A journal of television and new media

BET’s Baldwin Hills: Injecting Race and Class into the Projective Drama

Baldwin Hills

Baldwin Hills

Early practitioners of documentary film, like John Grierson and Dziga Vertov, felt that the genre should serve a prosocial purpose, acting as an antidote to the oversimplified fantasy world created by the fiction film. The purpose of documentary was to “mobilize viewers to act in the world, with a greater sense of knowledge or even a more fully elaborated conception of social structure and historical process.”1 This ideal documentary, conceived as a lifting of a veil or as a call to action, is a far cry from the current state of reality television. In particular, the success of the “projective drama” (Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City, My Super Sweet Sixteen) indicates that a lot of contemporary reality TV thrives on fantasy and escape (even though these programs are structured as lifestyle models for their young audiences).2 However, BET’s Baldwin Hills, a scripted reality drama about teenagers living in and around what is known as the “black Beverly Hills,” effectively straddles the line between projective drama and rhetorical document, offering audiences an opportunity for escape as well as a chance to engage with the challenges and responsibilities faced by Los Angeles teenagers.

When Baldwin Hills first premiered in 2007, many critics noted its similarities to MTV’s scripted reality dramas, particularly its “cinematic” look and its foregrounding of the spectacle of wealth.3 However, while the casts of Laguna Beach and The Hills are all middle- to upper-class and white, the Baldwin Hills cast is composed of African American teens from a variety of social and economic backgrounds. Furthermore, although all of these programs function as escapist, consumerist fantasies, Baldwin Hills differs in its ability to engage with a broad range of concerns faced by teenagers of all backgrounds, including gang violence, drug and alcohol addiction, teenage pregnancy and parental divorce/estrangement. As one of the few reality programs explicitly targeting African American youth, Baldwin Hills aims to dismantle certain assumptions about black teens and their goals, choices and environment.

Baldwin Hills’ polyvocal approach to the teen experience is further bolstered by the fact that each episode is narrated by multiple voices. In fact, more than one person might narrate a single scene. This strategy implies that every cast member’s experiences and opinions are integral to the program, and ensures that a diversity of perspectives are expressed, rather than the single perspective of one star personality. (Watch an episode of Baldwin Hills here.) By contrast, every episode of The Hills is narrated by and centers on the life of one person, Lauren Conrad (and now Kristin Cavallari), whose narrational voice is omniscient and omnipresent.

One Baldwin Hills cast member who receives a lot of screen time is Staci, a working class teenager residing in a low-income neighborhood adjacent to Baldwin Hills known as “the Jungles.” Staci and her fellow, wealthier cast members would not interact under ordinary circumstances since they attend different high schools, live in different neighborhoods and move in different social circles. Thus, in order to facilitate interactions between these cast members, Baldwin Hills adopts a technique frequently employed by scripted reality shows: the orchestration of seemingly “random” encounters. In projective dramas staged encounters are used to create friction and “drama” between already tense cast mates, but in the context of Baldwin Hills they offer the possibility of facilitating productive dialogues between teenagers whose lives are otherwise highly structured by geographical boundaries. For example, when Staci runs into some Baldwin Hills residents at a coffee shop the girls decide to sit together. Staci then recounts a disturbing story about a gang related shooting that shocks and disturbs her listeners. While the girls freely admit that they cannot relate to Staci’s life, her story leads them to discuss their own fears. Garnette admits, “I’m scared of so many little things. I’m scared all the time, actually.” Such conversations are a standard convention of the scripted reality drama, but in Baldwin Hills these otherwise artificial moments are capable of producing a diverse portrait of the contemporary teenagers’ lived experiences of Los Angeles.

Staged Encounter at a Coffee Shop

Staged Encounter at a Coffee Shop

Baldwin Hills’ tweaking of the conventions of the projective drama is also highlighted in an episode in which the girls go shopping for party outfits. Willie, Ashley, Garnette, and Makensy shop at the expensive boutique, Ed Hardy. However, this conventional scene of decadence is undercut when the camera documents Staci’s more modest shopping excursion at the discount clothing store, Rainbow. While eager sales associates dote on the Baldwin Hills girls and show them expensive designs, Staci must dig through Rainbow’s vast selection of discount clothing by herself. The use of parallel editing in this scene creates a contradictory viewing experience for the audience: we can take pleasure in the fantasy of conspicuous consumption with the Baldwin Hills girls while Staci’s shopping trip is likely a more accurate reflection of the average teenager’s shopping experiences.

