When I was a child, my mother and the rest of my family took great pains to ensure that every doll I owned was black. They wanted all of them to look like me — but they didn’t. Their straight hair was nothing like my own mane of curls. They had only two complexions — neither matched my skin tone. But I appreciated my family’s efforts every time Barbie made a new doll based on the latest Disney movie that never looked remotely like me.
Recently, media representations of black women have made me feel like that little girl walking down the doll aisle at Toys “R” Us all over again. The American imagination has always been fascinated with black women. But recently, more than ever, America has let its imagination run away with it, setting out in search for these predetermined archetypes as if they were after Big Foot.
First, there is the Mammy — the noble matriarch. She is strong, long-suffering. She’s traded in her shuck and jive for education, and she sacrifices her own well-being for the uplift of the race. You can see her on display in every black female pundit on MSNBC, or any role that Angela Bassett has ever played. Today, she is childless, single and doomed to stay that way. She forgoes children for fear of embarrassing the race as a single mother, and she refuses to date outside of the race. She is the force behind every journalistic “exclusive” about single black women or obese black women. I’m sure she was even the inspiration for that “study,” entitled “Why Are Black Women Ugly?” published last year in Psychology Today.
Then there is the Sapphire — the Angry Black Woman. She is the stubborn, bitter woman who chases men away with her ridiculous expectations, remarkably flexible neck, and left hand that rarely detaches from her hip. Chrissy Lampkin from Love and Hip Hop was born for this role.
The Sapphire can turn into the Gold Digger by keeping a certain level of anger but leaving spinsterhood behind for tireless pursuit of powerful men. (See NeNe Leakes of Real Housewives of Atlanta.) The Gold Digger, in turn, often morphs into the Jezebel, who displays overt sexualization but does not seek commitment or money. Also known as the video hoe.
None of that described me. Or any of the many black women I care about. We’re quirky, complicated, genuine. You know ... human. Where were the reflections of us?
In February of 2011, Issa Rae put her Stanford degree to work to fill that void, creating and starring in the hugely successful web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and Friends. From its very name, the series challenges stereotypes about black women, but it doesn’t stop there.
Awkward Black Girl revolves around Jay and her socially tricky relationships in the office, in anger management class and even in traffic. She accepts that she is awkward ... and black, and that combination may very well may be the absolute worst two things one person could be.
But don’t let her awkwardness fool you — Jay is a stereotype-fighting super-heroine. She even comes complete with a sidekick, CeCe, her Indian best friend, and an arch-nemesis Nina, her fairer skinned co-worker and wannabe boss.
There is no stereotype she can’t slay. Black women only date black men? Even when Jay had a choice between a black man and a white man, she chose the white man. Jay identified more strongly with her awkwardness than her blackness, and she prioritized her own happiness over loyalty.
Black women are loud and angry? Jay’s soft-spoken and passive-aggressive. She’s more likely to secretly throw out your lunch and then go home and write violent rap lyrics about you than to roll her neck. Black women are ugly? Issa Rae is, well, beautiful. And she’s hilarious.
In popular American culture, the black experience is constantly translated and made digestible for non-black, specifically white, audiences. Not Awkward Black Girl. Jay could care less about being accepted by any of her co-workers, regardless of race. For the storylines, Issa Rae unapologetically draws on the richness of African American culture. At the risk of alienating some audience members, she incorporates references to black films like The Color Purple, Sister Act and House Party. The entire Halloween episode is an adaptation of the Spike Lee classic School Daze.
The 12-episode first season was funded almost entirely by viewer donations. Thus, Awkward Black Girl is beholden to its audience in a way that other productions are not. Thus, when the Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC), an early supporter of the show, objected to Issa Rae’s usage of the term “tranny bitch,” their voices could not be ignored.
Issa Rae responded to the criticism with a succinct acknowledgement mixed with gratitude for CFC’s support. She stated that she would take the feedback to heart, but never apologized for the term’s usage nor the reaction to it. While some have decried her response, others have applauded her decision to stand by her art. Others have pointed to the fact that Awkward Black Girl is peppered with terms that are offensive to different groups (it uses “nigga” like salt) and that CFC only objected to the word “tranny,” but not to the word “bitch.”
Perhaps I’m too grateful to take a side. People say that we shouldn’t look to the media for validation of ourselves, but that’s white privilege if I’ve ever heard it. White women can ignore media portrayals of them because they have been validated their entire lives. They never had to ask their mothers why the dolls at Toys “R” Us had funny-looking hair and weird-colored eyes. I never had white dolls — but that meant I had far fewer dolls than my white classmates.
Issa Rae held a mirror up to her face and my face and showed that reflection to the world. Maybe it’s selfish, but as far as I am concerned she can do no wrong and I’ll be donating for season two.