If the revolution will not be televised, there is a good chance it will be online. Take Sabrina Lamb, for instance. The best-selling author (A Kettle of Vultures) and media personality had never started a petition before, but decided “enough is enough” after viewing the 13-minute viral trailer for Oxygen Media’s upcoming reality series, All My Babies’ Mamas. (Parent company NBCUniversal has since removed all traces of the video.) Set to air this spring, the hour-long series follows “the complicated lives of [rapper Shawty Lo], his children’s mamas, and their army of children,” according to the network’s press release.
“Why is it okay that our children, particularly girls, are taught that it’s okay to have unprotected sex, particularly in the land of HIV and AIDS?” asked Lamb during a phone interview with EBONY.com. “We’re speaking up for children.”
The Change.org petition, titled “Cancel Shawty Lo’s All My Babies’ Mamas, ‘a show that demeans Black children, mothers, and dads!’,” has gathered 19,548 supporters (as of press time) from Dakar to Montana in less than two weeks.
“Cancel this junk ASAP!” wrote one supporter. Another vowed to boycott the entire network if All My Babies’ Mama were to air. Comments left on the petition have been directly forwarded to Oxygen’s President, Senior Vice President and Senior Vice President of Development, as well as the President of DiGa Vision, the production company behind the series. Lamb’s goal for the petition is that “this monstrosity never sees the light of day.” So far, her petition has generated considerable attention from online blogs and mainstream news outlets alike.
But could Lamb’s cause really lead to cancelation?
“If the network thinks the controversy will generate ratings, and if brands don’t bail, they’ll stay the course,” Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University, says. “If big sponsors pull out, Oxygen may pull the series.” Lamb also threatens that she and her supporters will boycott any advertisers who choose to support the show. “I don’t know what advertiser would want to sponsor Black child exploitation and expect over 13,000 people to support them,” she said. “I understand the emotionalism regarding all the horrible things that we experience on this planet, but we have to move past the emotionalism to activism that directly targets the economic part of the outrage.”
If history is any indication, a heavily hyped and sweeping dissent, plus a boycotting of major advertisers might, in fact, equal cancelation. In 1951, the NAACP protested ABC’s Beulah and boycotted CBS’s controversial Amos ’n’ Andy, the first television series with an all-Black cast. The NAACP led one the largest protests against a TV program, claiming its stereotypical characters harkened back to minstrel shows and Blackface. Both shows were canceled two years later. Some scholars attribute Amos ’n’ Andy’s cancelation partly to the widespread sponsor boycotts, but also to some advertisers not wanting to be associated with the Black community.
The brunt of African-American protests was felt most by UPN during the late 1990s. The network’s Homeboys in Outer Space, Malcolm and Eddie and Sparks were protested by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP in 1997. “The negative attention didn’t help any of these series, but neither did the fact that they were truly poorly written,” Robin Coleman, an associate professor of communications and Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan, told EBONY.com. “The shows very quickly saw bad ratings and were cancelled. But one has to wonder why badly conceived shows that focus on blackness get on the air in the first place.” Coleman also pointed to The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, a 1998 UPN sitcom set during American slavery, which had a major advertiser pull from the show after facing outcry from Black activists groups and the Los Angeles NAACP. “A defiant UPN aired one episode of Desmond Pfeiffer,” said Coleman. “But it was so unpopular that it was cancelled.”
Oxygen Media has shown no signs of halting production, as stated in their uniform response to EBONY.com and other outlets: “Oxygen’s one-hour special in development is not meant to be a stereotypical representation of everyday life for any one demographic or cross section of society. It is a look at one unique family and their complicated, intertwined life. Oxygen Media’s diverse team of creative executives will continue developing the show with this point of view.” The NAACP, on the other hand, has yet to respond to Lamb’s petition against All My Babies’ Mamas in an official capacity (although individual members have added their signatures), but Lamb would gladly welcome any additional support.
“If any organization steps forward and says we would like to join with you, great,” she says. “[But] I don’t want this to be about showboating. I want it to be about results.”
Patrice Peck explores the complex intersection of culture, entertainment, race and gender as a multimedia journalist. Follow her latest work on Twitter @SpeakPatrice, and visit her website for more writing and video.
ED. NOTE: This article has been updated to properly attribute quotations from Robin Coleman that were mistakenly omitted.