Nothing seems to bum me out more about race relations in America than depictions of black people in culture. Don’t get me wrong: People planting bombs at Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches is horrendous so it would be completely unfair to classify that as a “bummer.” Nothing takes the wind out of my sails more than seeing a black-centric movie or TV show. It isn’t because I don’t want to see African Americans prominently featured in media — that couldn’t be further from the truth — but because the words “predominately black cast” so often equal “jokes about chicken and the projects.”
It didn’t make me cringe. It actually made me curious. Rather than filling me with bile and shame, like the previews for episodes of “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns,” the “Single Ladies” teaser made me want to watch “Single Ladies.”
I have plenty of nits to pick: Did the show have to be named after a Beyonce song? Is all the dialogue going to be as predictable and borderline-stereotypical as “Y’all bitches got drama” and “I told you, I know my ish”? But, I’m excited because none of them seem to be desperate, shrill and falsely pensive like their precursors. Plus, I didn’t once hear the phrases “baby mama” and “baby daddy.” I’ll take my progress in raindrops if I can’t have torrential downpours.
To me, that is significant success; that a network that doesn’t specifically target black viewers is making its first foray into scripted programming with a show executive produced by a black woman — Queen Latifah — and starring two black women (Stacey Dash and LisaRaye McCoy Misick). VH1 is attempting to appeal to black audiences — and possibly grab some of its white viewers as well — almost making amends for the minstrel shows that were “Flavor of Love” and “I Love New York” and their various “Bamboozled“-worthy spinoffs. I can’t overstate the importance of not relegating a show with a predominately black cast to the ghettos of UPN (which Spike Lee once called “U People’s Network“) or BET (which has done almost as much to promote negative black portrayals in entertainment as it has done to counteract them).
Black female-centered shows are on an upswing, with the astronomical numbers (7.7 million viewers — those are almost “Jersey Shore”-style ratings) put up by “The Game” in its recent return to television screens. The sitcom focuses on the lives of football players’ wives and girlfriends, and while it too isn’t perfect — I’m not crazy about a show with a premise hinging on these women’s bond through what their males do for a living — “The Game” features educated professional black women with lives and desires.
“The Game” is the sister show of “Girlfriends,” both of which were created and executive produced by Mara Brock Akil. “Girlfriends” has also drawn comparisons to “Sex and the City” for also portraying the romantic entanglements of four beautiful women. While “Girlfriends” is a step up from “The Game,” for making women the center of the stories and relegating the men to supporting status, something is still missing.
As a young and working black woman, I’m overjoyed to know that there is a niche at television networks for our stories. But why does that niche only have room for one story? I may have more in common demographically with the women of “Girlfriends” but my personality — my penchant for saying the wrong thing, rocking some horrible haircuts and donning a Snuggie while I eat my night cheese — is Xeroxed from the Liz Lemon playbook.
Almost all of the black women I see on TV, from Mercedes Jones to all but one of Atlanta’s “real housewives,” are incredibly confident and secure. One the one hand, that’s great. It’s aspirational. I love the idea that young African American girls are growing up with their choice of relatable role models (and let’s hope they aren’t selecting any of the bunch from Bravo), who’ve found love, friendship and professional success. But what about the rest of us?
I’m gleefully single (and downright boy crazy. This week’s fixation: Hank Moody). Few things excite me more than my career. I’ve got a group of great friends (none of whom are black). On the surface, I should fit right in with VH1′s new single ladies, yes? After all, I spent much of my adolescence emulating Dash as Dionne in “Clueless.”
I’m also one of the most awkward people I know (so awkward, in fact, that I once proposed the word should be changed to “flukeward” as a trademark). I don’t wear designer clothes (I don’t even wear makeup, unless ChapStick counts as makeup). I’m a self-professed grenade. I’d rather make a guy laugh than be the object of his romantic desire (though I resent the idea that I have to choose between the two). If I had to list the 10 things that excite me most, at least 3 would be items of food, one would be sleep and I’m pretty sure the rest would involve my pop culture obsessions (finding old episodes of “Road Rules” on YouTube for one, and anything written by Aaron Sorkin is another).
Where’s my show? Where is the sitcom that stars black Liz Lemon? “Single Ladies” isn’t exactly new territory to toe — considering that for all the praise “Sex and the City” received, it wasn’t exactly “All in the Family” or even “Seinfeld” with regards to quality — and I have a feeling it will be ignored come awards season, just as “Girlfriends” and “The Game” before it.
I’m tired of being beat over the head with scripts full of “hey gurrrrlls” and “all I want in a successful chocolate brutha” when I want to watch a show featuring a woman who looks, lives and struggles like I do. The fact that those shows exist at all is palpable progress, but I’m still holding out for the “Single Ladies” version of “The Cosby Show.” Before Cliff and Clair Huxtable and their brood pulled into Must See TV territory, affluent, loving and functional black families were basically considered unicorns: Some people had heard of them and talked about them but the majority of Americans had ever really seen one.
The same could be said for all of us black female nerds out there. We have all kinds of experiences and I hope one day we all get our chances to have our stories told on the tube. But right now, I’d even settle for one show spotlighting a pop culture-obsessed black professional woman who isn’t sure whether the guy she’s talking to in the elevator likes her or is telling her she has food in her teeth. I’d settle for one show starring an African-American woman not greased up like she’s in a Kanye West video. I want to be able to turn on my TV and see a young black woman who actually has a range of interests and ambitions yet can’t decide whether or not to wear her Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour T-shirt on a date (in the end, she most likely decides to stay home, watch “Arrested Development” and eat puppy chow, because she’s terrified of saying the wrong thing or finding out her suitor listens to Dave Matthews Band and “isn’t much of a reader”).
Until Brock Akil or another TV mastermind presents that story, I’ll watch “Single Ladies” and take solace in the fact that I don’t have to cringe.