Shows like Dear White People, I May Destroy You and Insecure are to be applauded for focusing on friendships between black women. But, argues, Aysha Abdulrazak, to what extent are these being informed by a white supremacist lens? And who are they for?
During the lost months of lockdown my relationship with Netflix (and other streaming services) has unfortunately gotten stronger. As memories of spending time with friends started to become distant, my nostalgia for ‘before’ left me paying a little more attention to how women’s friendships are represented in TV and film. With TV shows like I May Destroy You and Insecure and films like Girls Trip gaining mass appeal, girl gangs have never looked more diverse. Gone are the days when shows like Friends, Sex and the City and Girls can get away with solely white (and racist) depictions of friendship groups.
In my own life, I’ve often found myself playing certain roles for white friends, often feeling tokenised by them. Sadly, this situation is not at all unique: The loveable black best friend, the good immigrant, there to listen and advise but mostly as the Robin to our white BFF Batmans. Since university, I always seemed to be met with a subconscious block from my Batmen when it came to understanding that I am a complex human in my own right and not just there to provide ‘colour’ to their life or to make them feel inclusive just by virtue of knowing me. The daily ‘otherisation’ felt stark but too intangible to name at the time. So naturally, with of course a few exceptions, I find myself gravitating towards other WoCs, who share similar life experiences to me. We share, we laugh, we love and we don’t have to constantly explain. We have rich interior and exterior lives devoid of the white patriarchal gaze. Maybe not so much when having impassioned chats on the tube though…
Representation is important because seeing ourselves supporting each other and thriving is one way to unlearn toxic behaviours. But, when watching the dynamics of the racialised girl squads in media, the influence of white supremacy on them is clear. In the shows I discuss the representations are not what you would consider to be overt stereotypes. In fact, I enjoyed watching most to completion, no mean feat for someone with my attention span. It wasn’t until I started to notice patterns that I realised that the stereotypes conveyed are subtle and easy to miss. Perhaps then, all the more insidious to people who look like me. However, a good place to start is overt stereotyping. You may be familiar with the decades old ‘magical n-word’ trope. The black character who came from the ‘noble savages’, who exists only to advise their beloved white protagonist through times of hardship and growth. A recent example of this trope in the Sex and The City 2008 feature film: Carrie’s ‘sassy’ black assistant, Louise from St Louis, played by Jennifer Hudson. Frankly, a cringe-worthy, two-dimensional role given to such a talented singer and actress. And after a lot of preliminary support and romantic advice within the first few scenes, she doesn’t even get to go to Abu Dhabi with Carrie and the gang!
Representation is important because seeing ourselves supporting each other and thriving is one way to unlearn toxic behaviours
More recent shows centring on more diverse casts held a promise of something new yet familiar. Representation a little closer to reality. Perhaps art mimicking life, for once. After all, the spaces we inhabit digitally should at least partly feature people who resemble ourselves (and if you’re white, people who resemble other minority groups once in a while). Otherwise, what is the point in creepily accurate algorithms if Google actually thought all we needed was more of the mainstream default? The increased scrutiny has led to mixed feelings. The two part question which lends itself most is: Who are these ‘representations’ even for? And does the pattern expose an agenda at play?
This notion was originally sparked off after I found myself fully immersed in the highly acclaimed BBC series, I May Destroy You, which was single-handedly created by the creative powerhouse that is Michaela Coel. The series explores the complex and multifaceted topic of consent through the perspective of multiple connected characters. So, Coel allows us to see friendship through the lens of traumatic experiences – much like our own times. She takes us to the brink of her friendships and back again, testing the degrees of their elasticity. You soon come to realise that Arabella’s designated bestie, Terry, doesn’t really have her best interests at heart for the majority of the show. Their friendship begins to show strain based on (later explored) jealousy and deception.
Why does this particular aspect seem familiar to me? The black girl protagonist and her slightly salty best friend: Insecure’s Issa and Molly, She’s Gotta Have It’s Nola and Clorinda and even Chyna, and Dear White People’s Samantha and Joelle (possibly frenemy, Coco). Is this trope exploring the complexity of female friendship or is it suggesting something else, perhaps even subconsciously? Would it be a stretch to suggest that white supremacy has played its guilty hand in this too? Is white supremacy then dictating art that pretends to imitate life? Why is there always one seat left at a table which is never really alluded to, in these imaginary worlds? Yes, all of these shows’ best friendship duos feature women who are successful in their own right. In season 3 of Insecure, for instance, Issa realises her dream of organising a block party and yet already successful corporate lawyer, Molly, is so very slow to support her in the idea with lacklustre responses and barely there excitement. Notably, whist all this is going on Molly starts having issues in her own career. Again with the jealousy. Why is there a success scarcity theme even being served to us here?
