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Seeing Media That Doesn’t See You: Part 1

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This is part one of a series in which we will explore black media that we all consumed and were shaped by throughout our childhood and teen years. Together we'll look at why there was so little focus on queerness within black media which led to rampant homophobia within our own community, leaving many of us to choose between being untrue to ourselves or shunned by those we love for majority of our formative years--but we'll also look at media that slipped through the cracks and did represent us because while we cannot change our past, we can shape the future by creating more things for those after with characters that represent us

A Generation Shaped by How We See Ourselves in Media

The lack of black representation in the media isn’t new, it is something that our community has struggled with for decades, especially black womxn. For the past twenty years, the millennial generation (1981-1997) has been greatly affected and shaped by the media we watch, read and listen to everyday. And while the late 80s and early 90s introduced us to iconic movies and T.V. shows created for and by the black community, there remained a severe lack of media geared towards the black queer community. Additionally, a large part of this media depicted blackness in a specific way, especially when it came to womxn. The same way that certain types of black womxn don’t see themselves in the media today, has rang true for the past two decades. And even more true for black queer womxn, who often don’t see themselves depicted at all.

Recently, we’ve seen a resurgence of popular black centered shows from our childhoods and teen years being added to streaming services, including Moesha, Girlfriends, Sister Sister and Half and Half, to name a few. And while these shows and movies have set the tone in terms of how the black community can be positively depicted in TV and in Film, they also set the tone of how we should dress, look, and act as black people to be accepted in the larger world. In turn, creating somewhat of a harmful environment for black queer folkx who did not fall into that mold.

Let’s explore some of those shows and movies that shaped and impacted us in both positive and negative ways during our developmental years, but also find some that were the pioneers in introducing queer media representation for the black community. Black media is dear and important to all of us and seeing the problems in it leads us, as a community, to being able to create better media for not only ourselves but for those who come after us and will be shaped by what we create as well.

The 1990s: Blackness and Queerness in Sitcoms and Hollywood

While prior decades had their share of depicting blackness on TV and in film, it’s through media of the 90s that we have consumed the most of and in turn truly began shaping us, even leaving us nostalgic for it today because of our exposure to it during our youth. During this decade the concept of the black family was perfected in its own way through shows like The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, by showing us families that are true to their black roots but also have a degree of success that wasn’t often displayed in white media. In its own right, while these shows did a lot for us as a community, they also set the precedent for black media to be accepted in the world. Throughout the 90s there was a huge movement of Europeanization of physical attributes. The idea of straightening our hair wasn’t new, we had been doing it since the 1930s, but now it had become the norm to the point that it was rare to see natural hair on a black womxn in media from this point on—and if natural hair was seen the context of the situation or character were often negative for the most part. Very few known actors from the 90s wore their natural hair and were successful, with the exception of Whoopie Goldberg who exclusively wore her hair natural or natural styled wigs. This ideal of manipulated and straight hair perpetuated the idea that it was ok to be black as long as you physically did not come off as “ghetto” or poor by way of wearing your natural or “untamed” hair. Unless you came from money. Only shows with successful families depicted womxn with natural hair, pushing the ideal that if they came from money and status, it was okay for them to embrace what it meant to be black.

Black womxn were also—and still are—hyper sexualized and often portrayed as hyper feminine throughout the media we consumed. Their voices had to be soft, they had to be strong but not aggressive, they must embrace the idea of being feminine at all times (dressed up, perfect hair, make up, etc.). Seeing a black womxn and girls over the age of 13 on TV or in film not dressed to the nines or thoroughly ready for the day was nearly impossible.

Throughout history there were often archetypes of Black womxn—the mammy, who was created during slavery with the idea of being an asexual maternal figure that was popular up until the 1980s (ie. Aunt Jemima), the sapphire, who was “the angry black woman” that came off as hostile and emasculated men, and the jezebel, who contrasted the ideals of the mammy by being a slave woman that was sexual in nature by satisfying the needs of white slave masters allowing the justification of rape towards black slave womxn. Even now we still have archetypes that define different types of black womxn that are and aren’t acceptable, separating us into boxes and pit us against each other via media representation—the welfare queen, the gold digger, and the video vixen—the difference between these new archetypes and the old ones is that they purposely leave little room of what society would deem as a “good” black womxn, further separating us from each other as a community and from the rest of the world. This has led to an influx during the long decade of the 2000s (and in a majority of the 2010s) where most of the black womxn centered films, the few that existed, were about being poverty level poor, being in jail, a drug addict, etc. However, black womxn, even in their own stories, were often shafted to being a secondary character instead of a main one, and the narrative often followed a man instead who had to save the womxn the story was truly about. While those stories had the purpose of showing that we will do anything possible to better ourselves, we first had to be seen negatively to achieve greatness; it depicts us as inherently bad from the beginning and needing to fight to be good.

