Insecure, Issa Rae, and The Interstitial Space of Black Female Friendships
Daelena Tinnin / University of Texas at Austin




Promotional poster for Insecure's third season



Stars of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, promote season 3.

In the penultimate episode of Insecure’s (HBO, 2016-) first season, “Real as F**k,” the argument between Issa and Molly rivals the heartbreaking blowups viewers counted on between Toni and Joan in the dynamic early aughts sitcom, Girlfriends (UPN, The CW, 2000-08). Issa is doing her best to escape the truth of her infidelity and Molly is doing her best to escape the realization that therapy might be the missing link in her seemingly perfect life. When Issa awkwardly nudges Molly in this direction, not even a lighthearted “Bitch, you mad now?” can prevent the building tension from spilling out amidst the shiny veneer of the We Got Y’all, a white savior non-profit and Issa’s employer, fundraiser.

Individually, they are hurling toward a rock bottom brought on by an astounding number of questionable decisions, so when Molly throws the argument’s final dagger — a gutsy “Fuck you, Issa” — the terrifying possibilities of loveless and friendless life linger in the frame. Nothing cuts like the knife hurled with good intentions, an arsenal of deep personal knowledge and a chip of exasperation from your best friend. This moment is illustrative of what pools the magic in Insecure: the backdrop of the ache of romance, professional growing pains, and general late 20s anxiety is all there, but the gut punch is the connective flesh of the show’s most enduring and complex relationship — the friendship between Issa and Molly.


Issa Rae Promotional poster for season 1



Issa Rae on the official Insecure season 1 poster.

Premiering in the fall of 2016, Insecure, a successor to Issa Rae’s popular web series Awkward Black Girl (YouTube, iamOther, 2011-13), entered into a television landscape where Black women could be seen on Scandal (ABC, 2012-18), How To Get Away With Murder (ABC, 2014-), Being Mary Jane (BET, 2013-17), Empire (Fox, 2015-), Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016-), Underground (WGN, 2016-17), Black-ish (ABC, 2014-), and a host of reality series. Before Olivia Pope, acted by Kerry Washington and created by Shonda Rhimes, broadcast television had not seen a Black female lead in forty years. It was and remains a frustrating, but not all that surprising, reminder of television’s historic ambivalence around narratives that center Black women. While all of the network broadcast shows mentioned have complicated and clever roles for their Black female leads, most of them also have their Black female leads siphoned off from one necessarily intimate component of Black womanhood — Black girlfriends. This narrative strategy effectively flattens blackness and removes specificity in such a way that acknowledging the intersection of race and gender can become clumsy, if not wholly absent altogether. Gently setting reality series aside, Black female friendships seemingly disappear as a focal point on scripted television series after the cancellation of Mark Brock Akil’s Girlfriends in 2008. When we consider the litany of contemporary white female friendships on television shows, the absence is palpable and, frankly, exhausting. What we miss when we refuse a creative seat at the table for the specificity the interstitial space of Black female friendships allows is not only a particular representative power, but also a more generative space from which to theorize the intersections of race, gender, and the machinations of visibility. In other words, Insecure can be seen as bridging a narrative divide that may sacrifice race for gender or vice versa. Like Kristal Brent Zook said of Living Single and its feminist-minded narrative, Insecure presents an “unprecedented opportunity to experiment with black female subjectivity on a weekly basis.” [ (( Kristal Brent Zook, Color By Fox (Oxford University Press,1999): 67.))]


Season 2 Trailer Screenshot



Insecure Season 2 Official HBO Trailer.

Throughout Insecure‘s three seasons, Issa Rae, co-creator, writer and star, and her creative team have set out to intentionally treat friendship as a site through which to explore Black womanhood and the attendant politics of joy, desire, sexuality and how those politics might shift according to space and time. Some moments like “Hella Great” in season two slice into subjectivity in such a way that the interiority of Black women feels devastatingly human. Others, like “Hella Blows” in season three, fail to locate the specificity of sexual exploration and boundaries without awkward recitations of dialogue that feels out of time and step with the show’s radical politics. Still, I find that the challenge that swirls around the cultural, industrial, and theoretical analysis of Insecure is one of paradox. Some of the most visible analytical options stall when they encounter the space of Black female subjectivity — a space that should necessarily disrupt any equation that might incorrectly connect being visible to being seen.

