folks engaged in the representation conversation had to determine whether NeNe was a win or a loss for us.

Here we are at season three and we’re seeing a different side of Mrs. Linnethia Leakes. Amid a plethora of hilarious one-liners, audiences are now hearing phrases like, “I just wanna get my happy back.”

Apparently, NeNe has hit a wall in her marriage, and the raising of her oldest son.

I was captivated when, for several minutes in one of this season’s early episodes, NeNe had a tearful heart-to-heart with her 20-year-old son Brice, who had recently been arrested:

When you have a child one day, you will understand the hurt that it is, the pain that it is to watch your child just go the wrong way. This is a struggle for me. I am trying to guide you the best that I can and you are really hurting my feelings because I want the best for you and you are killing me . . . I will not sit by and watch you do stupid things and support you being stupid.

A few episodes later, NeNe hosted castmate Cynthia Bailey and her fiancé, Peter, at her home for dinner. NeNe wanted Brice to meet Peter, an accomplished business owner; and while NeNe may have had good intentions, dinner went awry when the viewers got a firsthand look at the trouble that had been brewing between her and her husband, Gregg. The dinner culminated in NeNe in a Moscato-driven flare up, repeatedly tapping Gregg on the nose with her index finger, saying, “Say it, Gregg. I-am-not-a-good-com-muni-cator.” He looked at her crazy and then pretended to hang himself.

The episode ended with NeNe telling Cynthia, “I am going to divorce Gregg.” At that point, we were only halfway through the season, and viewers (or is it just me?) didn’t know what Gregg had done exactly. Besides his borrowing somewhere between $500 and $10,000 from NeNe’s former BFF, Dwight, NeNe had implied that Gregg had cheated on her. But perhaps the rest of the season will tell. Whatever it was, Gregg sure had NeNe is a tizzy.

Viewers later learned that Gregg had confided to a friend about his frustrations with NeNe, in whom he claimed to have had invested $300,000 so that her entertainment career could take off in Georgia. What Gregg states was a private conversation between friends, was played on laptops and iPads across the blogosphere when his supposed confidant aired Gregg’s venting on an Internet radio show.

NeNe returned home to confront her husband:

I didn’t get with you for money. I got with you because I loved you. Now, I gave you $300,000. Where it’s at? Yes, give me back my vacations. Gimme them back. Give my back the got damn labor pains I had for your ass. Give me the shoes off your feet and the shirt off your back. I bought it . . . I have said a lot of things out of anger. But one thing that I did do was put on a united front, for your ass. And I am pissed off that you put me on the got damn line, not having my back. I have had your back in so many situations, so many. I have stood by you when you have done me wrong as your wife.

Of the few words Gregg said, he acknowledged the “immaculate fibers” keeping her in the marriage. He left the conversation with, “Thank you for your time.” That episode ended with a shot of NeNe stomping upstairs and Gregg trudging downstairs as she yelled, “I know I married a damn monster!”

Amid all of NeNe and Gregg’s marital discord, bloggers question whether NeNe is putting on, and putting her family life on the line for the sake of “reality” television fame and a paycheck from Bravo. As one writer from The Grio notes, “It’s tempting to feel bad for NeNe and family, however consider this — thanks to this major storyline of divorce and drama, NeNe is getting more press than ever. . . . So who’s the fool here? The viewer, for buying into the drama? Or Nene for selling her personal life in hopes of a cash prize? Could it be that she’s a savvy businesswoman stringing viewers along on her contrived ride?”

Whether she is indeed putting on, or is truly on the brink of a crumbling relationship, I’m relieved to see NeNe’s softer side. As strong and quick-witted as she’s been in past seasons, this season she’s on the cusp of a broken marriage and doesn’t want to lose her young Black son to the world. It’s very unfortunate, yes, but this is about as real as I’ve ever seen any “Real” Housewives in three seasons, loosely scripted or not.

Most “representation conversations” deduce that all we really need is balance in our media images. NeNe and her cohorts have their place on the Black image scale—most just want to see more done for the Huxtable-esque side of the spectrum. That argument is fair enough.

But there is something to be said about NeNe’s apparent vulnerability and frustration providing a counter to the Strong Black Woman (SBW) mask in which we’re accustomed to seeing her. I wonder about the balance that her season three saga provides for other strong Black women who aren’t on reality TV shows, but still feel the need to keep it all together, despite the fact that things seem to be falling apart.

Can we “conscious” folk who have representation conversations in classrooms and coffeehouses (but are closeted “ATL Housewives” addicts) give NeNe any credit? Is she shattering a myth about the SBW, or does she continue to perpetuate a sassy stereotype at the expense of her family?

Season three is slated to run through February, so I’m eager to see what’s next in NeNe’s arc and if we can glean anything from her TV story. Is she a win or loss? We’ll just have to watch what happens.


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