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Tamar Braxton: Get Ya Life Blurs the Line Between Entertainment and Exploitation

This one is hard to watch

Malcolm Venable

Days after singer and reality star Tamar Braxton attempted to take her own life earlier this summer, the vivacious personality from The Real, Braxton Family Values, and Celebrity Big Brother posted a courageous Instagram message opening up about her mental health — and saying her most recent project contributed to her crisis. Braxton had been working with We TV, where Braxton Family Values made her a star, on a new reality series in which she documented her journey rebuilding her life after a divorce and public feud with her family. In her post, Braxton wrote that the experience left her broken.

"I felt like I was no longer living," she wrote. "I was existing for the purpose of a corporation's gain and ratings, and that killed me. I wrote a letter over 2 months ago asking to be freed from what I believed was excessive and unfair. I explained in personal detail the demise I was experiencing. My cry for help went totally ignored. However the demands persisted." 


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In the aftermath, We TV and Braxton agreed to part ways and stop creating new content together. ("Tamar Braxton has been an important part of our network family for more than a decade," the network said in a statement. "As she focuses on her health and recovery...we will work with her representatives to honor her request to end all future work for the network. We wish her nothing but the best.") 

That agreement did not preclude We TV from airing what it had already shot, however, and so it is that we get Tamar Braxton: Get Ya Life, a sometimes uncomfortably intense chronicle of how Braxton began to feel unwell. The experiences that led to Braxton's mental health struggles -- family drama, relationship problems, and so on -- are specific to her, but Get Ya Life is a chilling example of the ways in which reality shows can exploit people, and how the viewing public becomes complicit in devouring someone's soul.

Two of the season's six episodes, which were taped last year, were sent to critics. From the start, they quietly rumble with the promise of a larger storm ahead. In the first episode, Braxton says in her own words that she's lost everything: friends, family, her home, her manager ex-husband, her dreams, and herself. Hers is a predicament none of us want to be in, let alone be filmed experiencing. But this is the gig. What goes unspoken is that, having fashioned herself into a reality star a long time ago, Braxton's career and, one assumes, income now largely depend on letting cameras (us) into her life, again. She believes this is her last option and says as much.

This Catch-22 is what leads her to essentially beg mega-producer Mona Scott-Young for help in the first episode. Given Scott's complicated legacy of creating hit franchises like Love & Hip Hop that've been criticized for problematic depictions of Black women, Braxton looks like she's making a deal with the devil. That's not to say that Scott-Young is the devil, per se, but the machine that promises Braxton money and continued fame at significant costs to her own well-being is a scary one indeed. Scott-Young repeatedly warns Braxton that she must understand what she's signing up for and can't bail when it gets too intense. Braxton says she wants this, but then, she's already stated she doesn't have any other options. We don't make it through Episode 1 before Braxton reneges on her promise to give cameras access to her every move. Almost as soon as she walks into the cage, the door slams shut, and her natural reactions to the stress and powerlessness of the situation are sometimes hard to watch. Even the show's title, in context of Braxton's near loss of life, seems puzzling.

View this post on Instagram

First and foremost, Thank you. Thank you to each and every individual who has prayed for me, thought of me, sent me their love and has showered me with their support. In this present moment, it is my only responsibility to be real with myself and to be real with the ones who truly love me and care for my healing. I have without fail, shared with you my brightest days, and I know that sharing with you what has been my darkest will be the light for any man or woman who is feeling the same defeat I felt just only a week ago.  Every one of us has a desire, whether small or big, to make it out of where we come from to an ideal future place that includes, freedom to be who we choose, security for our children and families, and fortune to share with the ones we love. We believe these things can co-exist with just being happy. I believed that, that as a black woman, as an artist, an influence, a personality I could shape my world, and with whom I believed to be my partners, they could help me share my world. Over the past 11 years there were promises made to protect and portray my story, with the authenticity and honesty I gave. I was betrayed, taken advantage of, overworked, and underpaid. I wrote a letter over 2 months ago asking to be freed from what I believed was excessive and unfair. I explained in personal detail the demise I was experiencing. My cry for help went totally ignored. However the demands persisted. It was my spirit, and my soul that was tainted the most. There are a few things I count on most to be, a good mother, a good daughter, a good partner, a good sister, and a good person. Who I was, begun to mean little to nothing, because it would only be how I was portrayed on television that would matter. It was witnessing the slow death of the woman I became, that discouraged my will to fight. I felt like I was no longer living, I was existing for the purpose of a corporations gain and ratings, and that killed me. Mental illness is real. We have to normalize acknowledging it and stop associating it with shame and humiliation. The pain that I have experienced over the past 11 years has slowly ate away at my spirit and my mental. (Swipe to finish )

A post shared by Tamar Braxton (@tamarbraxton) on

This isn't to say she's a victim; she knew what she was signing up for, and some of the frustrations she experiences are of her own making. In one scene, she storms off and refuses to do a form of tension release therapy recommended by a therapist on grounds that it might make her look like an angry Black woman. She's both right and perhaps a little paranoid -- this particular exercise is something all kinds of people do -- and, as if to suggest she's overreacting, We TV brings in a Black producer to say she'd never make Black women look bad. But let's face it: Everyone's here to make money and to make themselves look good. No reality show would ever cop to deliberately misleading the talent or us, even if illusion and distortion are the foundation of reality shows. 

Though these episodes take place months before Tamar's suicide attempt, it's impossible to miss how she got to a breaking point. The series shows her overburdened by commitments to too many people. Braxton is first and foremost a singer, yet she's so scattered from maintaining the machine that is her documented life -- engaging with her glam squad, battling with producers over her portrayal, etc. -- she doesn't have the bandwidth to practice her craft. She loses her voice — a glaring neon sign from the Universe that something is deeply wrong. 

The dangers that come with fame, and reality show fame specifically, are well-documented; beyond the loss of privacy and the requirement to maintain a persona, reality fame can be its own kind of purgatory that keeps talent shuffling from one show to the next. Ideally, the right blend of business savvy and luck lets a reality star become a Kandi Burruss, a Bethenny Frankel, or, if the gods smile on you, a Kardashian -- ruler of your own empire. But most reality stars slide further and further down the rungs on the reality ladder until they just take whatever opportunities they can get, and we can practically smell Braxton's near-desperation to do this show, and her resentment of it, through the screen.Fortunately Braxton's life was saved, but she is one of many more reality stars who've implied or directly stated that a reality show played a part in their decision to attempt suicide. Some of them died.

What lessons can we extract from Get Ya Life? When is the right time to turn off the cameras and prioritize someone's health? It's evident in just two episodes Braxton was in need of help that she never got. She tried so hard to maintain a brave face, but the pressure was, like the cameras, constant and relentless. In this era of increased consideration and sensitivity around sex scenes, inclusion, and gender expression, now seems like an ideal time for networks and producers to get better at making sure their reality talent is OK. As Braxton finds her voice again, hopefully those who profit from making this kind of content — and we viewers who feed off others' challenges for our own entertainment — will listen more closely to what she has to say. 

Tamar Braxton: Get Ya Life premieres Thursday, September 10 at 9/8c.