Each night on television, black women are saving the day. When lives are at stake, characters look at each other desperately — but everyone knows that when She walks through the door everything will be solved. Olivia Pope, or Michonne, or Lt. Abbie Mills throws open the door, and, at the very least, gives an air of confidence that makes everyone believe that the crisis will be averted.
But what would happen if one of these women didn’t show up. What if her alarm didn’t go off and she has to throw on whatever is cleanest in that pile of clothes on the floor, running out of the house realizing that she doesn’t have her car keys. What if she spends 20 minutes looking for them before realizing that they’re on a little hook by the back door and misses saving humanity? What if she is a complete mess? What happened to all the black female underdogs on television?
The Heyday of the Black Female Loser
During the 90s and the early 2000s, the lives of black women were diverse and hilarious. “Living Single” was like a younger, blacker “Golden Girls” — three women (played by Queen Latifah, Kim Coles and Kim Fields) lived together while their friend Maxine (Erika Alexander) dropped by their Brooklyn apartment to eat their food and give legal advice. Each woman worked hard at their chosen profession except for Synclaire James (Coles), a dork whose aspiration was to be an actor, though she failed over and over again.
“Girlfriends” was also a show about career-driven women whose complicated love lives usually ended in uncomfortable situations. Joan Clayton, Maya Wilkes, Lynn Searcy and Toni Childs lived in Los Angeles and dealt with the politics of being black women, traversing class issues all while trying to get laid. Lynn, the sexy, free spirit, was the resident weirdo who had no idea what job she wanted until she became a trip hop singer (trip hop).
Popular on IndieWire
And then there was “A Different World,” the “Cosby Show” spin-off set on the campus of the fictional Hillman College. Even after Denise Huxtable dropped out, we were left with a number of confused college co-eds: Whitley Gilbert, Jaleesa Taylor, Kimberly Reese and Freddie Brooks, the flaky, silly hero.
But these women have all disappeared. They have vanished just as wearing head wraps and Afro-centric clothing on television has vanished, replaced by power suits, badges and swords. There are no more dorky anti-heroines — instead, we have been gifted with strong role- models like Michone the warrior or Abbie Mills the investigator or Olivia Pope the problem solver. We get to watch the always flawless Danai Gurira, Nicole Beharie and Kerry Washington, and appreciate these women for their strength. The fact that we aren’t just prostitutes, drug addicts or footnotes in the narrative anymore is an advancement.
The problem is that there is no place for any other kind of black female experience. Having black women only portrayed as capable and strong means somehow that we can’t also be soft and vulnerable. Each one of the characters mentioned do have their weaknesses, but they stuff them deep inside themselves in order to get the job done. That is seen as a black woman’s job — to rise above, to swallow hurt and be better than the rest or risk not being respected. In order to be a nerd or a loser you have to be willing to let go and not be afraid to look silly, and that is a risk that a black woman cannot afford.
Our Next Loser-Hero?
“Orange Is the New Black” has given space to black female loser-dom: In Poussay’s back story, we see a girl who tries very hard to fit in as she is dragged around the world by her father’s military career. She fumbles when having sex with her lover — it isn’t all rumpled sheets and soft lighting; it is awkward and dorm-light bright. Crazy Eyes is just as clumsy with her affections, not to mention her inability to fit in with her white family on the outside or her black family inside Litchfield. But these women are in jail, and the messiness doesn’t need to go quite so far.
But Jessica Williams might be the next true loser-hero. As a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” she is asked to discuss the tough topics (like sexual violence on college campuses) and the absurd (like the military’s new rules on the way black women should wear their hair). She is an extension of the viewer, sharing our outrage and confusion when tackling these subjects — but you can tell that she has no idea what to do about them.
Williams does this all with passion and intellect, but she is also goofy, unpolished and not trying to solve everything — unlike Olivia Pope, who always has a speech prepared, is always wearing heels and always saves the day. Who has the exhausting task of always being “twice as good” and who is never allowed to throw off her shoes at the end of the night and drink a glass of Pinot without someone showing up at her door, begging her for forgiveness or trying to kill her.
Meanwhile, Jessica Williams is actually a reflection of what it’s like to be human: She feels outrage and fear, but when she throws off her shoes at night she actually has some fun. Black female heroes are never allowed to have fun. (Let’s give Jessica Williams her own show, damn it!)
The obvious problem is that there just aren’t enough black women creating content for television. We can’t put it all on Shonda Rhimes’s shoulders — writer’s rooms are so overwhelming white and male that it’s hard to get a nuanced portrayal of any woman, let alone a woman of color. Imagine what a writer’s room, with its current lack of diversity, would come up with when asked to create a black woman who doesn’t make strong speeches or give sage advice.
Black women should have equal opportunity to be inappropriate and irresponsible. Where are all of the black female nerds, stoners, slackers and weirdos? We can’t all make wise choices and know the answers to the important questions. Our onscreen characters should be able to be as dippy and bumbling as their white counterparts. Watching “Broad City” is a great time: The irreverence, the moments of truly sad desperation and the bright spots of smoking weed and being exactly who they wanted to be endears the audience to Ilana and Abbi. And the ladies on “Girls” are allowed to be as out of control emotionally, financially and sexually as they want — now allow women of color to be the same way on television.
Come the fall season, with Thursday nights on ABC devoted to the strong black female trifecta that Shonda Rhimes has gifted to us all, let’s all hope that Olivia Pope’s loser cousin shows up, and just can’t seem to become a gladiator.