Respectability has been a pillar of Black American culture since Emancipation. Since Black people arrived on the shores of America, we have been subjected to hardships and cruelties based solely on our skin color. For centuries we’ve combated horrible stereotypes in our everyday lives and American popular culture. For Black women, in particular, being anything other than docile and likable meant that you could be seen as masculine, mean, overly sexual, asexual, and conniving. These terms were weaponized against Black people by outsiders and insiders like W.E.B Dubois, who touted his talented tenth, the most educated of the race, as the epitome of “good” Blackness and the embattled Bill Cosby with his “perfect” portrayal of the Black family in “The Cosby Show.”
Though respectability has been lauded as a tool for full citizenship in the Black community, it’s a falsehood. More than that, the performance of likability is exhausting. It forces a constant state of people-pleasing, one that often requires self-betrayal. Respectability won’t cause those who cling to their hatred, anti-Blackness, and racism to throw away their long-seated feelings of anger and disgust. It certainly won’t alleviate misogynoir.
On any given day, just perusing social media, Black women are being told how to act and what to do. From being criticized for our body types to our hair texture, skin tone, education, children, marriages, or lack thereof, no one is winning in a game that demands an overperformance of perceived excellence. After all, perfection doesn’t exist.
Respectability shaped how writers wrote for and about Black women in television in the 20th century. Now, during an age where more Black women are at the helm of their own stories, subverting respectability and, in turn, misogynoir allows Black women to exist and thrive on TV outside of these damaging and oppressive tropes. Dismantling misrepresentation enables multidimensional and whole depictions of Black women from varied backgrounds who stand at the center of their own narratives.
Just a few of our favorites are below.
1. “Riches,” Prime Video
Created by Abby Ajayi, who also lent her writing talents to ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Riches” is a family drama that infuses multiple aspects of the Black diaspora. At the center of the series stands Nina Richards (Deborah Ayorinde), a self-proclaimed workaholic whose picturesque Brooklyn life is thrown into chaos when her estranged father, Stephen Richards (Hugh Quarshie), dies.
Though they haven’t been in contact for decades, Stephen leaves his business — U.K. beauty empire Flair & Glory to Nina and her brother Simon (Emmanuel Imani). This decision effectively shuns his wife, Claudia (Sarah Niles) — who has no qualms about getting her hands dirty— and their three children, Gus (Ola Orebiyi), Alesha (Adeyinka Akinrinade), and Wanda (Nneka Okoye) in the process.
While Nina and Simon initially have no interest in Flair & Glory or getting to know their siblings, a run-in with Claudia during the reading of Stephen’s will changes everything. Bold and self-assured, Nina steps in as Flair & Glory’s CEO, working diligently to learn her father’s business while putting her stepmother and half-siblings in their place. In the middle of business meetings, she calls out colorism, harmful beauty standards, absentee fathers, and greed.
Nina is successful in her endeavors because she avoids playing nice. Instead, her sole focus, even if it means stepping on her family’s toes, is to uncover the family secrets, lies, and plots that her father tried to bury with him.
2. “Rap Sh!t,” HBO Max
Set in Miami, the Issa Rae-created “Rap Sh!t” follows Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion), estranged friends who come together again with aspirations of starting a rap group. When fans meet Shawna in the HBO Max pilot, she works as a hotel’s front desk agent. With her ambitions of making it big in the music industry behind her, Shawna seems resigned to reminiscing on the dreams she once had. She becomes reinvigorated only after reencountering Mia, which reminds her that she doesn’t have to play small.
While Shawna feels defeated due to a failed record deal, Mia uses social media to project the life she wants, even if it’s not her current reality. A single mother juggling her life as a mom, make-up artist, and an OnlyFans micro-star, Mia knows a thing or two about faking it until you make it. Her life is chaotic and stressful, but she uses social media to present a particular image of herself, an image that eventually gets her and Shawna some traction in the music industry. Using her Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok accounts, Mia presents herself as carefree, sexy, and humorous. She puts her best foot forward, even if it’s only a facade at first, reframing her life online— despite the pushback she receives — until she can reframe it in real life.
