Since the beginnings of big brother africa in South Africa in 2003, reality TV shows have become a common feature of television stations across the continent. They contributed to the development of a multitude of television stations in the wake of the democratization of the airwaves in the 1990s. This paved the way for individuals or entrepreneurs to own television stations, creating an environment of competition for the hearing.
The reality TV phenomenon has not been without criticism.
Some scholars Argue that shows, especially those that focus on obese people, objectify them and – even worse – ridicule them for their body shapes and heights. Other researchers from the continent, such as the famous Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, are of the opinion that reality TV shows offer nothing of value to Africans.
These criticisms did not dampen either demand or supply. The shows range from music, dance, cooking, weight loss as well as cultural education and promotion reality shows.
Shows like Young, famous and Africanand go out with my family are among the most popular reality shows engaging Africans on the continent and globally. Examples in Ghana include The most beautiful in Ghanaa reality show that showcases the cultural values of the 16 regions of Ghana.
What is missing in the various debates on reality TV shows is the point of view of the participants. We sought to fill this gap by engaging with participants of a reality TV show in Ghana called Di Asa (Just Dance). The show was designed exclusively for low-income obese women in the market.
Our results show that the women viewed their experiences as positive because they derived some benefit from their participation in the show. They also had positive feelings about their height which they used to their advantage with the help of family and friends.
The findings also indicate that TV shows like Di Asa are not necessarily one-sided, seeking to exploit and shame participants. They also challenge the idea that reality TV is not African, demonstrating how family and friends have supported participants in targeting the show’s ultimate prize.
Di Asa’s reality show was established in 2017 by a relatively small Ghanaian media company, Atinka Media Village. It is privately owned with a TV channel, radio stations and an online presence. Atinka Media Village targets the Twi (one of the country’s major local languages) speaking population of Ghana.
The first edition began with auditions in markets across the country in which contestants had to dance to earn their place on the show.
What makes the show unique is the body size of the contestants. It only features obese women who compete for prizes based on their ability to dance.
The show has become popular in no time, winning Reality Show of the Year in 2017.
This is the first show in Ghana to feature plus size women.
In many Africans contexts, an overweight woman can be viewed favorably in terms of body size preference. However, there are limits beyond which a woman’s body size becomes socially unacceptable. In Ghana, pejorative terms as “obolo” and “cargo” are used for individuals deemed to have crossed the limits of “acceptable” body size. These words also convey the perception that plus size women are lazy and physically inactive.
The first edition of the show shocked Ghanaian viewers due to the unusual body sizes featured on television.
What we found
We relied on interviews with 19 of the final 20 contestants from the very first season of DiAsa which last 13 episodes.
The participants were between the ages of 20 and 59.
The purpose of the show was to identify the best dancer among a group of obese dancers. Evictions were carried out weekly using public votes.
The prizes at stake were a car for the winner, a mini truck for the second and a motorized tricycle for the third.
Most of the women we interviewed said they found their participation on the show beneficial in ways that went beyond winning the top three awards.
The first was the fact that they were earning an income. All participants received the equivalent of $50 for each week they remained on the show. This was a substantial amount considering that a small market trader does not earn that much on average.
Attendees also received a range of products from companies that sponsored the show. These included noodles, plant-based energy drinks and cocoa products.
Most of the women said they had become fitter as a result of their participation. The final group of participants had a trainer who worked with them regularly. Doctors also discussed healthy food options with them.
Financial management skills were another benefit of attending the show. This was particularly important given that most of the participants traded for a living and could use the lessons learned from the training sessions to grow and grow their businesses.
Above all, women became recognizable faces in their neighborhoods and enjoyed the resulting “celebrity” status. It boosted their self-esteem, which they all noticed in the context of the body shaming that takes place in Ghana, including name-calling.
Participating in the fair also opened up new job opportunities. Some women were invited to dance at events for a fee, one had created a YouTube channel while others were approached by advertising agencies.
The owner of the television channel that sponsored the show also offered job opportunities at the pharmaceutical company he owned.
Given the benefits associated with participating in the show, the women’s friends and family members were actively involved in their participation. In a number of cases, the women said they were alerted to the opportunity to participate in the show by family members or friends. Some have gone so far as to provide financial support to cover registration and attendance.
In other cases, family members and friends supported the women by campaigning for them and providing financial resources to get people to vote for their candidate.
Our research shows that participants of this particular show do not view it as an exercise in rudeness.
Rather, they saw it as providing them with opportunities such as earning money and becoming celebrities that they otherwise would not have had. Hence the general support for the auditions and the participation they got from everyone.