After this weekend some might say it’s a good time to be a black woman in America, at least on television. They might say this after watching Kerry Washington’s debut on Saturday Night Live and BET’s annual “Black Girl Rocks” celebration. While those things are all good, I think there was an important message that was communicated delivered between Saturday and Sunday, the message being that black women need to define themselves in the media.
On Saturday night Kerry Washington made her debut appearance on Saturday Night Live. This was a big deal because in the preceding weeks, SNL cast member Kenan Thompson claimed that black female comics aren’t ready for SNL which lead to a huge backlash. After Thompson’s statement, Washington was announced as the host of the show as if she was behind the scenes with Pope & Associates plotting this all along. Like many, I was looking forward to seeing Washington take on sketch comedy over her weekly role as Ms. Fix It/Adulteress. I had hope during the opener where she played Michelle Obama to Jay Pharoah’s Barack Obama. Things were moving along brilliantly as fictitious Barack remarked to fictitious Michelle that it has been too long since he has seen her–a jab at the fact that there isn’t anyone to play Michelle Obama and the current black male cast members–Pharoah and Thompson–have sworn off dressing as women for skits. The fictitious couple’s pleasantries were interrupted when a White House aide announced the arrival of Oprah. But who would play Oprah? The one black woman currently on screen of course! Washington rushed out of the room and as she changed into Oprah’s best, the following words appeared on the screen:
“The producers at “Saturday Night Live” would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play. We make these requests because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent — and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman on the cast. Mostly the latter. We agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future, unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”
Following the text’s conclusion, Washington rushed backed into the room doing a spot-on impression of Oprah only to discover that Beyonce just arrived and she would be responsible for being the pop-diva. She disappeared again leaving Barack and his aide to their own devices along with six different Matthew McConaugheys–because there are enough cast members to render six different McConaugheys. The cold opener concluded with a special guest appearance by the Rev. Al Sharpton who concluded that as usual nothing was learned from this bit and then he said those famous words, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
Alas my excitement dissipated about two sketches in as I realized that many of the characters that Washington played were stereotypes of black women. First there was Tammy, the blonde-wig wearing, gum snapping, ghetto-attitudinal assistant to Heshy, a female motivational speaker from Yemen. This was followed by the nagging, nosey girlfriend in “What Does My Girl Say?” a cover of the strangely popular Norwegian dance song “What Does the Fox Say?” (Which, I might add, was one of the funnier sketches of the evening.) Washington also played a strong, quasi-militant black female professor from Spelman–complete with a tightly-packed afro, an overly inquisitive pageant contestant from Uganda, a perky game show host, a despised high school teacher with heavy Jersey accent and a ditzy dating show contestant. All of these roles could fall somewhere on the spectrum of stereotypes of black women and though it can be argued that it was all for the sake of comedy or making a statement about the lack of diversity, it’s hard to push this argument when on any other Saturday night white comediennes have the opportunity to play roles that don’t depend on stereotypes about white women. For an actress with such range, it was disappointing to see her playing token roles that weren’t even worth the laughs. But I believe what happened on SNL is what happens when our images are crafted and written largely by people who aren’t black women and know nothing (truly) about the black female experience.
SNL currently has 23 writers, four women who are white, one black male—at least that I could find, and the rest are white males. Considering those demographics, I’m not sure how one could do anything but write stereotypical scripts for the few black actresses that walk through the door. The sad thing is, while universalizing the experience of all women is a mistake, failing to see where there is convergence is also problematic. A sketch that dramatized the interaction between black and white women and the missteps that occur—not limited to the “You can or can’t touch my hair” issue—would have been funny. Or maybe a sketch that didn’t rely on race and ethnicity markers–a well done skit, not a throwaway skit such as the game show and dating show sketches. There are other ways that Washington’s talents could have been used that didn’t rely on tried and true stereotypes and this is particularly significant because it is on the heels of the lack of black comedienne’s debacle. But, Washington can’t resolve SNL’s 39-year grievance all by herself, although she did a hell of a job trying. Given this,“Black Girls Rock” came at a perfect time to offset any hard feelings about Saturday Night Live missteps.
“Black Girls Rock” is a “non-profit youth empowerment and mentoring organization established to promote the arts for young women of color, as well as to encourage dialogue and analysis of the ways women of color are portrayed in the media.” A few years ago, the organization partnered with BET to broadcast an annual celebration of black girls/women through performance, the presentation of awards, and paying homage to trailblazers throughout the ages. I, like many, black women look forward to this show because it is one of the few opportunities that black women are guaranteed to see mirror images of themselves on television. This year women such as Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; and Ameena Matthews, a violence interrupter and activist in Chicago were honored alongside living musical legends such as Patti LaBelle, television producer Mara Brock Akil, and black ballerina Misty Copeland. The audience alone is enough to put every television network to shame that claims an interest in black women without actually showing it. Black Girls Rock showcases girls and women of every complexion, shape and size, and walk of life and each of them, in their existence, shatters a misconception or stereotype of black women. Black women are more than the limited narratives that mainstream media portrays. To see the Rock Star award go to Queen Latifah and listen to her proclaim that she never imagined she’d be a Cover Girl because of the color of her skin, or be a star because of her size is encouraging and an encouragement to the next generation to let them know that the doors are open for them and sky’s the limit. “Never let anyone tell you that you should stand behind them. You are the leader, you stand in front,” Latifah said and this is a message that rings true beyond Black Girl Rocks into the spaces of Saturday Night Live and beyond.
Caribbean-American writer and activist Audre Lorde once said, “ If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” While Washington’s appearance on Saturday Night Live shows a sign of progression, it could also be a version of being eaten alive. Eaten alive by closed-minded writers. Eaten alive by narrow narratives of the black woman in media. Even eaten alive because your biggest fans are more willing to support you just because you are black and they are too without requiring anymore of you. Without requiring you to fight for better representation of black women in media even when it is just for a laugh. A moment in television such as “Black Girls Rock” gives black women and little black girls an opportunity to define themselves for themselves precisely because they are provided with images of themselves as activists, artists, actresses, teachers, preachers, and other “sheroes.” They see more of what they can be. In all of this I don’t want to discount the actual Tammys of the world, the nagging girlfriends, the quasi-militant Spelman professors, or any of the other stereotypes used in theatrical dramatizations of black women because they are a part of us too. But more and more, our little black girls and young black women need to see what they can be over what has been perceived about them over the years. More and more they need to see that Black Girls Rock. That is, “Black Girls Rock” in particular and black girls rocking in general.