Despite all this, however, there was never, in my recollection, a queer black character let alone a queer black womxn on TV during the 1990s, nor was the concept of queerness ever really addressed.

“For the black sitcoms that feature episodic black gay characters, that problem is homosexuality, which must be expunged and objected in order to return the family unit to stasis.” Alfred L. Martin Jr., Searching for queerness in Television’s Past: Moesha.

Queerness to the sitcom formula was seen as a problem and disruptor to the structure of these shows, which was often centered around family either biological or found (ie strong friendship groups). If the topic of being queer came up those characters who identified as such were at most only around for a few episodes and disappeared once the problem was resolved, maybe allowing for an honorable mention later in the series or a status of “recurring character” if they were lucky.

“In other words, when homosexuality appears in the black sitcom, it must be discarded after it has adequately problematized the lives of the series regulars, been solved and return the series to stasis/heteronormativity.”

In 1996, on an episode of Moesha titled “Labels,” the plot is centered around the possibility of a gay (male) character and specifically about the use of labels of one’s identity. The episode was written by Demetrius Bady, a black gay writer, though he chooses to never explicitly reveal the episode’s “problem” character as gay. “It is significant that Omar never explicitly reveals that he is gay, a move the episode’s black gay writer Demetrius Bady, asserts is rooted in his belief that gayness need not be explicitly disclosed.” In other words, the episode has little to do with this gay character per se, as much as it deals with the way in which Moesha’s starting a rumor affects her other relationships. Gayness is a narrative problem that must be dealt with. It literally threatens to tear the family of the friend apart. This choice is both harmful to and excluding to the queer community from black sitcoms; due to the way it treats the possibility of a queer character coming into the family or friend group as a problem and disruptor to the norm. As well as, disregarding the identity of black queer persons who undoubtedly watched Moesha in their youth.

However, the blame cannot be directly placed on the episode’s writer; it’s possible he made this active choice to not disclose the character’s queerness to allow for the topic to at least be presented and addressed in black media, which would’ve been difficult in and of itself during this time. Being able to write for a major sitcom on network TV at the time was a rare opportunity for a queer black writer, so he had to address this in a way that would limit the possibility of removal of the plot entirely. This being the case makes writing episodes throughout black sitcoms both a blessing and a curse to the black queer community. But the biggest take away from this is that the queerness outside of select few shows and films prior to the 2010s is centered around maleness, removing anyone who isn’t a cis male from the conversation entirely.

In 2019, Turner Classic Movies published a book called Black Hollywood which reviewed the extensive history of the black community’s place in Hollywood and film from 1930 to present day. It shows how we have slowly taken up more and more space within the film industry over the last century, gaining and delivering the representation we both need and deserve. But on the flipside of that, Black Hollywood, also further drives home the point that blackness, queerness and womxn cannot all exist in the same place to be successful in media.

Through both chapters on the 1990s, and even the new millennia, there was exactly one mention of being a womxn and queer (and it wasn’t even a direct mention) through the 1995 film Boys on the Side starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore. For those who haven’t seen it, the film focuses on three womxn trying to change their lives and move to a better place, and to do so they take a road trip across the country. While Whoopi’s character is written as a lesbian, she is actually never seen engaging with a romantic partner throughout the entire film having broken up with her girlfriend at it’s start. Instead, she was placed into this pseudo-mammy position within the friend group and spent the entirety of the film taking care and looking after the other two womxn.

The only other queer ajacdent actress that was mentioned in this book was Whitney Houston, who we know was never publicly out as bi-sexual and never played a queer role her entire career. Turner Classic Movies has proven that the place of womxn and queerness is not strong nor deemed important still within the film industry meaning it is up to us to fill in those gaps between where heteronormativity and being cis gengered has flourished.

Here we conclude part one in our series--next we’ll look at media in the 90s that did represent us with black queer characters and why they might have fallen to the way side and into obscurity.

Written By: Samantha Benjamin-Nolan


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