In this clip from the popular VH1 reality show, Basketball Wives, the cast confronts a known “groupie.” The scenario is a tired cliché: the women misdirect their ire towards the “other woman” as a way of concealing their insecurities about their men’s fidelity. At the same time, however, this clip embodies the tensions that surround black women and their relationship to normative gender roles, particularly the idea of what it means to be a “wife.”
The irony of the women’s anti-groupie pearl clutching is that many of them could just as easily be classified as “groupies,” “jumpoffs,” or “baby mamas” by their own narrow definitions. In fact, Basketball Wives has been widely criticized because it features women who had relationships with professional athletes but were never legally married. Of the three cast members featured in this clip, only Jennifer Williams is married. Within this context, her insistence on her identity as “the wife” (complete with ring display) is laden with meaning. Rather than merely describing marital status, “wife” is a strategic subject position that confers respectability and value upon its bearer.
Perhaps the reason that the women on Basketball Wives cling so tightly to their “wife” status is because black women have usually been excluded from an understanding of what it means to be one. Historically, the characteristics associated with the very image of a “wife” (white, middle class, appropriately feminine) have been defined in contrast to the lived experiences of black women, and often used to exclude them from the social, political, and financial privileges associated with its status. The Moynihan Report and its scathing condemnation of the black single mother is a notable example, as are the recent flurry of books, articles, and news reports that focus on the “problem” of unmarried black women.
We should be careful, therefore, not to assume that the women's claiming of "wife" status is simply an adherence to gender norms. Instead, it might be productive to view it as an attempt to appropriate the signifiers associated with wifedom that are typically denied to black women: security, legitimacy, and respect. To borrow a common saying: don't hate the player, hate the game. By redefining the definition of "wife" to include girlfriends, baby mamas, and even groupies, the women on Basketball Wives are opening up a space to contemplate the politics of who gets to be a "wife" in our society.