TV SERIES OP-ED
Young, Famous and African: Netflix and the African dream
The essence of celebrity has been defined as ‘distinguished individuals, renowned for their genius and strength of character’. It now has a less-celebrated connotation: a hollow cipher that does very little to contribute to anything external to itself.
Netflix’s new reality series Young, Famous and African, released on 18 March 2022, has been the centre of conversation among South African viewers for a little while now. Social media platforms were abuzz when the show premiered with a fairly interesting cast, comprising African “movers and shakers” in the entertainment industry, and, of course, capitalising on the consistent interest in the private lives of celebrities.
The cast consists of individuals who possess a relative level of fame or notoriety, in some cases both. The main lead, Khanyi Mbau, an actress and socialite stands at the centre of the show as someone who embraces opulence and luxury, as well as being the glue that bonds the circle of friends – caring, understanding and always the first to call out others on their shortcomings.
Young, Famous and African represents several things about the moment the African continent has been steadily approaching for some time.
Reality TV is a “guilty pleasure” for most audiences and offers an easy, even affordable escape from the mundaneness of their own lives. That said, it is undeniable that the fanfare of celebrity and exuberant wealth made so popular by Western imaginations has greatly contributed to the interest that has captured South African audiences.
Sure enough, many of the viewers of Young, Famous and African are young and might look to the show as a source of inspiration for how to acquire wealth – from being a musician to a stylist or even a kept girlfriend. The essence of celebrity has been defined as “distinguished individuals, renowned for their genius and strength of character”. It now has a less-celebrated connotation: A hollow cipher that does very little to contribute to anything external to itself.
The preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth, presented by Young, Famous and African, is a result of the kind of deprivation that has long been all too familiar in Africa. It is fair that the show would want to present an image of young Africans or even the African continent at large beyond the lens of being poster children for poverty and starvation.
What should be most apparent in Young, Famous and African, however, is that most of the young people watching the show realise that fame and infamy are among the quickest ways to escape poverty, particularly in South Africa with its 46% unemployment rate.
However, the kind of lack presented by Young, Famous and African is not just the economic kind, but the creative kind too. The show is quite badly scripted, and only Mbau is able to occasionally pull off a palatable acting performance now and then. Apart from the fact that the show plays fast and loose with the word “reality”, it also reflects the kind of neoliberal ideas of individuation that have come to dominate the past decade.
Like many reality shows about the inner lives of the wealthy, it casually feeds into the co-optation of radical notions by the mainstream: that happiness and freedom can be bought, if you have enough money. The final nail in the coffin by Young, Famous and African is that real is overrated and the less real something appears, the better it is likely to be.
It also joins a few shows and films, released by Netflix over the past two years, that are set in Africa and have a distracting Americanness to them. The likes of Queen Sono and Blood and Water are likely to have the aim of taking African writers and acting to the world, and they probably have.
Netflix’s launchpad for African talent seems to have come at the cost of creativity – rich storylines reflecting the variegated nature of African lives in a coherent way. These narratives are caught up in glaringly desperate attempts to compete with American popular culture, yet are still so strongly derivative thereof. One can’t get away from how much of the African content released on Netflix has an unsettling mimicry of American tropes and how much they continue to penetrate young Africans’ psychological occupations.
If the quality of evocative storylines is going to be sacrificed for the sake of entertainment and ratings, one thing that remains true about this kind of content is that it continues to mirror one or other truth about the state of African individuals’ perceptions of themselves in an increasingly consumerist culture. DM/ML
Mbalenhle Moloi is a Master’s candidate in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her focus is on Gender Studies, looking at women’s rights, socioeconomic status, class stratification, sexual orientation. She’s also interested in issues related to climate change.