Television plays an important part in how we see ourselves. We love to feel seen through our favorite characters and we hold them near and dear to our hearts, but we don't often stop to consider how WHERE we're feeling "seen" on TV impacts us.
Thanks to the debut of the Robin Thede-created and Issa Rae-produced A Black Lady Sketch Show (and other contemporary television shows with Black leading ladies), we are receiving some much-needed representation for Black women and girls outside of the reality TV realm. The sketch comedy show, written by a team of Black women, takes an if-you-know-you-know approach to comedy by refusing to explain jokes for an audience that the jokes weren't intended for. In starring roles, Robin Thede (who also writes and produces the show), Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Gabrielle Dennis take the lead week-to-week in various skits.
The hit series is also packed with cameos from some of the biggest Black actresses in the world (like Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Kelly Rowland, and Nicole Byer), displaying a type of silly humor we aren't used to seeing from them. And as of this week, A Black Lady Sketch Show has been renewed for a second season by HBO! What makes the show's existence even more refreshing is that for a while there was quite the black-girl drought on scripted television series.
From a young age, I was able to turn on my TV and immediately feel represented due to shows like That's So Raven, Moesha, and Sister, Sister. These shows featured regular Black girls being just that - regular Black girls. The shows didn't center around race, and the characters portrayed weren't based in racist stereotypes. It was a great time to be a little Black girl in her formative years, but as I became a teenager, shows like these all but disappeared from the small screen.
Gone were the days of flipping through channels and seeing Black girls who both looked and acted like me. Gone were the days of seeing Black girls living normal teenage lives with their Black friends having a good Black-ass time.
Gradually, we were being shifted into a new era of television; one where the only place I could find Black women on TV was reality TV. While Black women like Tiffany Pollard are ICONIC in their own right, for an impressionable teenage Black girl to only be able to see herself on TV in "real" characters like Natalie Nunn and Tiffany Pollard was detrimental.
Around the time of this black-girl drought, I was attending a mostly white middle school in an even whiter program. They regularly conflated me with the stereotypes of Black women they were seeing on TV. They told me I reminded them of New York (because what other negresses have we seen?) They decided they'd call me "Shaniqua" instead of my actual name, and they regularly treated me like I was scary and aggressive.
While I knew who I was at my core, being around white people all the time and also not being able to see healthy black girl representation on TV took a toll on my teenage psyche.
A Black Lady Sketch Show is shifting the narrative around black womanhood and what we are capable of creating.
Aside from being outstandingly well-done, it shows little black girls that we don't have to be confined to whatever box non-black show creators put us in. We can create our own shows, and take back the narrative of what black womanhood looks like. Black womanhood can look like my personal favorite sketch from the premier, Hertep, or it can look like Bad Bitches who need a Bad Bitch Support Group!
The existence of this show means we finally get to display as many facets as we actually have.
It means expanded opportunities for other black creators to get their shot. We deserve choices the same way white people have choices in what type of content they'd like to consume. We should have never been banished to The Land of Reality Television, and it is amazing to see Black women taking it upon themselves to make sure that never happens again.
Black women deserve to be able to watch reality TV, scripted series, sketch shows and everything in between and see themselves accurately represented. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."
Featured image by Amy Sussman/Getty Images
Black womanhood is like an exclusive club. A sisterhood.
We are bonded by our likeness and our differences; our diversity. But we are also bonded by the adversity we face as a collective. Lucky for us (because it hasn't always been this way), social media has allowed for all Black women to feel seen, heard, and connected to other Black women. Even those who didn't have the pleasure of growing up around other Black girls. During tough times, we see heavy themes echoed amongst black women about their childhood.
Being a little Black girl is having to grow up too fast and being sexualized too young.
It's being overly self-aware in a way that other children are not.
It's being treated like an adult because you lack the "fragility" of your white counterparts, and the "boys will be boys" excuse afforded to your male counterparts.
For me specifically, being a little Black girl was being sexualized too early. It was being aware that I was not afforded the same carefree-ness as other kids. It was, and is, feeling like many aspects of childhood were privileges that I was not fortunate enough to be born into.