Kristen J. Warner’s scholarship often challenges the analytic binaries and offers analytic alternatives to the ways in which Black women, specifically, experience their media representation. She argues that “we should seek out the nuanced space that is located in the interstices between positive and negative.” [ ((Kristen Warner, “They Gon’ Think You Loud Regardless: Ratchetness, Reality Television, and Black Womanhood,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, no. 30:1 88 (2015): 137.))] Importantly, Warner ask what recourses Black women have in the face of the structural logics of racism and misogyny that cannot be recalibrated by respectable images in the regime of representation? Warner posits “that envisioning black womanhood as a mosaic of the self can generate possibilities that are not available offhand in currently dominant media and political discourses.” [ ((Warner, p. 139 ))] Thus, engaging or creating Black women on television requires a liminal space of negotiation where resonance can affectively register in various ways. To this end, Warner proposes “a third option: an ethics of care that prioritizes identificatory pleasures over pedagogy.” [ ((Warner, p. 140 ))] This is not to suggest that we conclude the conversation about the power of representation, especially in a critical media moment, and acquiesce to characterizations that value shock over substance. For Warner, this means pausing to ask, “at what point do black women acknowledge that mediated representation is as much about pleasure and community as it is about respectability?” [ ((Warner, p.140 ))] Warner’s interrogation lead me back to Hortense Spillers and her deft conceptualization of the interstice as symbolic of the space, or non-space, of Black female subjectivity. [ ((Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003).))] That is, an analytic opening through which we might understand the paradox of invisibility that accompanies Black women and the limiting pursuit of access to recognition. It is through Warner’s third interrogation space and Spillers’ interstice that I continue to wrestle what Insecure’s Black female friendships “do” more so than what they “mean.”

In parts of her 2014 book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine brilliantly captures the apparatus Black women are propelled into by manifestations of the paradox of invisibility and hyper visibility. [ ((Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014).))] This apparatus multiplies its meaning through the language that ruptures, sutures, and insists upon Black women a knowing of the emotional and bodily costs of the very human desire to be seen. Further, Rankine’s lyrical exploration of reality, race, and imagination, traces the intimacy and subtly of the ways in which Black women support each other through the relentless clutches of racial-sexual violence. The grotesque is made bearable through collective deliberation. Positing television as the apparatus Rankine conjures, the presence of Black women on the small screen, then, is often running against a hill of conjecture awaiting a moment exhaustive enough to speak to those intimate, subtle, and collective experiences. In the midst of shifting discourse on the precarious politics of representation, images of Black women exist in a liminal space of imperfect subjectivity; beings of marvel seeking enough precision to be both buoyant and grounded. Insecure is set to return for its fourth season in 2020 and as we anticipate the creative growth of Insecure let us also rethink the interstice of Black womanhood.

Image Credits:

1. Stars of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, promote season 3
2. Issa Rae on the official Insecure season 2 poster
3. Insecure Season 2 Official HBO Trailer

Please feel free to comment.




Moving From The Margins: Blackness, Podcasts and Racialized Audio Space
Briana Barner / University of Texas at Austin


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Podcast research must expand who the imagined podcast listener is

Podcasts are a vastly growing medium, with no slowing down in sight. According to a study done by Edison Research, in 2018 monthly listenership grew 26% (an increase of 2% from the previous year). The study also found that podcasts are the number one audio source based on the time of consumption among podcast listeners. This is presumably due to the proliferation of apps that make podcast listening more accessible. Gone are the days of listening to a podcast solely on an iPhone, or worst, a computer which made mobile listening difficult. The new podcast listening apps have opened up podcasting to non-Apple users and therefore new audiences.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the assumption that the average listener of podcasts is White. According to the Edison Research study The Podcast Consumer 2018, the average listener is highly educated (34% of monthly consumers have either advanced degrees or some form of graduate school); employed full-time, and is a man (52% of monthly consumers are men as opposed to 48% of listeners being women). The study does not account for the race of this idealized consumer, but elsewhere it has been imagined that this listener is White. Scholars Morris and Patterson [ ((Morris, J.W. & Patterson, E. (2015). “Podcasting and Its Apps: Software, Sound, and the Interfaces of Digital Audio.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 22(2), 220-230. Doi: 10.1080/19376529.2015.1083374))] summarized that the average podcast listener is “often dominated by older, educated, white professional males. Consumption also skewed toward the well-educated and affluent.” [ ((Morris and Patterson, p. 222))] In another study, McClung and Johnson [ ((McClung, S. and Johnson, K. (2010) “Examining the Motives of Podcast Users.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 17(1) pp. 82-95, DOI: 10-1080/1937652100371931sx))] sought to find the motives of podcast users, and their findings indicated similar demographics. For the purpose of this article, race will be the primary lens that shifts the discussion of podcast consumers but surely future research should consider other factors. These identity markers impact not only how a consumer engages with the podcast, but also how the host(s) imagine and structure the show. In not considering other races as imagined listeners of podcasts (or ignoring race altogether, as was the case in the Edison report), Whiteness is centered and podcasts are constructed as White spaces. Next, I will discuss just how the podcast (and public radio) space is constructed as a White one.

