By: Maya Dawit & Azsanee Truss
Throughout the past few years, we have seen a major shift in the portrayal of black women on television. We’ve moved from the one-dimensional minor characters who offer up the occasional “sassy” remark, to the Olivia Popes, Miranda Baileys, and Mary Jane Pauls who kick ass, take names, and look good while doing it. And while it’s been great to see fully-developed black women characters that stray from the Mammies, Jezebels, and Welfare Queens traditionally written into shows, this more sophisticated and powerful depiction, though preferable, still fails to reflect the full spectrum of black women. Though the idea that black characters on TV somehow present an all-encompassing representation of black people everywhere is still alive and well, the truth is, there’s a whole middle-ground that includes awkward, confused, quiet, or otherwise quirky black women that just isn’t being reflected. So that begs the question, where are all of the average, everyday black girls?
Well, for many, this lack of realistic representation probably doesn’t come as much of a shock. As is the case with most things, white men dominate the television industry, with only 29% of TV staff writers being women and 13.7% being minorities according to a 2015 ThinkProgress study. And, although their writing should reflect some sort of reality, is anyone the least bit surprised that in their perceived reality we don’t really exist as much more than side-plots and comic relief? Didn’t think so. While hundreds of black women writers speak their truths in Indie films and Youtube series, these are never presented in mainstream media as products for mass consumption. Though series showcasing the trials and tribulations of average, white twenty-somethings seem to be a cultural staple for American television, (i.e. Friends, New Girl, Broad City, Girls) other equally phenomenal shows telling the stories of black women in their twenties can barely get enough attention to make it off of the ground.
Enter Issa Rae. In 2011, Rae graced us with the award-winning YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, a show whose premise is very clearly stated in its title. It told the story of J, played by Rae; an awkward, funny, gangsta rapping black woman in her twenties trying to navigate her equally awkward life. The show was like taking a deep breath of fresh air for those of us who didn’t realize we were drowning in the proverbial sea of white faces on television. For the first time in a long time, young black women were given a character that they could see themselves in. One who wasn’t overly-sexualized, fully equipped with bad one-liners and who didn’t live in a world that was simply black and white. Just scroll through the comments of the first episode of the series and read how much the character of J resonated with viewers. This series then catapulted Rae into a household name and she soon began a partnership with Pharrell that lead to a release of the second season of her show on his YouTube channel, IamOther. From there, she began to create and release a number of other series on YouTube, all unique in many ways but one. They all told stories from the perspective of the African American experience not often, or ever, shown in mainstream media. (Fun fact, we don’t all live life like The Wire.) The characters had depth and story lines that lasted longer than an episode. They had friends that didn’t look exactly like them or think the same way. The women were funny and the men expressed emotion. Rae took the everyday reality she experienced and accurately portrayed it on-screen in a way that somehow eluded those who came before her. And for those of us who worship at the altar that is all things Issa, seeing her grab mainstream media by the balls and say, “hey, I’m here and don’t plan on leaving any time soon so get used to it,” was nothing short of inspirational. Her success has paved another piece of the path leading to an accurate description of what it means to be young and black and with the impending arrival of her HBO series Insecure, Rae’s name and face will go from being a cult phenomenon to an everyday reality.
But, as we follow the rise of Issa Rae, we have to acknowledge that for every one of her, there are 12 Lena Dunhams, depicting a whitewashed version of their day to day lives for your primetime enjoyment. (Because even though we LOVE Girls, we do know that there have been more than two black people running around Brooklyn in the past five years.) But, why is it that an all white show is for everyone, but a show with even a touch of diversity is declared for minorities? Why can’t The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or New Girl star your everyday, fun-loving black woman? With the number of young black women currently working in Hollywood, not to mention the sea of untapped talent just waiting to be cast as an extra in hopes that one day they may get their shot, it seems a little outdated that the immediate thought when casting a show that calls for a fun female lead is to go white. But, as much as we hate to acknowledge it, the media remains unwaveringly centered around the white consumer. And while we can spend all day unpacking the sociological factors that play a role in this, the fact of the matter is that black women, and society in general, are able to see themselves in white characters, while the majority of white viewers still haven’t learned to be able to see themselves in us. In other words, an average black woman in her twenties simply isn’t relatable enough to “win the hearts of America,” (and by America we mean white America) meaning she also isn’t profitable enough to exist on television.
And, here’s the thing. The desire for dynamic, black women characters isn’t something new. It isn’t even something that hasn’t been done before. In the 90’s we had Living Single, the story of 6 black friends dealing with the ups and downs of living, working and dating in New York. They had adventures, dealt with loss, found themselves in hilariously interesting situations and, along the way, learned what it meant to be a friend. Sound familiar? That’s because right around the same time, there was another show about 6 friends living in New York City dealing with all of the same issues: Friends. The only difference was that one program got the full backing and support of its network and studio while the other was pushed aside to survive on its own. In 2000, we were blessed with the series Girlfriends, which depicted four very successful black women, all of whom brought their own unique personalities to the table. They had problems any women in their twenties/thirties would face. Its diverse cast and varying plot lines were the perfect offset to super vanilla Sex and the City. But since then, the television pool has been rather dry of any unconventional, relateable female characters of color like those that we grew up loving.
So, why are we so afraid of portraying the full spectrum of black women? Where are all of the endearing, young(er) black women who completely don’t have it together? Why can’t shows be as relatable with female leads that have some color? Why are black, female characters always expected to “be” something? Why can’t they just be? As a couple of black women in their twenties; we’d like some answers.