Why Educated Black Women Love VH1's "Single Ladies," Too
We Need Less "Precious" Stories, More Variety
Let me tell you a secret: I'm a black woman who doesn't love "The Color Purple," the book or film. I don't swoon over "Their Eyes Were Watching God." I'm back and forth on "For Colored Girls" (though the book is much better than the movie). But I'm enjoying VH1's new scripted series "Single Ladies," the story of a group of (mostly) black women in Atlanta navigating heartbreak, adultery, unplanned pregnancies and online dating, all while wearing too-short dresses and too-high heels.
By some measures that makes me either an empty-headed chick easily swayed by advertising or a self-hating one with no respect for my beautiful black self. Neither is true. What I am weary of is stories about black women being, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, the "mules of the world."
So I can understand the impatience with "Single Ladies." Constant portrayals of black women as oversexed, immoral, and irresponsible --probably the one legacy of the "Maury Povich Show," and many shows like it-- makes "Single Ladies" a much more complicated guilty pleasure than a show like HBO’s "Sex and the City." Hank Stuever of the Washington Post asked in his review "Are there people who really look and talk like this?"
Not any that I know of, but so what?
There are plenty of "real" black women on television who don't look or talk like anyone I know. NeNe Leakes, Star Jones, the casts of "Basketball Wives," "Love and Hip Hop" and "The Real Housewives of Atlanta"--none of these portrayals give me a better insight into contemporary black womanhood than "Single Ladies." But that's not really my point here.
There seem to be too many problems facing black women for us to spend time on something as frothy and silly and apparently inconsequential as "Single Ladies." True, the culture I live in is never short of examples of my degradation. Satoshi Kanazawa, in Psychology Today, recently offered "scientific" evidence of why black women are less attractive than women of other races. Recent studies show that black women are the most likely to die from childbirth complications in the United States. The Guinean hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Khan of sexual assault was assaulted herself with headlines, with the implication that she was preying on the former IMF chief, and not the other way around.
If these are the facts of contemporary black womanhood, it's easy to see why Hurston's now 74-year-old mule theory still rings true.
Lately, though, I am less interested in stories that recreate the reality of my impoverished, rural Louisiana childhood, and much more interested in stories that can imagine my black female humanity on any landscape. Where's my black female starship captain? Where's my black female art thief? Where's my black woman circling the globe eating, praying and loving?
I want more Uhura from J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" -- confident, competent, smart, and not the hero's prize. More Maya Rudolph in "Away We Go" and "Bridesmaids," matter-of-factly black. I want the stories about black women to be as diverse as black women themselves.
I'm not saying that "Single Ladies" is a great show. I see the insane micro-minis, wooden acting and preposterous situations. I'm not even saying that the fantasy the show presents is my fantasy. What I am saying is that there has to be room for all fantasies, for imagining the full range of black female humanity.
Otherwise, the only story we tell about black women --the only story my black daughters get to hear about themselves-- is the one in which they are inevitably the doormat upon which the rest of the world wipes their feet, because they had the misfortune of being born black and female. And that's not the world I want to live in.
As a professor of African-American literature, I will continue to teach Alice Walker, Hurston and Shange. I will continue to teach my students why the stories they tell are crucial to our understanding of what it means to be black and female in the world.
As a black mother, though, I long for something different. I don't need more stories like "Precious," which claim to be about my "reality." Or stories like "The Help" where black women are merely the backdrop for someone else's fantasy. I want stories about black women who are fierce, sexy, brilliant, vulnerable, silly, pissed-off, passionate, adventurous--stories in which black women are fully human and nobody's mule.