Growing attention has been paid to the perceived Whiteness of both podcasts and public radio, largely due to an article written by scholar and hip hop artist Chenjerai Kumanyika in 2015. In reflecting on a radio piece for the Transom Traveling Workshop on Catalina, Kumanyika did not recognize the voice he was writing in, or the voice that he was speaking in. Writing about this experience, Kumanyika [ ((Kumanyika, C. (2015) “Vocal Color in Public Radio.” The Transom Review, (15)2, 1-26))] would later realize: “…I was…imagining someone else’s voice saying my piece. The voice I was hearing and gradually beginning to imitate was something in between the voice of Roman Mars and Sarah Koening. Those two very different voices have many complex and wonderful qualities. They also sound like white people.” [ ((Kumanyika, p. 2))]

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Chenjerai Kumanyika caused a panic when he reflected on using his authentic voice during a radio piece

This reflection sparked a larger panic within the podcast and public radio spheres. The larger questions that shaped the conversations questioned if Kumanyika was on to something: is there a particular radio voice, and is it White? There seemed to be a consensus among those participating in the conversations that yes, there is a specific voice common in public radio (referred to as the NPR voice amongst some) and yes, it does sound like it belongs to a White person. A commenter on Kumanyika’s piece echoed this, stating, “I too am a huge fan of public radio though I have found that the “flat Mid-Atlantic” accent is becoming more and more prevalent on that band too.” [ ((Kumanyika, p. 7))] The sound of the NPR voice is a familiar one: calm, soothing and void of any regional accent or other identifying factor that lets the listener know who the speaker is. Although the NPR voice is void of a distinct accent, it calls to a specific kind of speech and tone that signifies Whiteness (hence the panic and anxiety around Kumanyika’s reflection).

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Tweet using the #pubradio hashtag, which circulated during the discussions about Whiteness and public radio

It is important to deconstruct the Whiteness of public radio. It impacts not only the kinds of stories told, but also who tells them and what these stories sound like. What stories and perspectives do we lose if that standard is upheld? Nuance, emotion, regional dialect, and most importantly, identity is lost. There are podcasts created by people of color that push back against this style of tone. Florini, [ ((Florini, S. (2015) The Podcast “Chitlin’ Circuit”: Black Podcasters, Alternative Media, and Audio Enclaves.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 22(2). 209-219.))] writing about Black podcasts, states that they: “largely eschew the “polished” and tightly formatted character of most mainstream corporate media, opting instead for an informal, flexible approach that allows for free-form conversation and embraces a range of Black vernaculars and regional accents.” [ ((Florini, p. 210))] For the listeners of these podcasts, Florini argues, the familiarity and diversity of the accents and vernacular used and topics, along with the intimacy that comes with listening to the podcasts creates a cocoon of sorts, sonically insulating them from their surroundings. [ ((Florini, p. 210))] It is precisely because of the Blackness of the hosts and the podcasts that the listeners are attracted to these podcasts that stand in opposition to the more “traditional” or White podcasts.

