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Prof: Media distorts black image

KEVIN B. KLAUS/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Media arts professor Beretta E. Smith-Shomade discusses the programming and target audience of shows aired on BET yesterday at Gallagher Theatre.
By Kylee Dawson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, September 30, 2004
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The public's perception of black people continues to be distorted in the media, a media arts professor said yesterday in a lecture on Black Entertainment Television, part of the Faculty Fellows Speakers Series.

The lecture titled, "And for the Girl Backstage, Never Mind Who You Thought I Was. I'm Rick James B***h!" was delivered by media arts professor Beretta Smith-Shomade at the Gallagher Theater yesterday afternoon.

"It's important that we think about, examine and understand the way that Black Entertainment Television and now others like it, target, market, and illustrate black folks," Smith-Shomade said.

The background for the lecture was the 2004 BET Awards, which aired in June, and focused on how the network portrays blacks and how BET has changed over time.

After giving a detailed history of the network's beginning and comparing earlier programming to current programming on BET, Smith-Shomade focused on three main areas.

They included how the network has demeaned black women, how the network's programming is oftentimes contradictory and how the network defines blackness.

"Seeing video after video of near naked, very young black women, gyrating, begging, crawling, pleading for some attention from some unattractive, fully clothed brother just makes me mad," she said.

Smith-Shomade explained it is contradictory for BET's late night show "Uncut," a show that features such women in music videos, to be aired directly before televangelist Robert Tilton's "Success for Life."

Smith-Shomade said BET's logo, "Black Star Power," means that several black up-and-coming artists rely on receiving "validation and power on BET," which also tends to define black cultural identity.

"Black star power resonates also as ching, ching in the pocket of BET, thus these stars are commodities," she said.

Several video clips were used throughout the lecture to highlight how BET has changed since being purchased in 2000 by Viacom, a company that also owns MTV, Comedy Central and several other networks.

Since Viacom's takeover, Smith-Shomade said BET's programs have begun to emulate MTV's and compared MTV's "Total Request Live" to BET's "106 and Park" among other shows.

"Not dissimilar to the way Mattel made Christie and Curtis as corollaries to Barbie and Ken, the new BET programs seem to be just dipped in chocolate," she said.

The truth behind the lecture's title was revealed in a clip from the BET Awards show, on which Rick James said, "And for the girl backstage, just to be perfectly clear, never mind who you thought I was. I'm Rick James bitch."

Students in the audience laughed while watching the clip, but Smith-Shomade said she was shocked when she watched men and women in the audience at the awards show applaud James' statement.

"This whole narrative and performative scene was enacted all at black women's expense," she said.

Though Smith-Shomade said she does watch BET, "many aspects of it literally make my skin crawl."

Smith-Shomade, who did not attend the UA, as reported Tuesday, attended Duke University before receiving her Ph.D at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Ethan Tussey, a media arts senior who is currently taking a class with Smith-Shomade, introduced Smith-Shomade, whose lecture is the fourth installment of the Faculty Fellows Speakers Series.

Tussey said taking Smith-Shomade's Introduction to Media Arts class when he was a freshman inspired him to change his major from journalism to media arts.

"She's always very compelling and she picks really excellent clips that kind of illustrate her points," he said.

"I think what she said about it needing to be a continued discussion is really what's important and that people be a little more vigilant when they're watching media. I think that's the whole point of media studies," Tussey said.

William Broussard, a rhetoric and composition doctoral student who also attended the lecture, said he attended because the title caught his attention.

"I thought the title was really sexy," he said. "I'm a big fan of Dave Chappelle's humor and his show, so the reference was really catchy."

Broussard said he found Smith-Shomade's lecture entertaining and thought-provoking.

"I thought she was really on point with the rampant denigration of women in music videos," he said.

But Broussard said he disagreed with some of Smith-Shomade's views.

"I didn't necessarily see eye to eye with her when she was talking about contradictions," he said. "I think that once you start eliminating those contradictions and putting 'the best face of a race,' on TV, you run the risk of centralizing a social group."

She said she hopes people will actively voice their concerns about cable stations that "continue to pimp slap, define and make us their bitch for the advertisers they serve."

"My hope is that when you now turn on BET or MTV... or any of the cable stations you watch, that you will consider who the target is, what they are trying to sell, and how you do or do not agree with how they've defined you as a market."

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