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BET's Debra Lee
seeks to improve black women's images with leadership talks By
Washington Post (March 13, 2010) Bonnie McDaniel refused to let her now 24-year-old
daughter watch Black Entertainment Television growing up.
She hated the oversexed, booty-shaking music videos. She thought the
programming objectified black women. She would bad-mouth the network
with her girlfriends.
This week, the author and entrepreneur joined 130 other successful black
women -- influential in politics, entertainment and nonprofits -- at the
Mandarin Oriental Hotel to talk about portrayals of black women in the
media, the problems facing black girls in urban schools, the state of
the black family and other weighty issues.
The sponsor of this gathering of African American alpha women: BET.
"I've been invited to many events by BET, but this is the first one I
have attended," McDaniel, who lives in Fairfax, said to the cable
network's chief executive Debra Lee at one of the event's workshops. "I
didn't like a lot of the messages and images that were coming out. But
we have the power to change that."
Lee listened and nodded.
The two-day summit -- a first for BET -- was her idea. Lee said it came
to her after the BET Awards last year, which included a controversial
performance by hip-hop artists Lil Wayne and Drake, who brought underage
girls onto the stage to dance while they rapped "I wish I could
[expletive] every girl in the world."
The network has long come under fire for its music videos that critics
say perpetuate racial stereotypes of African Americans and demean women.
In 2008, a group called "Enough Is Enough" protested outside of Lee's
home for more than five months.
"I just still feel like, as much as we've tried, it's still a heavily
male dominated music genre," Lee said, describing her feeling after the
2009 awards show.
She said her thoughts turned from the show to the scene in Washington,
where Lee has mingled with first lady Michelle Obama, presidential
senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, domestic policy chief Melody Barnes and
other African American women at the center of power. Then, Lee said, she
took out her Rolodex of successful black women and phoned Essence's
Beauty and Cover Director Mikki Taylor, political commentator Donna
Brazile, journalist and author Gwen Ifill, actresses Tatyana Ali and
Tasha Smith, and others.
"We are at the start of a new decade and a new opportunity. Our
president and first family are shining examples that anything is
possible," Lee said. "It's such an exciting time, [and] I said [to
myself] how can we get powerful black women together and discuss issues
that are important to us?"
The result, "Leading Women Defined," looks like a historically black
sorority meeting on steroids. Women with important jobs in Hollywood, in
New York and in the White House led portions of the conversation,
including starlet Raven-Symoné and children's rights advocate Marian
The event, which along with panels and luncheon speakers included a
mentoring trip to Dunbar High School and a Chrisette Michele concert,
was not open to the public but free to the invitees. Lee said she wants
it to become an ongoing network of successful black women who come
together to create positive change -- by "starting a black Emily's List
or adopting a school, whatever we decide."
She and her team handpicked every participant -- and some women, such as
McDaniel, were politely critical of the network. Others, including
Tricia Rose, a professor at Brown University and author of "The Hip Hop
Wars," have been harshly critical.
The network's most vociferous detractors, such as lawyer and blogger
Gina McCauley, found the entire thing ironic, and called it a PR stunt.
"What are they leading? Black girls to a life of objectification?" asked
McCauley, who was not at the event.
Lee seemed prepared for the flak.
The network turns 30 this year, and Lee said the women's conference is
part of its ongoing movement into a new phase. Several times, BET
staffers referred to the network as "the new BET," though they made no
apologies for its controversial past. A historical video highlighted the
now-defunct "Video Soul" and "Teen Summit" programs, but not "BET
Uncut," a raunchier late-night show that drew complaints.
"We've been really concerned with trying to show different facets of
black life," Lee said. "I think black women really want to see
themselves as professionals, as mothers, as daughters. We want the whole
spectrum of our womanhood to be reflected."
Lee pointed to the launch of its newest channel, Centric, which targets
African Americans 25 to 54 years old, and the hiring of filmmaker
Loretha Jones (producer of "The Fighting Temptations" and "The Five
Heartbeats") as president of BET's original programming 18 months ago,
along with the creation of a new brand strategy last year based around
themes such as family, creativity and social activism. The network has
since debuted several programs -- including a talk show hosted by
comedienne and actress Mo'Nique; "The Family Crews," about a black
nuclear family pursuing their dreams; and "Sunday Best," a gospel music
competition hosted by Kirk Franklin. Popular broadcast journalist Ed
Gordon also agreed this week to return to the network, bolstering its
tiny news division .
"I love my job, but my job is more difficult in certain ways than I
would have imagined," Jones told the women gathered for the conference.
"I have to choose stories and make decisions from a really balanced
perspective, because we have so little representations of ourselves. We
cannot get away with things that other people can get away with."
The sessions that engendered some of the most passionate discussions
were about representations of black women, who have long grappled with
the psychological repercussions of not fitting American mainstream
ideals of beauty. It's an old conversation that feels like it is
shifting, some of the women said.
A survey conducted by Essence and Procter & Gamble, which was an event
co-sponsor, found that 80 percent of black women respondents were
concerned about the way they are portrayed in mainstream media. But more
than 90 percent said Obama's role as first lady would have a positive
effect on images of black women.
Jarrett, who stopped by to greet the women and stump for the
administration's health-care plan, said they see the opportunity inside
the White House.
She told the story of a letter she received from an 11-year-old black
girl who wrote after reading about Jarrett in Essence. "Maybe I can grow
up and be like you," the girl said. Jarrett wrote back and invited her
to the White House. "It's those little gestures that we want to
encourage," Jarrett said, before hurrying back to meet with the
But along with the admiration and pretty, glossy magazine covers of the
first lady, there have come blogs with demeaning depictions of her,
noted Harriette Cole, acting editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine and a
panelist. Late last year, an image of the first lady with monkey
features appeared at the top of search results when "Michelle Obama" was
typed into Google Images.
"People don't want to believe that the Obamas exist, even though they
do," Cole said. "That means that they don't want to believe that we
Rose, the Brown University hip-hop scholar, said she doesn't sense that
the consciousness about the Obamas' images has translated to critical
thinking about wider representations of African Americans. As for BET,
she is cautiously optimistic about the changes she's seen, but noted
that Lee offered no blanket promises to ban programming that stereotypes
African Americans or demeans women.
"This kind of thing is glacial," Rose said. "It's only so quickly that
you can make changes and survive. I think there's still quite a ways to
go. If you're going to show shaking behinds to 12-year-old boys, you're
going to get a pretty good market share, but what is going to interrupt
that profit motive? We have to hold [BET] accountable along with all the
McDaniel agreed. At the end of the conference, she said she believed Lee
does intend to make changes at the network, but just in case she planned
to "become an annoyance to her."
Annual Edition 'Buying Power of Black America' report
breaks down billions in expenditures (January
19, 2010) Black consumers are responding to tighter economic
condition by focusing more of their spending on items and services
that improve their homes and lifestyle. That's one of the trends
revealed in the 15th annual report, "The Buying Power of Black
America," published by Target Market News. The report analyzes
spending for black households in 2008 and finds that