Princeton University Library Catalog

Commodifying “Respectability”: "Reality TV" and Youtube-Vlogging Black Women in the Cultural Marketplace

Caldwell, Caitlin [Browse]
Senior thesis
Yeung, King-To [Browse]
Princeton University. Department of Sociology [Browse]
Class year:
102 pages
Restrictions note:
Walk-in Access. This thesis can only be viewed on computer terminals at the Mudd Manuscript Library.
Summary note:
The history of media technologies is filled with the introduction of emerging technologies that ultimately reconfigure our notions of cultural representation and consciousness, while simultaneously opening new economic markets. This thesis addresses the ways that Black women control their presentation of ethnicity and femininity to both Black and non-Black, audiences in the emerging digital age of the cultural marketplace during a time of recession, and how these processes, in turn, affect Black women's understandings of their own cultural identities and notions of respectability, and socioeconomic class (as well as its mobility). I argue that the cultural representation taking place in emerging digital media technologies (via digital media and reality television) fits into the larger arenas of cultural production in which expectations of ethnicity and femininity are negotiated, maintained, revitalized and reproduced. Rarely has it been considered that Black women are encountering, reflecting on and resisting within the post-structuralist cultural market, especially with respect to the labor market. My thesis research is in the form of a comparative content analysis, wherein I juxtapose Black women's cross-culture "presentation of self" with her in-culture expression. My sample includes Black women from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, R&B Divas, and YouTube. Black reality television and digital media provides black women an arena for labor and accumulation as well as self-presentation, mediation, and mobility. As a space for work, survival, consumption and identity-formation, the genre (Black reality television and digital media) proffers an opportunity to explore the gendering of black post-structuralist identity as well as a site of labor developed in the market during the recession of 2008. For these reasons, this site allows us to think through historical echoes of the current controversies, debates, and economics (money) around exactly what constitutes "appropriate" black self-expression. Even as it offers a venue for acts of self-representation, class mobility, and networking, the Black female reality television shows and digital media vlogs raise important questions about contemporary black politics of respectability and the commodification of these politics. I employ the conceptual framework of self-commodification using Joseph E. Davis's definition of self-commodification as "the reorganization of our personal lives and relationships on the model of market relations" (Davis 2004). Within my framework self-commodification is a dual process; it is both an economic response to the emergence of the cultural voyeur market, as well as a politically motivated expression of the subaltern identity. The complexity of the emotional labor and cultural skills (cross culture and/or in-culture) necessary to be successful in Reality TV Media contributes to these Black women's construction of what Bunten coined as a "commodified persona" (Bunten 2006). These Black Women employ heuristics to determine this commodified persona that highlight the tensions between structure and agency in the context of post-structuralist 7 cultural voyeurism. The self-commodification operating at the cultural voyeurism site is conducted within a well-ordered framework of political, economic, and social structures. However, there is space at the individual level to reflect on the structures of the political-economic architecture, and even re-frame them. Within this "personal" space, I show that these gender and racial (and sometimes sexual) politics operate within a cultural-fetishized economy of respectability politics. The "respectability politics" operating within these Black women's "presentation of self" challenges ideas that fix the expectations of the Black womanhood, by using the fetishized expectations of Black womanhood to strategically work with and through modern captialism. Through the process of self-commodification, Black women in Reality TV Media display the disillusioned understanding of "what it means to be an African-American woman." Therefore, it follows that my analysis shows that all these Black women are involved with culture identity re-production and an engagement with respectability politics. Thus, my thesis adds new dimensions to the body of work that explores identity formation in which authenticity, economic independence, autonomy, subaltern theory, upward class mobility, and the maintenance of self-identity are linked. Primarily, my thesis is concerned with exploring how Black women engage respectability politics as a form of economy as the site for self-presentation according to the values and practices of "radical consumerism," "play-labor," and self- or counter fetishization. My underlying question, though not fully answered in this thesis, attempts to reveal an unexplored demographic and their experience—What are the various ways that Black women mobilize and sustain class status (seek stability) during times of recession—or when their labor is devalued?