Exploring Iyanla Vanzant’s Toolkit for Fix My Life

October 11, 2012
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“Well you know Steve, so many people, you know they having issues; you get them Strawberry Letters…Somewhere down the line, we were never taught how to be people.” — Vanzant on the Steve Harvey Morning Show.

Teaching people to be human sounds like an impossible task, but Iyanla Vanzant and Steve Harvey agree that for them, it is all part of a day’s work. While Vanzant emerged as a seemingly more qualified therapeutic voice in the 1990s having been ordained as a minister and earned a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology, Harvey has only recently (within the past 5 years) become an authority. Despite different beginnings, Harvey and Vanzant have both encountered mid-career valleys and have leveraged the appeal of in-your-face rebukes of women with problems to restore their media positions.

In Part I of this piece, I outlined Harvey’s career climb and offered that it was black women who made the difference for him. While the racially mixed guests appearing on his new talk show receive a much milder flavor of advice—Harvey-lite—his most aggressive critiques are reserved for his first audience: the black women who made his radio show number one among women ages 25-34 in urban markets and who continue to undergird the success of his self-help enterprise (Premiere Radio Networks, Inc.). In the remainder of this piece I will consider the complexity of the enterprise of black female discipline as I focus on a black woman as disciplinarian.

Before her return to television in the fall of 2012, Iyanla Vanzant spent nearly a decade in despair dealing with the cancellation of her first show and subsequent bankruptcy, a divorce, and the death of her daughter. For the 2-part premiere of her new show, Iyanla Fix My Life, Vanzant took on someone who can easily be described as a princess of pathology to demonstrate that despite her public failures to adhere to her own life strategies, she still has the skills to assist people in correcting the roots of their deviance. Scenes of Evelyn Lozada—whose infamous television role on reality show Basketball Wives has characterized her as a self-centered, materialistic, violent Jezebel type—tear-stained and humble by the end of the show are the miraculous proof that Vanzant has maintained her spiritual authority. Although Lozada is of Puerto-Rican descent, her position as wife-mother in a black household, and a cohort of black female co-stars, establish her as a stand-in for other racially marginalized women (Black and Latina).

From what we have seen of Iyanla Fix My Life thus far, a couple of things seem clear about her toolbox.

(1) The toolbox is probably pink.—In addition to largely featuring female guests on her show, Vanzant consistently focuses on shared behaviors among women that harm other women (i.e. gossip) and that harm the self; and distinguishes these acts as more damaging than those perpetrated by men. For example when Vanzant discusses domestic abuse experienced by Lozada, she insists the situation “is so not about your husband. It’s about you, and the choices you made, and the choices you didn’t make” (Vanzant). The estranged husband is characterized, not as an abuser, but as a teacher that “loved her enough to come into her life and show her that she needed to change” (Vanzant). Furthermore it is suggested that Lozada’s delinquent behavior, resulting from a poor example of womanhood modeled by her mother, granted others the permission to wreak havoc in her life.

(2) The tools are just as useful for demolition, as they are for construction.—No show seems complete without tears. Through physical exacts like wading through a pool of water, Vanzant facilitates emotional breakdowns. When guests resist, Vanzant will abruptly clench their head in her hands, or force their bodies into infantile positions in her own bosom. Until women endure the painful process of destroying the old self, they will not be capable of assimilating to the new self as prescribed by Vanzant.

For sure, one cannot consider these productions testaments to the host’s character. Their shows are mediated performances. Yet, it is from the vantage point of fan-critic that I challenge these privileged voices and their handling of black female subjects. In an attempt to offer solutions to the emotional issues that plague women, Harvey and Vanzant have lost sight of structural factors. By highlighting a female-specific pathology passed from mother to daughter as the most important factor in women’s trials (including domestic violence) Vanzant models a scornful and reductive practice of looking (see: Struken and Cartwright). This shaming gaze is just as subversive as that modeled in the Steve Harvey Morning Show. Since Vanzant is herself a black woman who takes ownership of the behavioral deficiencies mapped onto women as a collective, she genders the discourse in a way that Harvey cannot. Ultimately this gaze functions as a tool in the collective policing of black women’s lifestyles. It operates under the mask of feminist care because women are the agents and the objects of the gaze. Thus, the patriarchal order is not actually challenged, merely re-organized.

I call attention to this disciplinary enterprise because it is still yet growing. Vanzant and Harvey will combine forces this season when Vanzant is featured on Harvey’s talk show. One has to wonder, when we make demands for more “authentic” representations of black women in popular culture, is this what we have in mind?


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