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BET’s Debra Lee seeks to improve black women’s images with leadership talks

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post


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-Symon´┐Ż and children’s rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman.

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 president.

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 exist.”

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 other networks.”

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.”