You Can't Turn a Ho into a Housewife: Basketball Wives and the Politics of Wifedom

Curator's Note

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. 


Wonderful piece! Yes, the irony of ironies with regard to these women is how they ALL were jumpoffs at some point which is of course, how they landed their men (or the men they had at some point) and how they know the signs to watch for. In many ways this kind of disowning/owning (when necessary)of their own origin story is fascinating and illustrative of the ways black women are allowed to frame themselves in these narratives. I mean, when LaKeesha from Compton transforms into "Malaysia" once she marries her husband and can transition the way her ignorance about the world forced her into quiet (that's my theory anyway) into being read as "aloof" (a very cultural term not necessarily allocated to black women)? That's the power of the signifier "basketball wife." 

I could go on but I'll stop. For now.

 Thanks for your thoughts, Kristen. Yes, there is something so fascinating about the slippage that occurs in how "wife" is being understood on this show, particularly given Royce's comment that she had been labeled a groupie (but presumably isn't anymore) before the women got to know her. On a related note, I'm very interested in thinking about why these women have received so much criticism and how this pivots along the axis of race. On message boards, Jennifer Williams is always referred to as a "golddigger," which means that not even an official wife gets to claim straightforward "wife" status if she happens to be black. Contrast that, for instance, with the same message board's treatment of Kendra Wilkinson, whose narrative somehow gets filed under the "bad girl turned good" category.


YES. As if these athletes are somehow not picking "choice pieces" from low socio-economic backgrounds! Kendra was Hef's "ho" for quite a while--sharing him with two other ladies and she gets to be sweet and athletic with Hank. I think what helped her is having the baby. Jennifer is so not concerned with that. And so, it is easier to show how cavalier and capricious she is as opposed to having real things to worry about. Contrast Jennifer to Shaunie, right? Shaunie has 5 kids and she would never be called a golddigger---although the same origin story is probably hers as well.

Who most interests me in LA (outside of Lakeesha/Malaysia) is Jackie Christie--for all the reasons that you mention. Her self-fashioning and the yearly weddings seem to be directly trying to react against against the appropriated forms of wife/wifey. She IS Doug's wife (after 3 marriages before) and that is ALL.

I'm rambling but I love this show so much because of the way it forces us to reconsider the ways that domestic partnership is understood in different cultural contexts, i.e., "engagement=wedding" even if we NEVER get married officially.

I love this post.  Thanks for helping me learn more about a show I don't watch (but should be thinking about more, clearly).  

Do you think there is any conscious irony in the title of the show?  As if there is a direct policing actively employed within the framing of the program--exposing the variety of ways "wife" has been distorted by modern life featuring all these women who work and do other inappropriate "wifely" things.  I fear the joy of the program for an audience is misrecognition, enjoying the failure of the program's stars to achieve true wifely (passive) status.

Alternatively, to what extent can this program become a larger critique of heteronormative marital values?  By highlighting the emptiness of the term, "wife," might there be a subtle undermining of the term's strength and impact?

 Karen, I think that the title of the show is definitely being read ironically by many viewers (I can't speak to whether it's intentional or not since I believe there were issues with casting). Sadly, I think that the joke is on the women in the show, since as you rightfully point out, part of the pleasure is in watching them fail to meet the standards of what it means to be a "wife."

At the same time, I think that the dialogue created between the show and its critics is particularly fruitful for thinking about heteronormative values. In the first article that I linked, the author actually critiques the women for not being "ladylike." To me, it is emblematic of the retrogressive politics that lies underneath the current nostalgia for "the way things were." Specifically, I'm thinking about films like The Help and pretty much every statement that comes out of the Tea Party. So, while I don't think that Basketball Wives is fully subverting these norms, I do think that it creates a space to think about how norms operate specifically in relation to race and class. 


I also have not seen this show before, but am fascinated by the ways in which these reality shows must create a good/bad dichotomy, placing what seems to me a relatively civil conversation later in the clip in the context of hero and villain.

The remarks about the numerous plastic surgeries specifically removes some of the human-ness from the so-called groupie, further allowing for the viewer to feel more respect and loyalty to the wife.  The comments about her husband talking to numerous other women seems to be the most crushing comment and creates even more sympathy.  Regardless of who is betraying whom, the creation of the villain with cleanly edited interviews backs the viewer into a pre-determined mindset and effectively points out how these shows turn real people into protagonists and antagonists. 

Thank you very much for this great post!

I completely agree with your insight that this show provides alternative definitions of "wife," or at the very least challenges its exclusivity. I was most taken by your locating of the ring as a signifier of a subject position that demarcates status. What I see happening is that the ring--as both a material and a discursive object of wealth--serves to situate Mrs. Williams at a position of power that extends beyond that of those that rely only on language (gossip, the title of "groupie") to grant them status.

Interestingly enough, not only does Mrs. William advocate for the ring's agency--as made more compicated by Professor Gates' mention of the traditional exclusion of African American women from the imagined category of "wife"-- but also the show's cinematography (1) accentuates the shine amidst a lowly lit setting, and (2) center's it in the frame, with Mrs. William's face towards the camera while only showing Sandra aka "plastic surgery" (the groupie)'s back.

I am quite taken by this clip, and look fowrard to exploring how other material objects acquire significance throughout the season.

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