In 2000, I was a skinny 15 year old girl who loved to watch Felicity and Dawson’s Creek. The scripted series representing black familial life such as Family Matters, The Cosby Show, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air disappeared by 1998. With a decidedly whitewashed television line-up, I compared myself to Joey and Felicity instead of Laura and Rudy.
15 years later, however, I’m a 30 year old who anticipates the season 2 premiere of Being Mary Jane. I’m hooked on Blackish, Empire, Scandal, and How To Get Away with Murder. All of the shows feature beautiful, powerful black women, somewhere between their 30s and late 40s, determined to take over their respective fields while rocking fierce hair, outfits, and usually breaking hearts in the process.
It is empowering for me to see so many different representations of black women on television.
I get chills when Cookie says what everybody’s been thinking, especially when she’s talking to “Boo Boo Kitty.”
As an avid watcher of these shows, I’m a part of a larger community of people who are interested in what these characters will do next. It isn’t enough to watch the shows; we tweet about them, post memes on Instagram, hold watch parties and have excited conversations over drinks.
Representations of black women’s lives in popular media are important. At a time when black people are unfairly targeted by police enforcement, and sometimes killed, it is important to remind the world that there are black women who have interesting and varied lives, that we’re human. We’re flawed and make mistakes.
Except–we don’t really want the world knowing that we’re flawed and make mistakes, do we? There is always some lingering complaint about the representation of black women on these television shows. On Scandal, Olivia Pope slept with the President of the United States, and had the nerve to reject the black man who watched her straighten her hair. Mary Jane made some “ratchet” decisions by continuing to sleep with married men. Cookie loves her son, who is rejected by his father because of his sexuality; however, she hurls slurs at him and his boyfriend, almost non-stop. So Olivia and Mary Jane are critiqued for being overly sexual with married men, for being the side-piece, and never the wife.
We cut Cookie a side eye for hate language and wish she would tone it down. But we never celebrate Bow Johnson, the loving, zany Doctor, wife and mother.
In other words, we’re here to critique, to shut down, and slam the writers for showing black women who make decisions that most consider immoral. Yet, when there is a ‘respectable’ character, we don’t loudly celebrate them.
Let me be real: Respectability is not fun to watch. Nobody wants to tune in and watch someone do everything right. We love the drama. We love watching Mary Jane get drunk and ride around in Uber, show up to David’s house and yell at him for choosing a white woman after he dated her. The writers of these television shows are walking a razor thin path. They are representing what they believe is real about black women’s lives; however, they also have to satiate the desire of upper middle class black viewers who want to see glimpses of bourgeoisie respectability.
By representing flawed versions of black womanhood, the writers of these television series demonstrate the individuality of these black women. They’re pushing the boundaries so that, when Olivia Pope sleeps with the President, she isn’t necessarily doing something that all black women would do. She’s doing what Olivia Pope would do. And when Mary Jane goes after a married man, she’s not doing something that all black women would do. She’s doing what Mary Jane would do.
Each of these characters display autonomy. They make decisions we disagree with or, at times, don’t even understand. We need not think that they are a stand-in for all black women.
After all, that’s one of the many benefits to having so many black woman characters on the small screen. It’s the 21st century. There are so many famous black women on the small screen that the white people I meet no longer have to compare me to Oprah. Or to any of these women. I have the opportunity to just be me: an autonomous, fully human individual.
This month, I’ll explore different aspects of 21st century black womanhood. Look out for another entry next Monday night!