To explore the subconscious toxic strands of the WoC girl squad let’s start at the genesis of the modern girl gangs. For most of us, this was the 90s. The ‘default’ depiction of women friendships in the media was pretty white. The original group of BFFs that women of colour have grown up consuming was most likely Friends. I have a few friends with much better taste than me who have refused to ever subject themselves to its dated sexist, racist – you name it – jokes. However, I’ve always found myself at least a little fascinated by its global phenomenon. It was the ‘first’ sitcom of its kind which centred on the multi-gendered friendship group – it claims (in one reality’s parallel universe where Martin never aired perhaps).
What I can commend Friends for trailblazing, was how much it invested in its characters’ feminine archetypes. There was Monica, the Type A, competitive, over-achiever with a long documented history of body image issues; Rachel, the ditzy, privileged, fashionable, romantic, who peaked in High School; Lastly, there was Phoebe the eccentric, artistic, kooky type that the rest of the cast always lovingly accept, despite how weird she gets (i.e. the episode where her dead mother returned to her in the body of a runaway cat).
The metaphor of the ever-available seats and the orange sofa works a little too well here to ignore. For black women, there doesn’t even seem to be enough room for all of their hopes and dreams, even in their own friendship groups.
They pass through the world as the ‘default’ version of woman, with a myriad of archetypes possible to them. Phoebe is allowed the privilege of being ‘weird’, singing smelly cat, all while still remaining positively adorable with her perfect shade of long golden hair. Phoebe could have also been a more perfectionist Monica type if she wanted, because she is beautiful enough to society to have those options afforded to her. What the media was indirectly telling us was: You, WoC, can never be Monica, Rachel or even Phoebe because your archetype can only be a certain number of combinations to a world viewing you through the lens of your race (pre the very current Karen phenomenon of course). Rachel and Monica definitely have their fair share of conflict but, of course, they are never based on an unavoidable subtext of colourism or success scarcity. There is already an equally present foundation of love and understanding at the basis of all conflict. What’s more is that there is room for all three of them in Central Perk. The metaphor of the ever-available seats and the orange sofa works a little too well here to ignore. For black women, there doesn’t even seem to be enough room for all of their hopes and dreams, even in their own friendship groups. Why is there a culture of side-lining that is being perpetuated? I also thought it pertinent to add that 60% of Insecure’s viewers are white, while 30 to 40% are black. Kind of perfectly answers my two-part question above, right?
But back to our case study: In season 4 of Friends, Monica pleads with Rachel to be allowed to date Rachel’s ex High school boyfriend. The request encapsulates their dynamic in a few lines, ‘Back then I thought I would never ever get to go out with a Chip Matthews. And now he’s called me up and asked me out. And the fat girl inside of me really wants to go. I owe her this.’ Both Rachel and Monica, with their respective yet different traumas, on the surface are able to pass through the world as the attractive norm. Despite Monica’s previous body image issues and the body shaming jokes directed at her past self, she has moved past it all by just getting thinner (as opposed to the more ‘modern’ concept of a little self-work). With the physical being the area in which so much of the feminine mainstream ego is based, that one change has transformed so much that even Chip wants to date her… So, naturally, Rachel and Monica quickly and humorously resolve their conflict and their default supportive BFF harmony is restored. Rachel was at one point entitled with the entirety of their collective pretty privilege, but all Monica had to do was lose a shocking amount of body weight to catch up. The messaging was top tier 90s pop culture misogyny #getthin #getlayers. However, at the basis there was hope for post glow up egalitarian dating opportunities and sisterly support along the way. Just look more like the ideal and life will get easier. This concept gets a little darker in the context of the real world. The more attractive you are, the better you’re collectively treated – you will find love like Monica, you are more likely to get hired, and the pretty criminals out there are also more likely to be given shorter sentences. This ideal look, of course, is inextricably dependent on your skin tone.
Dear White People
This post glow up potential is not something that is explored in the same way for the characters of Dear White People. You can’t really diet your colour away (although you can do far worse). In season 1, the weird triad that is Samantha, Coco and Joelle is infused with the question of colourist privilege. Darker toned Coco is ridiculed for choices made based on her survival at an elite educational establishment. There seems to be an inherent fear that anything less ‘uptight’ for a dark skinned woman would be considered ‘ratchet’. While mixed raced Sam can proudly exhibit more of an outwardly confident, anti-establishment character and remain desired by men of multiple races (the white young teaching assistant, no less). In season 1, her dark skinned best friend, Joelle, is totally side-lined from having her own episode (until series 3), unlike the rest of the black (and one white) cast. Interestingly reminiscent of the Jessica Hudson and Carrie’s relationship in the Sex and the City film discussed earlier. Why is a show that is explicitly calling out its white audience perpetuating these stereotypes? In that, as long as you are a little closer to European beauty standards you have more archetypal freedom. Is it trying to really challenge or is it just faux liberal entertainment based on recognisable stereotypes a white audience wouldn’t dare discuss in the public realm (one would hope at least). There just simply seems to be no more room for more than one superstar black female character even at their historically all black college house.
