The Womanist Themes of Jazmine Sullivan's "Reality Show"

by Jade Perry

In the days of VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop”, when we settle down to watch a reality show, we've come to expect a spectacle. In this 45 minute time frame, we want to see the glamour, the arguments, and the fashion all associated with the genre. Yet with her latest studio album, Reality Show, Jazmine Sullivan provides a healthy dose of "reality" that breaks down the issues that many women today are going through.

For this reason, the album is a wonderful examination of the complex intersections between gender, class, and race that impact Black women’s lives. Essentially, Jazmine Sullivan’s latest project is a womanist effort in many ways—proving itself to be meaningful, moving, and musically brilliant. Many of the themes she sings about are reminiscent of the messages from womanist pioneers like Audre Lorde, making the album timeless in its ability to blend the old with the new, as she tells honest stories about Black women’s with her incredible vocal abilities.
Even before you listen to the record, the decidedly minimalist album cover is making a statement. It showcases an old-school television with antennas and a picture of her face in the frame. This box set stands against a creamy yellow wall with the words “Jazmine Sullivan… Reality Show.” All our notions of the reality show as spectacle are completely de-constructed from the jump.

As Sullivan opens the album with the song “Dumb”, she immerses us into a reality that many of us have faced before: having a partner cheat on us. And so the womanist journey of Reality Show begins…

Track 2: “Mascara”

"Black women are programmed to define ourselves within this male attention and to compete with each other for it rather than to recognize and move upon our common interests." —Audre Lorde

Mascara is written as Jazmine Sullivan creates a storied landscape of a woman who is using her looks to attract the male gaze… in order to gain the financial assets that she needs and wants: 
Yeah, my hair and my ass fake, but so what? / I get my rent paid with it and my tits get me trips / To places I can't pronounce right / He said he'd keep it coming if I keep my body tight / And them bitches stay mad cause I'm living the life / Cause I'm living the life, oh...
From the beginning until the end, this song outlines the psychology behind the lengths that this character has gone in order to secure the “finer things” she wants out of life. However, all of these things are accessed through her relationship to the male gaze. You’ll notice Sullivan never tells us the names of any of the characters in the song, and she sings it in first person, essentially speaking in lieu of the woman she’s created. However, at the end, she suddenly switches into third person at the end of the song… letting the listeners in on a subtle clue: while she is speaking of a reality that may or may not be her own, it is not one that is far from the experiences of a number of Black women in America.

Tracks 3 - 5: “Brand New,” “Silver Lining,” and “#HoodLove”

“I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We've been taught that silence would save us, but it won't.” —Audre Lorde

Brand New” unpacks the collective story of women who work hard to support men with rap dreams:
This one's for / All the baby mamas and the down ass chicks / Remember y'all used to take bathroom pics / In the crib / And he said if he ever got rich, we out this bitch. 
Yet through the course of the song we realize that the man never makes good on his promise, leaving the woman alone and unsupported. In this song, Sullivan grapples with the tough decision of whether to call him on his lack of commitment, or to stay silent out of fear and embarrassment.

Then, the overall tone of the album changes tone in track 4, “Silver Lining.” This song is almost bright and bubbly: major chords, soft synths, flowing harmonies. Yet, in this track, Sullivan speaks the reality of a woman who is facing considerable financial strain, but striving to be optimistic. Her optimism turns into a stunning plot twist and act of desperation by the second verse: 
Listen I'm a good citizen, I'm not a criminal / But I ain't holding up off of the minimum / I got kids that I gotta support / But doing this was my last resort. 
Again, while we are singing along, Sullivan provides us with keen content around gender, class, and the hard decisions that some may turn to in order to support their family. This is the reality of women that we often only hear about in hushed tones.

Then, she swings into “#HoodLove”, a head bobber with swinging background vocals, and her passionate vocal delivery. She sings the realities of a woman who is with a hustler, unpacking the internal story and psychology behind what many scholars loosely refer to as “hood patriarchy”: 
Cause he always did what he had to do for me / I never have to worry 'bout a thing when I'm with 'em / More than the money and the clothes / And everything I know, is everything my heart beats for.
In these tracks, she channels the realities of a “cast of characters,” in which she directly identifies at some points and may subtly embellish at other points. She speaks the realities of a number of contemporary women, working through their relationships with men, as well as contending with their socioeconomic status, dreams, and gender roles—without providing justification or condemnation for the routes their lives have taken. In this way, she proves herself to be a masterful lyrical storyteller.

Tracks 6 - 8: “Let It Burn,” “Veins,” and “Forever Don’t Last”

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” ―Zora Neale Hurston

These next three tracks center around the theme of love and intimacy. “Let It Burn” encourages the listeners to let love grow inside, even when it is intense and passionate. “Veins” unpacks the addictive nature of love, featuring vocal stylings from Sullivan that seem sort of dreamy and far-away. Finally, “Forever Don’t Last” chronicles a love story gone awry, with grabbing vocals and a similar style of singing as “In Love with Another Man” (from her previous album, Fearless). It communicates the reality, truth, and pain of a broken heart.

Tracks 9 - 10: “Stupid Girl” and “Stanley”

These tracks are uncharacteristically upbeat. “Stupid Girl” features finger-snapping beats and vocals that some would say are reminiscent of Amy Winehouse. But while you’re jamming and singing along, Jazmine Sullivan is breaking down the subtle ways that patriarchy works in intimate relationships: 
Boys have toys too / You know they do / They call us stupid girls / And when you love 'em like I do / You'll be a fool…
Stanley” follows as seemingly upbeat, disco-influenced dance track. Yet the genius of it is the way her truthful lyrics play off the beat: 
I'm in the kitchen / Making the dinner that I know you like / And I be cleaning this damn house all day / And all night / But you don't pay me no attention, Stanley. 
It evokes the dissonance of putting on airs in a non-reciprocal relationship, as well as unpacking how preconceptions about gender affect how we perform for our partners in relationships. By this point in the album, the narrative has changed and the women in Jazmine Sullivan’s Reality Show are fed up with receiving less than what they deserve from their significant others.

Tracks 11 - 12: “Masterpiece (Mona Lisa)” and “If You Dare”

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde

Masterpiece (Mona Lisa)” is a sweeping, grandiose work of art. Sullivan asserts herself and her own beauty. Thus, she encourages women everywhere to do the same—especially significant, as it comes after she has spent the majority of the album painting the picture of the “reality show” that contemporary women are surviving through.

Her final track, “If You Dare,” is the song that you know you’ll listen to with all your girlfriends before going out! It’s a dance track very reminiscent of current Top 40 tunes: 
You're amazing, so am I / Let's dress up fancy and drink wine / Let's go crazy, don't be scared / Cause we can conquer the world, we can conquer the world / If you dare.
As with all projects from artists who are honest with their perspectives, the album is not without its issues. If you take the album just as it is, line by line, and track by track, you might find some of her lyrics problematic. She holds nothing back when singing about being a relationship with a man in the system (“#HoodLove”) or about women who use their physical assets to gain financial ones from men (“Mascara”). However, what she is doing is essentially telling and performing these stories, not necessarily endorsing them. She is inhabiting the realities of other women to explore these systemic concepts in relatable, interpersonal ways.

In the end, she leaves us with a challenge: to live our lives “high” and “right” and strive for a greater, more loving reality.

Purchase Jazmine Sullivan's Reality Show

Jade Perry is a freelance writer, womanist, and higher education professional specializing in diversity education and multicultural student success. She strives to “connect people with ideas” in order to facilitate collective learning! Feel free to connect with her online at or on Twitter @SAJadePerry1.