I am not here to praise Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. The Dirty South version of the Vh1 franchise is “rachetedness” par excellence, as the show recycles stock characters from the reality TV playbook and the American racial imagination. We can’t ignore the brawling Black women, the predictably caliente (Afro)Latina, power-mad matriarchs, and perpetually condomless couples.
But regardless of how you feel about the show's creator Mona Scott-Young, she has done one thing right. With abortion storylines involving self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican princess” Joseline and underground rapper Rasheeda, the show is the rare television show tackling this divisive social and political issue.
Despite anti-abortion billboards and campaigns to convince Black Americans that abortion is a genocidal conspiracy against them, non-Hispanic black women were over-represented as almost 35 percent of all reported abortions in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whatever the numbers, the face associated with the abortion rights movement is a White one. Few black women’s abortion stories or activism make it on TV, though a woman of color’s abortion story was one of reality TV’s pioneering moments. LAHH: ATL follows in the footsteps of “Basketball Wife” Tami Roman. In 1993, Roman was doing her thing as the resident ‘round-the way girl on season two of The Real World. Roman's trip to a Los Angeles abortion clinic unfolded on camera while her castmates, America, and her own mother debated her choice.
So I give Mona Scott-Young and company some props. Where else on television can we accompany a woman through her abortion journey? These days, you can barely hear the “a-word” even on “Sixteen and Pregnant.”
Viewers followed Atlanta’s Joseline in the bathroom stall with her pregnancy test. We saw the moment where she revealed her status to Stevie J., her discussion about abortion with a friend, and the morning after the procedure when she appears contemplative, but not guilt-ridden.
As a volunteer for a nonprofit that helps women pay for their procedures, I have talked to many women considering abortion, and I know that there are many women in Joseline's postion. They base their abortion decisions on their career aspirations, the well-being of the children they already have, their relationship stability and their dreams. Women know that the stakes of motherhood are high, and unplanned pregnancy can rock a relationship.
What’s so disturbing about the Atlanta show, however, is that neither Joseline nor Rasheeda could fully weigh her pregnancy options without their partners’ manipulation, at best, or coercion, at worst. I’m not saying that male partners don’t have a say in a woman’s decision to continue or end a pregnancy. But, for his part, Stevie J. initially pretended that he had nothing to do with Joseline’s pregnancy, reminding her that he was her manager (a little too late for professional boundaries then) and that she could do hardly film a video with a blossoming belly.
Kirk Frost’s hostility toward wife Rasheeda’s unintended pregnancy escalated from a crass public paternity test request, to bullying demands that she “handle that” (his euphemism for abortion), and, now, a cheating scandal. Rasheeda’s story is not merely about abortion, but finding reproductive freedom within her crumbling marriage. And Rasheeda’s experience undercuts what we think we know about abortion demographics. In many countries across the world, married women obtain a larger share of abortions than their unmarried counterparts. It’s not just the “in trouble” high school girl.
The problem with the show's abortion storylines is that it’s easy to attribute the abortion choice or discussion to dysfunctional relationships or reality-TV shenanigans. Only philandering husbands and spouses in bad marriages talk about abortion. Only people with issues have abortions. Viewed through the politics of respectability, Joseline is no ingénue, and no amount of “Black-male shortage” scares could make Stevie J. seem like prime partner material. Joseline consents to be with her own personal Svengali and a man who withholds her contract like her freedom papers.
Through slavery, forced sterilization, and other abuses, Black women’s bodies and reproductive lives have rarely been private. But abortion stigma demands their voices be public.
Women, such as MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry and reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman, are sharing their abortion experiences. Bracey Sherman didn’t want to be just “another black teen who got pregnant” and waited six years to tell anyone about her abortion. But she broke her silence because she believes that she is “standing up for myself in a society that deems my voice unnecessary. I am sharing an experience and how it changed my life. And if my friends or I need access to a safe abortion, I want to speak out to ensure that it is available next week and next year.”
Say what you want about “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta” and all its stereotypes. I’m glad Joseline didn’t wait six years to share her story. And I’m glad that she was unashamed.
Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. She is a founding board member of the Carolina Abortion Fund and a member of the Echoing Ida project, a collective of black women bloggers organized by the Strong Families. Follow her on Twitter at @CynthiaGreenlee.