An example of this kind of podcast is The Read, hosted by queer Black friends Kid Fury and Crissle. It debuted in 2013 to immediate success and popularity. The show’s format is as follows: Black Excellence, Hot Topics, Listener Letters and The Read. During the Black Excellence segment, the hosts highlight Black individuals who have done noteworthy things, such as a pair of  teenage siblings creating a medical emergency app, and the first Black woman to own a NASCAR team. Next, in Hot Topics, the pair discuss celebrity happenings within Black culture. Many of the celebrities have success within Black popular culture, but not necessarily within mainstream culture. Next is the Listener Letter segment. Listeners write in letters to the show, and Crissle and Kid Fury respond. The letters range from relationship questions to questions about dealing with racist colleagues to how to navigate the political climate post-Trump’s election. Lastly, is The Read [ ((The act of reading someone, a term that originated with Black and Brown LGBTQ folks, nvolves pointing out flaws or insulting someone.))] segment, in which the two take turns expressing their displeasure, anger, frustration at various people and topics.

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Logo for the podcast The Read, which is considered one of the most successful Black podcasts

The read is a racialized, sexualized and gendered space. It is here where Kid Fury and Crissle theorize about their locations as Black, queer people existing within a political landscape that calls for the dismissal and refusal to accept their humanity. In this space, they speak to each other but they also speak to a larger system, and the beauty of the podcast is that within this space, they are not interrupted or denied voice or agency. In addition, sound is spatial. Unlike the NPR voice, the voices of Kid Fury and Crissle are distinct. Both of them are Southern, and this comes out in almost every episode. Kid Fury is a native of Miami, and Crissle is from Oklahoma, with roots in Louisiana and Texas. Though these spaces are very different, they are both uniquely Southern and place the hosts in very specific locations and cultures. There is no flattening of their accents, no hiding of their Southern roots, which adds to the spatialization of the sound of the podcast. Not only is this podcast Black, but it is very Southern, as well. The Blackness is signified through the cultural references, and even in the opening music, which is a hip-hop inspired remix of “Oh, Happy Day” a gospel song featured in the movie Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993).

Not only are their accents very distinctly Southern, but they both have distinct laughs. The hosts both have very unique, boisterous laughs—when the two of them find something genuinely hilarious, it makes for a loud few seconds. This may be alarming for a listener who isn’t familiar with the show, but it has become one of the signature things that make the show endearing. It also shows their friendship and that they genuinely enjoy being around one another. It is not enough solely to call out the podcast as a White space. It is important to distinguish what makes the Black podcast Black. In analyzing The Read, I have shown how it signifies Blackness through its various segments, cultural references and its political space in the read segment.This project has sought to first identify the podcast and public radio space as one where Whiteness dominates, and then to present an example of a space where this is challenged and where erasure is addressed and then resolved. [ ((For a detailed list of podcasts hosted by people of color, see the Podcasts In Color directory, compiled by Danielle Berry. The directory contains over 1,000 podcasts and is constantly being updated.))]

Image Credits:

1. Podcast research must expand who the imagined podcast listener is.
2. Chenjerai Kumanyika caused a panic when he reflected on using his authentic voice during a radio piece.
3. Tweet using the #pubradio hashtag, which circulated during the discussions about Whiteness and public radio. (Author’s screen grab)
4. Logo for the podcast The Read, which is considered one of the most successful Black podcasts.

Please feel free to comment.




A Pedagogical Experiment in the Era of Black Lives Matter
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

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Class Facebook Group Page of “Mediating Ferguson, USA” at the University of South Carolina

While academics typically recognize the publication of research as the most permanent form our work can take, the work we do in the classroom can feel by turns endless and ephemeral. This ephemerality has real benefits, teachers and students know, be it in the restart button we can press at the beginning of each class or in the knowledge that every term, no matter how grueling, will come to an end in a matter of weeks. Yet this always-passing time of teaching can make it easy to forget classroom moments worth remembering. Such a moment — a powerful, semester-long moment, but a moment nonetheless, in a special topics course entitled “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015,” on “race, justice, and popular U.S. film and media in the 20th and 21st centuries” — inspired me to mark it with the permanence of publication. For in this class, at a predominantly white institution where students are often hesitant to talk about race, an unusually diverse group of undergraduates came together, day in and day out, for exceptionally open, incisive, and productive discussions about race and its intersection with a host of social dynamics, on screen and off. With these columns I hope, at least, to honor this remarkable community of students, who made our sixteen weeks together among the most meaningful in my nearly two decades of (rewarding) teaching at the University of South Carolina. I also write fueled by a sense that some fundamental questions about teaching race and media studies — questions about how we do it, why we do it, what tends to work and not work, and for whom, where, and when — are being profoundly reshaped by histories still very much unfolding.