3. “P-Valley,” Starz
©Starz! Movie Channel/Courtesy Everett Collection
Set in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi, Katori Hall’s “P-Valley” centers on the highly popular strip club The Pynk, run by the dynamic and non-nonsense, gender non-conforming Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan). While several unapologetic women work for Uncle Clifford, Mercedes (Brandee Evans), the club’s veteran, and Autumn (Elarica Johnson), the club’s newcomer, are standouts here. Constantly combating the stigma of her profession, Mercedes does everything she can to begin piecing together a new life for herself. She battles everyone who gets in her way, including her judgemental, manipulative and hyper-religious mother, Patrice (Harriett D. Foy), and Autumn, whose light-skin privilege and snobbish attitudes infuriate Mercedes.
For her part, Autumn is willing to put her ambitions and desires over everyone else, even if that means turning her back on Uncle Clifford, the one person who allowed her to rebuild her life. She’s secretive, conniving, and determined to gain financial freedom at all costs. Using these two women’s journeys alone, “P-Valley” puts the spotlight on the women society has tried to thrust into the shadows.
4. “Harlem,” Prime Video
In 2020, the National Center For Education Statistics published a study saying that Black women exceeded every other group regarding education in the United States. However, in a world that suggests Black women can’t have it all, op-eds, podcasts, and statistics about Black women being “unmarriable” have tried to stifle Black women, asking them to aspire to less. “Girls Trip” scribe Tracy Oliver’s Prime Video series “Harlem” says the opposite. The series is a reminder that Black women are allowed to pivot, change, grow, and adjust and to have it all, in whatever fashion that might mean for them.
Set in modern-day Harlem, the series follows Camille (Meagan Good), Quinn (Grace Byers), Angie (Shoniqua Shandai), and Tye (Jerrie Johnson), a foursome who have been thick as thieves since their days as undergrads at NYU. The series hinges on Black women never being deterred from taking charge of their destinies even when they make mistakes. Camille and Angie, in particular, make several blunders and errors throughout the first season. However, they allow their imperfections and mishaps to guide them into the next chapters of their lives.
5. “Run the World,” Starz
Like “Harlem,” Starz’s “Run the World” is set in the present-day Upper-Manhattan neighborhood. However, this series invites audiences into a very different friend group. Ella (Andrea Bordeaux) is a writer whose career has stalled. Sondi (Corbin Reid) is a Ph.D. student whose personal life and career are too close for comfort. Whitney (Amber Stevens West) is a perfectionist whose upcoming wedding to her college sweetheart gives her anxiety. Finally, Renee (Bresha Webb) is trying to deal with her impending divorce while taking her career to the next level.
While all of the women in “Run the World” are compelling, Webb’s Renee moves through life without the heavy weight of respectability dragging her down. Though she often expresses herself through a comedic lens, she has also learned to confront things that bother her head-on. Renee doesn’t have time for microaggressions at work or for her ex-husband, Jason (Jay Walker), who is trying to cling to their failed marriage. From her bold declarations about life to her fierce outfits, Renee refuses to play small. Though it ruffles some feathers, including her girlfriends, she’s always loyal to herself.
6. “Insecure,” HBO
For five seasons, fans watched the ever-changing dynamic between best friends Molly Carter (Yvonne Orji) and Issa Dee (Issa Rae) on the critically acclaimed HBO series “Insecure.” Though the show centered on Issa, Molly was often the topic of discussion. A highly-successful lawyer who seemingly had it all that never stopped Molly from self-sabotaging, whether at her job, in her relationship with Issa, or when it came to her varied romantic encounters. The definition of a “hot mess,” Molly’s inflexibility cost her a lot throughout the series, but showcasing these stumbles also put a spotlight on her growth as a woman.
Since Molly was never concerned with likability or putting others above herself, she remained authentic to who she was. “Insecure” showcased that Black women are allowed to be selfish and self-serving. Molly always knew she deserved it all; she simply had to go down a rocky path that demonstrated her full humanity to obtain it.
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