Black feminist thought
Black feminists have theorized over the decades about the creation and construction of controlling images that limit and damage our understandings of Black women’s reality. Patricia Hill Collins’ foundational text Black Feminist Thought and her follow-up work Black Sexual Politics explore these over-exaggerated caricatures of Black womens identity. Similarly, Janell Hobson and Melissa Harris-Perry both tackle the impact of those controlling images in mass media.1’With a backdrop of Black feminist thought, these and other works help us to understand the historical development and impact of these media representations. It is clear that their far-reaching tentacles come to inform how individuals are socialized and ultimately maneuver through life, especially within the context of U.S. popular culture. Black feminist thought is a useful framework for interrogating these representations of Black women because it makes visible the invisible and gives voice to the voiceless while realigning the object as subject. All of these dynamics are inextricably tied to race and gender,as conveyed by Smith-Shomade.16 In order to interpret the controlling representations of Black women, we must engage with Black feminist thought and Black feminist spectatorship, which situates us in the historical epistemological constructions of the necessary element of selfidentification in media. Specifically, Black feminist spectatorship “productively destabilizes the dominant gaze as standard” and allows our own intersectionality to be centered.1
While there are similarities in how the two authors came to this project, there are also distinctions in our experiences as spectators who are also Black women that color our understanding of this “new” representation of the “ ABG. One of us claims a womanist positionality that seems to align with the very women about which this chapter is written: she embodies aspects of the ABG. She is simultaneously privileged and marginalized as a heterosexual woman of color raised in a middle-class environment and, by way of education, has worked to ensure that space. Evidently, there have been experiences that suggest she has benefited from classism, colorism, and sizeism, but she is also cognizant of marginalized spaces she occupies as one who chooses to wear her hair in a natural style (Iocs). Numerous instances in the academy and other traditional spaces have marked her as different and unwilling to conform to certain expectations around hairstyles.The other coauthor of this chapter enters this project as a Black woman who identifies as both feminist and womanist. Her roots within a marginalized racial group inform her perspective as a cis woman raised in a lower working-class southern community. At the same time, she acknowledges that her academic background has afforded her a degree of privilege. Like the ABG, she navigates the world with her hair in its natural curl pattern, which looks more like Issa’s on Insecure than Freddie’s on A Different World. All of these intersections endear the ABG to her, as she also teeters between multiple positions simultaneously.
In order to ascertain further understanding of the “ABG and examine its potential to move us beyond controlling images, we analyzed four television sitcoms: A Different World (1987—1993), Living Single (1993—1997), Black-ish (2014—), and Insecure (2016—), all featuring Black women characters who embody aspects ofWanzo’s description of the ABG.18 The following exploration of the ABG follows the work of scholars like Griffin, Guerrero, and Harris, who analyze texts and contexts of cultural production to garner means of empowerment for women of color.19 We begin with a synopsis of each female character considered. The first and last episodes of each season (a total of 36) in which the shows aired were reviewed to add breadth and depth to the characters, aiding in our careful consideration of the ABG representation and its potential to move us beyond long-established and studied controlling images.
Enacting the awkward Black girl: character synopsis
Situated as a spinoff of The Cosby Show, A Different World ran from 1987 to 1993. It is set on the fictional historically Black college (HBCU) campus of Hillman College where Denise Huxtable, daughter of Cliff and Clair Huxtable, studies. The television series explores student life at an HBCU. After the actress playing Denise, Lisa Bonet, left the cast, actress Cree Summer joined the show as Winifred “Freddie” Brooks, the roommate of students Jaleesa Vinson and Kimberly Reese. Freddie, a native of New Mexico, is introduced to us in “Dr. War Is Hell” in season 2, episode 1. Like her hippie (white) mother, Freddie is “spiritual, energetic, and compassionate ... a sort of‘free spirit,’ who is “politically conscious and often engages in environmental, community, and charitable activities.”2" Her biracial background is, at times, raised to highlight the complexities of race, while also giving voice to her lived experience. Freddie evolves in many ways during her Hillman years, but in the end remains committed to social justice issues in her goal to become a lawyer.
The ensemble cast of Living Single included four single Black women living and striving in New York City to achieve their professional and personal goals. Played by comedian Kim Coles, Synclaire James-Jones is the “perpetually perky but not too bright” cousin of Khadijah James, who is the owner and operator of Flavor magazine.21 The cast also included two Black male characters, one of whom becomes Synclaire s love interest and eventual husband, Overton Jones. Synclaire, while not the dominant character among the four women, played significant roles of unifier, collaborator, and consoler, as well as the “butt of the joke.” Her naive persona was often mocked, but at the same time, it was appreciated because of its sincerity and the love it expressed.
A hit comedy that first aired in 2014 as part of ABC’s Tuesday night lineup, Black-ish stars comedians Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as a happily (on occasion) married couple raising five children in an upper-middle-class suburb of Los Angeles.Tracee Ellis Ross’s character, Rainbow (“Bow”) Johnson is an anesthesiologist, while her husband Andre (“Dre”) is an advertising executive. At the start of the series, the four children are school age (ranging from middle to high school) and Bow becomes pregnant with a fifth child in season 3. Andre’s divorced parents live with the family as well. She is described as “kind, funny, selfless and nice—usually, the person to put Dre and his craziness in his place.”22 Bow is also a biracial character with hippie parents (a Black mother and a white father). Her racial identity is often raised in episodes to explore the question of “what is Black?” and she is, at times, the “butt of the joke” because of her mixed-race identity.
The half-hour comedy Insecure aired on the premium channel HBO in 2016, starring Issa Rae in the leading role with the same first name. With an Inglewood, California, backdrop, Issa on Insecure is socially awkward, having only a few close friends. She is single after having been in a five-year relationship with her boyfriend, Lawrence. Issa is college-educated, works for a nonprofit organization, and often struggles financially. She is crafted as the average millennial, with average 30-something financial, employment, and dating issues. Insecure revels in its ability to capture through representation the regular lives of young, up-and-coming Black Americans as they transition through adulthood, just as we see their neighborhoods gentrifying.