Garnette at Ed Hard

Garnette at Ed Hard

Staci at Rainbow

Another difference between Baldwin Hills and other projective dramas lies in its construction of space. MTV reality series that are named after the areas in which they are filmed (Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City) depict these locations not as geographical spaces where people live and work, but as assemblages of expensive restaurants and clothing stores. Although certain scenes in Baldwin Hills do fetishize spaces of consumption, the program also focuses on the diverse mise en scène of Los Angeles. For example, in one episode former NBA star Reggie Theus gives his daughter, Roqui, a new Lincoln Navigator. This display of conspicuous consumption, familiar from MTV programs like My Super Sweet Sixteen, is intercut with a scene of Staci walking through her economically devastated neighborhood. In this brief scene the mise en scène shifts dramatically from the landscaped greens of suburbia to the barren browns and bleached out yellows of urban blight. Here Baldwin Hills offers viewers pleasures similar to those found in other projective dramas—the gift of a luxury vehicle—only to undercut these same pleasures, reminding viewers that the black teenage experience cannot be encapsulated by a single image.

Roqui Gets a Navigator

Roqui Gets a Navigator

Staci and Friends in the Jungles

Finally, like other projective dramas, Baldwin Hills offers its fans a “multi platform engagement” with the show. That is, viewers can read cast members’ blogs, take quizzes, watch behind the scenes footage, and post comments to message boards.4 The content of many of these posts indicate that fans are able to “relate” to the show’s cast members. When, for example, Staci became unexpectedly pregnant in season two and then suffered a miscarriage in season three, several viewers shared their own stories of loss on the message boards. Furthermore, many fans post e-mail addresses, social networking homepages and, in a few cases, home phone numbers. Beyond the hope that these posts might facilitate contact with one of Baldwin Hills’ stars, it is likely that many of the show’s fans are hoping to communicate with other young people on the boards who share their interests or problems. The overall tone of these posts differs dramatically from those found on the message boards for projective dramas like The Hills. For its fans, The Hills’ cast members are celebrities to discuss and possibly emulate, but not real people who might relate to their fans’ problems.

What is difficult to make clear in this short space is that Baldwin Hills does not reduce the African American teenagers’ experience to a working class/good and upper class/bad binary opposition. Though many of the cast members live privileged lives, they are also active in community outreach and education. Nor does the show valorize one teenager’s experiences as being more “real” than another’s. In this series Los Angeles is defined through a collective of voices and experience. As the opening credits state, “This is Baldwin Hills. And this is our reality.” While Baldwin Hills hardly fits Grierson’s or Vertov’s vision of the ideal documentary, it serves as an antidote to the alternately spoiled and hard-partying caricatures of American youth offered in most contemporary reality TV.

Image Credits:

1. Baldwin Hills

Images 2-6 were captured by the author from a DVD of Baldwin Hills: Season 1.

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Nichols, Bill. Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. []
  2. Kleinhans, Chuck. “Webisodic Mock Vlogs: HoShows as Commercial Entertainment New Media.” Jump Cut 50 (2008). 15 Jul. 2008 
. []
  3. See, for example, Mike Hale’s “Posh Princes and Princesses of the Hills.” The New York Times.com 7 Aug. 2007. 3 Nov. 2009 . []
  4. http://betboards.bet.com/forums/ []

Comments

  • Mabel Rosenheck / FLOW Staff (Author) said:

    This is such a great column, Amanda.
    First I’m curious if you could explain a little bit more the concept of the “projective drama.”
    Second, I’m always really interested in the power of juxtaposition and how separate images/scenes can be in dialogue with one another and what the space produced between those scenes allows for. It’s interesting that as Baldwin Hills juxtaposes class groups against one another, it also is neccessarily juxtaposing the race, class and geography of this area and this show with that of not only Laguna Beach, The Hills, etc. but also fictional dramas like 90210 (both original and recent) or the OC. Therein lies another interesting space where dialogue might be produced.
    I’m also curious about the Baldwin Hills message boards and how they might be more like the Degrassi boards than something on MTV.com.
    Again, thanks for an excellent column!

