Perhaps America's love affair with reality television—and schadenfreude—has reached a new low.
Last month, the cable channel Oxygen came under fire for one of its shows in development. Titled "All My Babies' Mamas," the show follows rapper Shawty Lo and his ten "baby mamas," with whom he has a total of 11 children.
Each of the baby mamas has a reductive nickname, such as Ecreia, who is referred to as "The First Lady" since she has control over Shawty's finances, and Liana, who gets called the "Baby Mama from Hell" since she's not super chill about sharing the father of her kids with nine other women.
Shawty Lo, whose real name is Carlos Walker, offers the following explanation for how he came to father 11 kids out of wedlock: "I had a lot of girls. They was in love and I probably was too with them, so you know, it just happened."
A website for the production company behind the show was hacked in December and a 13-minute preview was leaked online. The video incited author Sabrina Lamb to start a petition against the show for its offensive representation of African-Americans. Over 37,000 signatures later, Oxygen announced they were canceling the show earlier this week.
Walker told TMZ that he is determined to get the show on the air and that other networks are interested in the special. As for the allegations that "All My Babies' Mamas" is demeaning to African-Americans, Walker says, "I take pride in having been actively present in all my children's lives—and I understand my family doesn't represent the typical American family, but it's my family and it works for us."
But here's the problem with that defense: judging from the preview, "All My Babies' Mamas" doesn't represent Shawty Lo's life so much as openly smirk at it.
The preview features choice moments such as Ashlin, Walker's latest 19-year-old girlfriend, and Ecreia fighting for the privilege of managing Walker's finances. At another point, as Ashlin plays cards with a few of Walker's kids, an on-screen caption points to her that says, "Ashlin, NOT one of the kids"—an inclusion that mocks both Ashlin's age and Walker's willingness to date her.
The issue isn't whether "All My Babies' Mamas" is offensive—it is, to pretty much everyone. But this is what reality television has become. And if you draw the line at Shawty Lo, it's harder to defend shows such as "The Biggest Loser," which now features child contestants, or "Fat Girl Revenge," a show about formerly fat women who take revenge on people who made fun of them while they were fat. It's hard to expect reality television to be unoffensive when shock and schadenfreude are the entire point. The car-wreck appeal of reality TV is as strong as ever, and without a serious overhaul of the way we watch, shows like these are here to stay.