For argument’s sake, let’s consider a more recent example of the white girl squad that carries these themes through. HBO’s (dire) series, Girls, has been discussed at length, and in 2020 already feels as dated as Friends. However, the same issues prevail. It is a world where Brooklyn is completely devoid of colour. Are white spaces of fictional media made safe because we do not exist in them? Perhaps only on the periphery of vision? The only character of colour significant enough to remember is the black man (Donald Glover in particular) serving as a foil for Lena Dunham’s creative sexual expression. Quite honestly a sickening thought. Especially as it reminds me of the Odell Beckham and Lena Dunham debacle a few years back….In her carefully constructed imaginative world of new age orientalism, the black man is ready and willing to aid her creative exploration. In real life, however, things get awkward pretty fast when expectation does not align with the imagined.
Again, the main point of contention between Lena and her much beloved model-esque best friend Marnie, is that Lena, again, feels unable to access pretty privilege because of societal body image issues. This in itself lends to other examples in film – Think, Amy Schumer and Rebel Wilson in, basically, all of their roles – where the question of weight has become a point of comparison. Both a character trait and a tool to whitewash all patriarchal oppression rolled into one. So then maybe such reductionist characterisations in the media are bound to exist. Of course, body image is a huge issue in itself but it seems to eclipse all other intersections of body image and being a woman in one fell swoop. The focus surrounding the less than ‘perfect’ body as a defect, in itself, promotes less of a focus on the true beauty of self-introspection and in turn more unhealthy real life relationships.
Be your own main character
Are we rendered invisible under the white female protagonist’s gaze simply because we are unnecessary to Lena, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe’s creative and social growth into the feminine ‘ideal’? It is indeed a stark fact that in the comforting fantasy world of white media we are literally only extras. Or worse, the ethnic shaman-like character who provides a momentary titbit of wisdom before the next scene and the other main characters get to go on a fun (read orientalist) adventure (to Abu Dhabi). And when shows centre us, our representations still seem to be filtered through that subtle-yet-present white supremacist gaze. They cater to us, yes, but studies show that most black-centred TV series are being consumed by mostly white audiences. Our own depictions are not even really for us. This gives a whole new sinister edge to art imitating life as a black woman in the West.
But it also reminds me of Gen Z’s Tiktok ‘Be the main character of your own life’ trend (yes, I know that as a millennial I have no business knowing this but – Covid). We must start to centre ourselves first and seek out supportive healthy friendship dynamics, even if only in our own minds. These depictions are a little concerning, yes, however, they are important because they convey where we are and where society still is. They convey that we are consuming problematic depictions of ourselves in the name of seeking representation in the mainstream. Is it even necessary? Or does every little help? Or a common accusation: Am I reading too much into things?
About Aysha Abdulrazak
Aysha Abdulrazak is a writer, critic and illustrator. She has worked in the education sector for several years. Aysha is interested in the power of words and creating more productive self-narratives. She is currently working on a project to promote self-empowerment and self-love in children. Follow Aysha on Instagram @aysha_azk. To see Aysha’s illustration project with Banan Alkhazraj, Bananabread, follow them on Instagram @bananabreadnco and @aa.doodles
This essay was commissioned for Disembodied Voices: Friendship during COVID-19
How we think of friendship, intimacy and closeness has radically altered during this period, perhaps irrevocably. Lockdown and quarantine has left us relishing time with friends and family, or dealing with feelings of isolation, anxiety and abandonment – and sometimes a mixture of both. WhatsApp, Zoom and social media are our new lifelines, changing the tone, register and channels through which we communicate. We’ve reached out to old friends and been turned away by new ones; rekindled old bonds and discarded others. There are friends who inspire and those who infuriate; there are relations we’ve failed and some who’ve come through for us, and shown love in a way we’ve never experienced before.
We want to curate a series of essays, interviews and stories on friendship, experienced in particular during the time of COVID-19. We are keen to hear from marginalised perspectives, underrepresented voices and communities significantly impacted by the virus.
We are also open to submissions and pitches on the representation and concept of friendship more generally. How friendship is represented in television, film, and social media; in books, music and videos, before and during the pandemic, is also important. Are there representations of friendships that have given you hope (such as I May Destroy You or Broad City) or those that have appeared toxic to you (such as that recounted by Natalie Beach about Caroline Calloway). If so, we want to hear from you too.
For the full Call Out and details of how to apply, click here.
Submissions are open until February 2021.
We look forward to hearing from you,
Aysha Abdulrazak and Samaya Kassim, Guest Editors of Disembodied Voices.
Disembodied Voices Emblem by Banan Yehia, who is co-creator of @bananabreadnco
Feature image: A scene from Dear White People featuring Ashley Blaine Featherson (Joelle Brooks) and Logan Browning (Samantha White) and Antoinette Robertson (Colandrea “Coco” Conners), courtesy of Netflix.