  • amanda said:

    Hi Mabel! To answer your question re: projective dramas, I first read the term in an article by Chuck Kleinhans in Jump Cut (see my 2nd footnote). He defines the projective drama as “the dramatic presentation of a situation that the core audience views in anticipation that they will be in a similar situation sometime in the future.” However, what is interesting about MTV’s projective dramas like The Hills and The City is that the vast majority of the core audience for these programs will not be in similar situations in the future–the cast members of these shows are all very wealthy and their exciting, lucrative jobs are primarily result of MTV pulling the strings. Most people won’t livr Lauren Conrad’s life unless they are cast in their own reality show. By contrast, Baldwin Hills contains these unattainable lifestyle models as well as lifetsyle models resembling those of the “average teen” (shopping in discount clothing stores, dealing with divorced parents, etc.).

    I have not seen the Degrassi message boards–what are they like?

    As for the Baldwin Hills boards–they definitely contain some snide comments (criticizing characters for being stuck up or unattractive, etc), just like on The Hills boards. But I was really interested in how the Baldwin Hills posts indicated how fans could relate to cast members–that they had endured similar traumas. A character I didn’t have time to discuss in my column is Justin–a teenage father and born again Christian. Fans LOVE him. This is partly due to his good looks but mostly seems tied to his religious commitment (he is baptised in one episode) and to his commitment to his daughter. These kind of comments are rare on message boards for other projective dramas (at least in my research).

  • Mabel Rosenheck said:

    Ah, really interesting stuff.

    Degrassi is not a reality show (and is a product of public broadcasting) so of course it operates somewhat differently, but because it deals with serious teen issues like pregnancy, drugs, rape, divorce, poverty (or at least non-middle/upper class life), gun violence and what have you their websites have generally been focused on offering information about those kinds of things and I think their message boards reflect a similar kind of dialogue about those kinds of things. I think it’s Sharon Ross that has written about that stuff. It sounds like incredibly rich territory, especially since its not just a show about black teens but on a (or the) black oriented network, so also for a black audience.

    In any case, I’m looking forward to the rest of your columns!

  • Tiff said:

    Amanda, thanks for the interesting column. You cite a lot of examples from the first season and mention parts of the second, I wonder how much or what changes in the third season. The series’ discussions of class distinctions plays a large role in the first season, mainly through the inclusion of Staci and the discussions about class and neighborhoods between Sal and Willie, but I think that some of that gets lost in the second season. I’m curious as to what you think about the progression of the series with regards to the portrayal, inclusion, incorporation of class.
    I like your discussion of created space and think that the use of street signs is vital in the construction of Baldwin Hills on BET.

  • amanda said:

    Hi Tiff. Good question. Since this column was so short I decided to limit my discussion to Staci in Season 1, for the sake of clarity. However, I do think that the series continues to showcase diverse class backgrounds and storylines in seasons 2 and 3 (though I will admit that I have not watched all 3 seasons in their entirety). For example, in the season 1 opening credits the voice overs of the cast members claim that they are the sons and daughters of “doctors, actors and athletes” (i.e., upper class professions). In season 2, this script changes to also include “policemen, nurses and teachers” (middle class, working class).

    This shift in the credits reflects the introduction of Justin and Seiko in Seasons 2 and 3. Justin is a teenage father whose own father was a drug addict who abandoned him as a child and Seiko is a working class teen who, I believe, is a former gang banger. In one episode, in either season 2 or 3, a cast member attends a peace march for victims of gang related violence. And in season 3, Staci, Gerren and Seiko go to speak to a group of preteens about teen pregnancy, eating disorders and gang violence. This episode was particularly disturbing as a young girl stood up and discussed losing a family member (can you imagine anything like that happening in The Hills or The City?). So I do think the series maintains this emphasis on the diverse experiences of LA teens, even as it also introduces new, weathy characters like Aun’ jel and Lor ‘Rena.

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