I did everything while keeping in mind the worst thing I could appear to be was "fast." My sexuality was being controlled before I was old enough to even think about sexuality.
I sat on top of a table at the laundromat, eight years old, legs dangling from the edge of the table, open, swinging freely. My mom was taking clothes out of the dryer with her back to me. I was going on and on about some childhood thing of dire importance at the time. My mom turned around and stared at me. I stopped talking. "What?"
"Close your legs."
I scrunched up my face. "...For what??" I questioned rather skeptically for an 8-year-old. I really didn't get it.
"It's not lady-like," she answered as she turned around to continue folding.
I was visibly irritated. "I have on pants…"
"That doesn't even make sense," I said. "There's nothing between my legs mom… It makes more sense for BOYS to have to close their legs because there's SOMETHING there!"
It was driving me up a wall. What did I need to close my legs for?
I felt gross. Like I was doing something dirty and obscene.
I completely understand the reason behind my mom's comment. You want to do everything you can to protect your child from potential danger. You worry that a man will see a person with female anatomy and want to penetrate. While the responsibility not to rape lies FULLY on men, the responsibility to protect your child lies on the parents. Ultimately, the responsibility to protect your child causes many parents to lean in to rape culture – telling their young girls what to do to avoid being victimized instead of telling their young boys not to be trash. I was being told to close my legs for fear that a man would see my open legs and want to enter me.
In another instance, I played outside with my older male cousin. I wanted to be just like him. I did everything he did. I was around nine years old. His dad, my uncle, drove down the street to pick him up. He jumped up and down, excited to see his dad, and I did the same. We both ran over to his dad who picked me up to hug me. I heard my mom call my name. "Brittany! It's time to come inside!"
My uncle put me down and I ran inside. "Don't let him pick you up anymore. You're too big for that now," my mom ordered as I walked into the house.
"You're too old to be having a grown man pick you up. It's inappropriate."
Once again, I felt dirty. Like I was doing something wrong. Instead of the adult in the situation being confronted (although he was also doing nothing wrong in my opinion, even in retrospect as an adult), I was being confronted. The responsibility for the actions of an adult man was being placed on me. I felt embarrassed, like I had done something obscene without realizing it.
I felt it again when I was around 10 years old. My parents and I took a trip to my godparents' house. When we got there, my godbrother, who was 21 at the time, asked me if I wanted to take a trip to Toys R Us to pick out some toys. Of course, I said sure. We went, I got a toy, and returned without incident. On the car ride back home from my godparents' house, I could sense tension. I felt like I was in trouble for something, but the car was silent. Finally, my dad broke the silence.
"Next time a man asks you if you want to go anywhere with him… say no. Just to be safe."
Once again, I felt accountable for the potential misactions of adult men.
While each of these instances sound small, they sent very strong signals. They made me feel as though if something were to happen to me, it would be because of a misjudgement on my part. Like if a man one day decided to take advantage of me, somehow it would be my fault. I felt like it was my responsibility to make sure that I didn't provoke men with my barely-developed body. I was acutely aware of my body, of men looking at my body, and of seeming "fast." While this may sound "better safe than sorry," it came at the cost of a blissful, carefree childhood.
Being sexualized too early strips young Black girls of the childhood bliss afforded to most other children. As the world struggles to see us as children, we are being being thrust into a mode of hyper self-awareness that most other children aren't entrenched in until damn near adulthood. This unwanted, victim-blaming responsibility that we carry around causes a lot of shame when something happens to us.
We're supposed to be strong, independent, and self-sufficient. We aren't afforded assumed fragility. We don't get to be the victims.
It's tiring, it's painful, and it's time to stop normalizing these microaggressions.
Fortunately, now we, the former little Black girls, are in control. We're responsible for making sure the next generation of little Black girls don't have it as hard as we did. With social media making it easier to not feel so alone, we can commiserate with other Black women who may have similar experiences and ensure this toxicity ends with us. Being a #carefreeblack girl shouldn't be something that has to be learned. Little Black girls deserve to be truly carefree from the start and we're doing a damn good job of making that a reality.
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Featured image by Getty Images