In my first column, I sketched the historical moment, locally as well as nationally, of the months and weeks leading up to the course, because that backstory so shaped it, and in ways that far exceeded any frameworks my syllabus or pedagogical habits might have provided. As one friend’s visiting relative put it of Columbia while visiting here in the summer of 2015, it felt then like we were at the “epicenter” of a convulsing national crisis around race and violence. The community this class became was forged in the urgency of that moment. And our awareness of how unusually and acutely our work within the classroom was being shaped by histories unfolding beyond it had little chance of diminishing over the course of a semester punctuated by more viral videos of police brutality and a rise of student activism, here as around the country. One such video, from Columbia’s own Spring Valley High School, made the “school to prison pipeline” shockingly vivid, and once again brought painfully home our own undeniable place in what we might describe as the newly vivid, albeit unofficial, network of institutional forms of racial injustice being mapped on our screens through such videos from points throughout the country. And when students, including some from our class, organized a walkout and marched to the President’s office to deliver a list of demands for improving inclusivity on our campus, the class understood this, too, in the context of both particular local histories (the list began with the “demand that our university acknowledge that this institution was built on the backs of enslaved Africans”) and a larger national surge of student activism that fall. In the midst of all this, it thus became routine — and often felt necessary—to begin class by checking in on the latest relevant developments, which students readily connected to our assigned materials, even when the syllabus could not have.

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Students Demand Greater Inclusivity, On Screen and Off

In part because of so many structuring contingencies beyond my pedagogical control, it seems worth reflecting on some deliberate strategies that also played a part, regarding the course’s title, syllabus, and some assignments.

What I initially recognized to be a certain risk in the course title, “Mediating Ferguson” — that it would appeal to a self-selected group and might turn off “students who most need” a course like this (as we educators sometimes and perhaps too condescendingly put it) — I came to understand only later as also having had tremendous benefits. For the title’s self-selectivity brought together a group of students at once eager to engage and unusually diverse. Whereas media studies classes here are usually, like our institution more generally, predominantly white, nearly a third of the students in this class were African American. Students also routinely spoke, and thought, from positions marked by genuinely diverse socioeconomic, sexual, and geographic experiences. In short, not only were we not slowed down, or derailed, by stubborn resistance or routine reluctance to engage, but the students who were so eager to engage had both a safe space and an excellent group of peers with which to do so. The class discussions that resulted (I almost never lectured) were thus routinely probing and robust, and we all had daily opportunities to seriously listen and respond to others with sometimes profoundly different experiences and insights from our own.

While so much of this, to be sure, had everything to do with the particular students in the room, one syllabus experiment seemed to help. While I routinely begin media history classes with contemporary material — to draw students in and to prime them to look back at media from the past with eyes and ears open for reverberations with the present — in the Ferguson class I expanded the scale and goals of the opening contemporary unit. We began with three weeks of immersion in contemporary material, with several aims: (1) to give the class a shared set of materials with which to join the current “national conversation” about race (including viral videos, some excellent journalism, and Lawrence Bobo’s, “Somewhere between Jim Crow and Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today”); (2) to equip students (who came to this class from several different majors) with key concepts in media studies for thinking about cultural formations of whiteness and blackness (including work by Richard Dyer and Herman Gray); (3) to invite them to begin to consider distinct ways of thinking and feeling about race afforded and/or discouraged by distinct media forms and practices (in addition to the materials already mentioned, we watched Fruitvale Station [2013], a superb group of young black poets on campus performed a reading of their work in our class, and each student had to “curate” a digital media post to the class’ Facebook Group—finding something online they thought would add to our conversations and pithily explaining why); and (4) to cultivate habits for generating productive questions for further inquiry and research. This last goal involved two kinds of tasks, the second of which expanded (and enhanced) the work of reading responses. First, in a series of daily assignments, they were asked to pinpoint key arguments and insights from the readings and generate specific critical/conceptual questions of their own in response. Then, having done this for several weeks, they had to submit a revised, edited list of questions (refining, expanding, etc. those previously drafted) that seemed important to continue thinking about in the course and/or (potential) future research.

