BET still has a 'Mess' even with title change

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Hot Ghetto Mess -- n. A tacky or obnoxious person, place or thing; deplorable behavior; former name of BET's controversial new show airing tonight at 10:30.

Will a "Hot Ghetto Mess" by any other name still smell like moldy stereotypes?

Those who've been turning up the heat on BET over its new show are claiming a small victory in getting the name changed to something a bit more palatable. However, they're still ready to kick that flame up a notch if the half-hour video clip program, hosted by comedian Charlie Murphy, lives up to their low expectations.

Now called "We've Got to Do Better," the show, formerly known as "Hot Ghetto Mess," has been billed as "an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek examination of the good, the bad and the ugly of black popular culture." Advance copies of the show have not been provided to television critics.

In a statement released Monday, BET explained why it changed the name.

"We want to highlight the show's real intent, which is to offer social commentary in a context that sparks dialogue, debate and most importantly change."

The show is based on a popular Web site called Hot Ghetto Mess, which features videos and photos of people, most of them African-American, in unflattering outfits and questionable behavior. Web site creator Jameela Donaldson, a Washington, D.C., attorney and writer/producer for the BET show, said she created HGM, the Web site, as a clarion call for African-Americans to reject outlandishness and questionable behavior.

"We've got to do better," is the Web site's tag line.

However, Gina McCauley, an Austin, Texas, attorney and blogger who's led the charge against the BET show and takes credit for forcing the name change, believes that the show, like the Web site, will exploit and reinforce stereotypes.

Among those joining her efforts are the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rainbow PUSH, the National Congress of Black Women, the National Coalition for Black Participation and a number of bloggers.

Ms. McCauley, founder of "What About Our Daughters," a blog aimed at combatting the destructive images of African-American women in popular culture, takes credit for two advertisers dropping their ads from the BET Web site promoting the show. Home Depot and State Farm pulled their ads, she said, after she contacted their headquarters to inform them that the ads were abutting a Sambo-like image with a line through it being used to promote "Hot Ghetto Mess."

For tonight's premiere, Ms. McCauley is once again turning her attention toward the advertisers. "Any advertisers that advertise on the show are going to be held accountable for every video, every photo and every joke on that show," she said.

E. Faye Williams of the National Congress of Black Women said her group began fighting such negative images 15 years ago under the leadership of her predecessor, the late C. Delores Tucker.

"It makes our job more difficult to raise the aspirations of young people when we have mass-produced shows and records seemingly undoing what we're trying to do, that is to teach young people to respect each other ...," Dr. Williams said. "People in other nations get the impression we're all stupid, we're all ignorant, we're all dumb."

In an online chat conducted Monday by the Washington Post, Ms. Donaldson vigorously defended the show for which she wrote all six episodes. Asked in the chat whether her Web site and upcoming TV show glamorize the extremes of ghetto culture, she responded, "I think that one problem with the pervasion of negative images through the airwaves is the lack of context. Even when we forward these images endlessly over the Internet, we are sending them out without any context or judgment as to what they represent.

"That's what the site and now the TV show tries to do. It takes the images that we see every day already, and explains that those images do not represent who we are as a community. This is an opportunity to challenge the glamorization of negative imagery."

Reginald Hudlin, BET's programming president, has said the show is no different than actor Bill Cosby's town hall meetings in which he addresses the problems plaguing the African-American community.

Ms. McCauley said she is certainly all for social commentary on the state of the African-American community and examining some of its troubling aspects.

"However, if that food for thought is served on a maggot-covered trash can lid, we can't digest it," she said.

By so closely associating the show with the controversial Web site, any positive message it seeks to provide is tainted, Ms. McCauley said.

Andrew Rojecki, associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said trying to address social issues in such a manner could backfire.

He is co-author of the book "Black Images in the White Mind: Race in America."

"One thing that's become clear is this concept of unconscious racism," he said. "It's the idea that the majority of white Americans think of themselves as open-minded and opposed to racism."

Still, many harbor the stereotypes they grew up with, he said.

"Some of the research shows that African-Americans are susceptible to the same stereotypes. African-Americans think of themselves negatively as well," Dr. Rojecki said. "A show like this one has the potential for reinforcing those unconscious stereotypes. I think that's one of the reasons there's a reaction to this show."

While BET's show has garnered a lot of media attention, other shows such as VH1's "Flava of Love," starring former Public Enemy rapper Flava Flave, and its spinoffs, "I Love New York" and "Charm School," which some believe play up negative stereotypes about African-American women, seemingly coast below the radar. There have been opposition to these shows, but none of the protestations have reached the level generated by the former "HGM."

A group called "Turn off Channel Zero," composed of activists, media personalities and artists and led by Public Enemy's Prof. Griff, traveled to historically black campuses denouncing shows by MTV, VH1 and Viacom. The group even produced a film highlighting the efforts taking place in various cities against such programming.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, founder and president of anti-racism training company New Demographic and the blog Racialicious, said that the aforementioned reality shows may get more slack from the public because the "stars" of those programs "pretty much know what they get into."

For that reason, people watch those shows with a healthy bit of skepticism, she said. But, Ms. Van Kerckhove added, there seems to be a "freak show quality" to the HGM Web site, on which the BET show is based. The Web site seems to mock people's choices in hair and makeup, she said. "I don't see what grooming habits have to do with social dysfunction."

Ms. Van Kerckhove also raised the issue of classism. "It seems the Web site exists to make people feel good," she said, "because we're not like those people."


Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.


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