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You Can't Turn a Ho into a Housewife: Basketball Wives and the Politics of Wifedom

by Ethan Tussey

written by Racquel Gates for IN MEDIA RES

In this clip from the popular VH1 reality show, Basketball Wives, the cast confronts a known “groupie” who hit on one of the women’s husbands. The scenario is a tired cliché: the women misdirect their ire towards the “other woman” as a way of concealing their insecurities about their men’s fidelity. At the same time, however, this clip embodies the tensions that surround black women and their relationship to normative gender roles, particularly the idea of what it means to be a “wife.”

The irony of the women’s anti-groupie pearl clutching is that many of them could just as easily be classified as “groupies,” “jumpoffs,” or “baby mamas” by their own narrow definitions. In fact, Basketball Wives has been widely criticized because it features women who had relationships with professional athletes but were never legally married. Of the three cast members featured in this clip, only Jennifer Williams is married. Within this context, her insistence on her identity as “the wife” (complete with ring display) is laden with meaning. Rather than merely describing marital status, “wife” is a strategic subject position that confers respectability and value upon its bearer.

Perhaps the reason that the women on Basketball Wives cling so tightly to their “wife” status is because black women have always been excluded from an understanding of what it means to be one. The characteristics that define the very image of a “wife” in our society (white, middle class, appropriately feminine) have been defined in contrast to the lived experiences of black women, and have often been used to exclude them from the social, political, and financial privileges associated with its status. The Moynihan Report and its scathing condemnation of the black single mother is a notable example, as are the recent flurry of books, articles, and news reports that focus on the “problem” of unmarriable black women.

On Basketball Wives, the women’s assertion that they are “wives” signifies an attempt to appropriate the privilege typically denied to black women. In this way, the show functions as a site of privilege for its cast. Within the world of VH1, fiancées, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, and baby mamas all get to claim the title of “wife” by virtue of their being cast. Interestingly, on internet message boards, Jennifer Williams is often referred to as a “golddigger,” proving that even a wife can’t be a “wife” if she happens to be black.

Basketball Wives - Groupie Face-Off

Jennifer has an altercation with a groupie in the third episode of the first season of VH1's Basketball Wives. (Air date: April 25, 2010)

from Basketball Wives (2010)
Creator: Shed Media US
Distributor: VH1
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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