These four aims fed each other, and encouraged students from the start to articulate, sharpen, and develop the questions they found most urgent and productive. And by the end of this first unit, they each had not only an arsenal of potential research questions, but also a method for how to develop these. I also invited them relatively early in the semester to think about what kind of research and/or creative work they might want to do to pursue their questions. Or, as I put it to them more than once: “How do you want to mediate Ferguson, etc.? What kinds of things do you most want to say and/or to show? And to whom? And which media forms and practices might best help you reach your audience(s)?”

Also vital to the success of this first unit, and the rest of the course, was one of our earliest discussions — grounded by the Bobo reading with all the specific examples, and data, he provides — in which I asked them to specify what we are talking about, exactly, when we talk about “institutional,” “structural,” or “systemic” racism. Once we had established a concrete understanding of the kinds of historical and contemporary social practices these terms refer to (we covered the board with them one day), I could then ask them to think in specific ways about the work of distinct media forms and practices in relation to such systemic inequities. Right away, they recognized how the viral videos coming across their screens from seemingly everywhere made visible the institutional, systemic nature of police brutality. These early conversations also set us up to then look back at a diverse set of media histories with eyes and ears more attuned to discern their specific, varied, and shifting forms of mediating race.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s Screenshot of Group Facebook page, with cover photo of protesters with JR’s image of Eric Garner’s eyes, from JR on Twitter.
2. Photo from The Daily Gamecock of phone with image from an online petition of the student activist group, USC 2020 Vision, taken at the start of a student walkout at the University of South Carolina on November 16, 2015.

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Shady is the New Black
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

The Shady Protagonists

The “Shady” Protagonists

In the Urban Dictionary, there are multiple definitions of the word “shady”— “sly,” “corrupt,” “sketchy,” and “underhanded.” Yet, despite the negative tenor of this popular parlance, in terms of protagonists in quality drama on television, shady is the new black—literally and figuratively.

Given that the televisual preeminence of the Super Negro—and, later, African American—has waned over the years, how does the new televisual visibility of Black women change the idealization paradigm, which used to assuage the misgivings of mainstream audiences? By reflecting on notions of taste and quality in television in relation to Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal (ABC 2012-present), Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How To Get Away With Murder (ABC 2014-present) and Cookie Lyon (Taranji P. Henson) in Empire (Fox 2015-present), this brief rumination offers thoughts on how and why those who would formerly have been Supers have become progressively more shady.

Pierre Bourdieu states, “[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a given…social space… towards the practices or goods which befit occupants of [their] position.”[ ((Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984) 20.))] Thus, for Bourdieu, taste, the ability to make discriminating judgments about the aesthetic and the artistic, is inextricably tied to class. However, race and/or ethnicity and/or gender surely play a role as well. When thinking intersectionally about the ways in which a “sense of one’s place” is constructed and enforced, the word “discriminating” takes on a dual meaning. While Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood state that “Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges,” I can’t help wondering whether aesthetic and artistic “goods” (read: television) can ever be seen as neutral or separated from the social.[ ((Mary Douglas, Baron Isherwood. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. (New York: Basic Books: 1979) 12.))] In actuality, television—especially shows lauded as “quality”—are always both “fences and bridges.”

Quality and taste are highly subjective. However, what is considered quality is determined by taste, which, in turn, depends upon myriad elements. This brings me to an astute observation from Noah Berlatsky of The Guardian regarding #OscarSoWhite: “Prejudice is solidified, and enforced, through institutions. But it starts out as an aesthetic preference– a dream about who is good and who is bad, who matters and who doesn’t.”[ ((Noah Bertlansky, “#OscarsSoWhite: how questions of diversity are inextricably linked to taste.” The Guardian. 3 February 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/03/oscars-diversity-2016-favorite-movies-racism-prejudice-aesthetics-taste?CMP=fb_us Accessed 9 February 2016.))] In quality television, more traditional heroes have been replaced by decidedly darker fare, antiheroes such as the neurotic mobster and family man, Tony (James Gandolfini) on The Sopranos (HBO 1999-2007) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the science teacher turned meth kingpin on Breaking Bad (A&E 2008-2013). Clearly, Tony and Walter are shady but their reprehensible acts do prevent the audience from having moments of identification and even genuine empathy for them—a sort of narrative white male privilege. Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and Cookie Lyon are in more precarious positions which require that something, besides the vestiges of Black exemplarism and questionable archetypes of Black womanhood, cut the shadiness: suffering seems to be required in order for them to be redeemable.

