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'All My Babies' Mamas' Won't Be Happening, But What If It Had?

Seen here in 2008, Shawty Lo is the rapper whose babies and their mamas were scheduled to be part of an Oxygen reality special. But now, that's not happening.
Matt Sayles
Seen here in 2008, Shawty Lo is the rapper whose babies and their mamas were scheduled to be part of an Oxygen reality special. But now, that's not happening.

It looks like All My Babies' Mamas isn't going to happen.

The Oxygen reality special was supposed to follow Shawty Lo, a rapper from Atlanta, and the complications that attend his relationships with the mothers (10) of his children (11). It was scheduled to premiere this spring, but almost as soon as it was announced in December, there was outcry from people who felt that the show propped up demeaning stereotypes about black people. Oxygen announced Tuesday that the show will be scuttled before it even airs. (Shawty Lo is reportedly fighting back with a petition of his own urging the network to reverse course again and let Babies' Mamas see the light of day.)

Babies' Mamas exists — or would have existed — in a television landscape that is increasingly devoid of shows with black casts, and the term "baby mama" itself makes a lot of people concerned about the number of black children born to unmarried parents see red. It's a perfect storm of anxieties about cultural representation and pathologies. There aren't a lot of images of black people on TV, the argument goes. The ones that appear could at least be affirming, or barring that, not stereotypical.

A petition by Color of Change, an influential advocacy organization, accused Oxygen of trying to profit from "inaccurate, dehumanizing, and harmful perceptions of Black families."

The form-letter petition goes on:

Research shows that inflammatory images like these can result in real world consequences for our families, including less attention from doctors, harsher sentencing by judges, lower likelihood of being hired or admitted to school, lower odds of getting loans, and a higher likelihood of getting shot by police.

That's a lot of potential inequality to tether (however indirectly) to a reality show on a middling basic cable network.

One of the odd side effects of many reality shows — even those shows meant to paint their subjects as ridiculous or distasteful — is that they can humanize their stars. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo's detractors are myriad, and they often single out the disdain the producers seem to take toward the Thompsons, the family at the its center. But the show's fans point out that that disdain (which is nakedly class-based) is undercut by the fact that the Thompsons are affirming toward each other and actually kind of boringly level-headed about their strange notoriety.

And it turns out that Ice-T and Coco have a loving, affectionate marriage, while Tiny and T.I. are active, engaged copilots of their blended family. Sure, both the men in those last two shows are rappers with criminal pasts, but that's not all they are.

If unconventional families — polygamists, huge broods, marginal celebrities — are a staple of the reality show genre, Babies' Mamas would seem to fit neatly within those parameters. What if the show's subjects were mostly concerned with mundane stuff like carpooling logistics and dance rehearsals? Isn't it possible that Babies' Mamas could have also granted some humanity to real baby's mamas and complicated some simplistic, ugly stereotypes about them?

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Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.

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