Three Shades of Shady

Three Shades of Shady

The powerful women leads of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire represent three shades of shady with a healthy side of suffering. Olivia Pope maintains the closest connection to the Supers of the past and is “elegantly shady.” Kerry Washington’s Olivia exudes exemplarism: the Prada-clad “gladiator in a suit” “handles” crises, wields power for the benefit of the elite and the underdog and embodies privilege as a product of her 1% upbringing. Yet, her “white hat” status is problematic: she stole a presidential election, covered up crimes, condoned torture (for a “good” cause), and had an affair with the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn), which went legit before going wrong. Olivia’s elegantly shady is inflected by Sally Hemmings/Jezebel tropes even though, in the Shondaland spirit of colorblindness, her Blackness is served up more as narrative garnish than a culturally specific entrée. Yet, Olivia’s suffering is personal and public: from her “troubled” parental relations (her mom, believed dead, is actually a terrorist; her distant father leads a secret Black Ops organization and is her constant foe) to her relationship with Fitz, which leads to her being held hostage and in danger of being sold to the highest bidder on her way to becoming the de facto First Lady, a constricting role she is ultimately compelled to reject.

Viola Davis portrays the badass version of elegantly shady as Annalise Keating, a brilliant law professor and defense attorney, who inspires both fear and awe. Ethically-challenged and fiercely independent, the designer-clad and coiffed Annalise teaches a class on “How To Get Away With Murder.” She is driven to clear her clients, manipulate the legal system, and control her personal relationships, whether with her husband, Sam (Tom Verica), her cop lover, Nate (Billy Brown), or her elite student corps, particularly, Wes (Alfred Enoch), of whom she is uncharacteristically protective. Despite the colorblind ethos that informs the series (also a Shondaland product), Annalise, formerly Anna Mae, and her litany of traumas (including sexual abuse, the loss of a child and the violent and complicated death of a husband) resonates with painful aspects of Black womanhood. HTGAWM survives its outlandish narrative twists more because of what Davis brings to the screen than what is written on the page—as illustrated in the scene that set Black Twitter aflame, when Davis made the choice to remove her wig in a particularly dramatic moment of frustration and vulnerability.

Then, there is Cookie Lyon, played by Taranji P. Henson, the breakout star of Empire. From her first scene, clad in a skintight leopard dress and a fur, when released from a 17-year stint in prison for drug trafficking, Cookie is clearly a force of nature. While arguably, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s series is essentially Dynasty meets Love and Hip Hop, Cookie is a noble diva: a Black woman who is down with those she loves no matter what, through it all, the good and the bad, she is “ride or die” shady. Cookie is a fierce matriarch, who, having been separated from her children, seeks to win back their love and to protect them from any threat—including their father, and the love of her life, hip hop mogul, Lucious Lyon (Terence Howard), her charming and deadly ex who used her drug money to fund his music career before divorcing her. While Cookie’s sassy, sexualized and street construction can be seen as problematic in that it plays into various stereotypes of urban Black femininity, her suffering is taken as matter of fact—it is what it is, which is disheartening for other reasons. Empire’s Cookie is not as complex or conflicted as either Scandal’s Olivia or HTWAWM’s Annalise. Yet, of the three, she is the least damaged and damaging to those around her despite the trauma she has endured (poverty, incarceration, abandonment), and because of her unwavering sense of self. She is also unapologetically Black.

Viola Davis' Emmy Acceptance Speech

Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance, 2015

Olivia, Annalise and Cookie may signal more expansiveness in televisual representations of Black women. The passionate assertion about opportunity made by Viola Davis after her historic Emmy win (above) speaks to the continued need for more roles for Black actors and varied representations of Blackness. Nevertheless, these three shades of shady are still in uncomfortable conversation with the always contingent space occupied by Black womanhood on American television.

Image Credits:
1. The Shady Protagonists
2. Three Shades of Shady
3. Viola Davis’ Emmy Acceptance Speech

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