I am a Black woman and I have never been sad a day in my life.
Or wait, back up. To be more specific, I have never had the mental capacity or time to be sad about the things that teenage girls in shows and movies are sad about—like boyfriends and grades—because I have been busy struggling through the existential crisis of my race. My tears have all been over racism and my anger has all been geared toward bigots.
You just read those sentences and thought to yourself, “What nonsense is she on about?” And yet, that is what media have long taught me about what it means to exist in a Black and female body: I am only allowed emotions and behaviors on the anger spectrum—outrage, frustration, sassy one-liners. And what could possibly be unsatisfactory about this when at the end of the day I get to be a strong independent woman? Many concepts can feel empowering until you get a chance to really think about what is being kept from you. In this case, a full spectrum of emotion is being gatekept from Black people—and people of color, more generally—when we are flattened into one-dimensional characters that serve as foils for white characters experiencing all that life has to offer.
If you read my opening statement and thought to yourself that I was being ridiculous, then you acknowledge my right to devastation, depression, mental illness…you are acknowledging that as a fellow human, I can feel what you can. The television and movies I consumed growing up never supported this fact, and consequently made, and still make me feel that there are ways Black people must behave to be comprehensible to white audiences. When one watches a narrative about a Black person, inevitably there will be a moment when one thinks, “Oh, of course this Black man is funny and never expresses other emotions; of course this Black woman is bold and fiery and never cracks.” There is a certain fragility of spirit that is never allowed to the non-white, the visibly other.
Recently, in an ironic and fun and not at all privileged joke format, young women have taken to referencing their “fleabag eras.” This is an allusion to the iconic 2016 series Fleabag, written by and starring Phoebe Waller Bridge, a British creative who portrays a woman struggling with crippling grief in the aftermath of her best friend’s death. Throughout the (brilliant) show, audiences watch the eponymous lead self-destruct—infidelity, theft, deceitfulness, the list goes on—but ultimately embark on a poignant journey of self-improvement. To be in a “fleabag era” is to act in loathsome ways while being self-aware about how self-destructively you are behaving. So, young women are (fairly) becoming disillusioned with the world and wholly succumbing to their sadness.
I won’t be making the same argument that many have made about how white women’s privilege is the only thing allowing them to play into recent trends of “dissociative feminism”. The latter is a term coined by Emmeline Clein in 2019— “we seem to be interiorizing our existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them, and numbing ourselves to maintain our nonchalance.”¹ Instead, I want to consider that Fleabag is only one among many recent cultural texts that portray white women’s mental illnesses in ways that romanticize the aesthetics of their vulnerability while not acknowledging the same breadth of emotion in Black characters (this because there are no Black characters in this content). In Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People and its subsequent 2020 TV adaptation, Marianne, the lead, is a deeply traumatized young woman who Rooney saturates with an amount of frailness and malleability that one would be hard-pressed to attribute to anything other than mental illness.
Am I jealous that white women are allowed to be fragile? I don’t think so. I mean, if anything the breadth of different representations of white women that the film and television industries have made room for lends weight to my stance that there should be space for Black complexity, too.
The first Black woman to ever win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for her role as a subservient house slave in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. McDaniel’s role as “Mammy” showed her defending her white mistress from the racial reckoning of the Reconstruction Era and drew mixed feedback from the Black community. Despite her impressive achievement, McDaniel was forced to fight to even enter the Oscars ceremony and this after being forced into contributing to white Hollywood’s mission to idealize the not-long gone antebellum South.
There was a sense in McDaniel’s decades of acting that she preferred objectification at work to the daily traumas added to poverty that other Black people were victim to. She famously said that she would “rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.” But McDaniel was simply the first among many Black women who would be pigeonholed into ever-evolving stereotypes about the group; the “Mammy” is nothing but a less subtle version of the “Sassy Black Best Friend.”
Of course, white media would never be so ungenerous as to limit archetypes about Black people to just two iterations. You all know the “Angry Black Woman” (also known as “Sapphire”): she is overly dramatic and aggressive and can never crack a smile and might actually just be a woman willing to confront injustice. When Black women aren’t being angry, they are being sexually promiscuous, or at least that’s what the “Jezebel” character implies. Black men are similarly exposed to rumors of extreme promiscuity, rumors likely born of white society’s fear of interracial relationships. But this quickly veers into a fear of the Black man which translates into the “Black Buck” character or today’s “Thug” who is constantly going after white women’s virtue or purses (that, or he deals drugs). What all these characters have in common is that their existence revolves around the joys and triumphs of white life. Look no further than the “Magical Negro” or the “Black Best Friend” to see that Black characters are not expected to have lives beyond those of their white counterparts.
A fear of these archetypes is often chasing Black actors, and this quickly takes the shape of respectability politics. Black actresses police one another in a manner that may lead them further from the “Jezebel”, but which also forces them to adhere to respectability as white culture defines it. An interesting fact about stereotypes and one-dimensional representations is that no matter what they are, they cause harm: rumors of sexual promiscuity cause harm and expectations of strength because of decades of social conditioning also cause harm. It shouldn’t run counter to narratives of Black existence to consider women’s vulnerabilities, but when the media incessantly portray Black women with certain characteristics (anger, servility…) they allow non-Black viewers to expect and demand corresponding performances of Blackness in real life. Media are so filled with Black archetypes that I could probably list most of the content that truly subverts them.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to who is in what room: when power is concentrated in the hands of individuals who do not belong to certain races or cultures, it makes complete sense that they will reproduce the world as they understand it. In a 2017 article, Australian artist and researcher Tania Cañas claims that “diversity is a white word”² in the sense that it allows white creators to tokenize people of color and have them in forward-facing positions without changing power dynamics at all.
Black people are almost always excluded from narratives which feature mental illness because—and here’s a fun twist—in the same way that single narratives about Black people color other groups’ perspectives of them, the same narratives also impact Black peoples’ understandings of themselves. Stigma surrounding mental illness and therapy are pervasive in Black communities, which often discourages people from seeking help along with accentuating trauma. According to Ruth White who was once a professor of social work and is now a diversity and mental health advocate, this stigma is partly caused by “the survivalist mentality born from systemic oppression and chronic racism.”³
When preparing to write this, I asked many people I know whether they had seen The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and if they had, I asked them what their main take-away from the classic ‘90s sitcom was. For the point I’m looking to make, I wanted them to say they remembered it being a funny show…and that’s all. In all fairness, Fresh Prince was in fact a funny show, but there were so many moments that gave insight into a hidden Black mental health struggle: one of the most iconic moments of the show is when Will, a teenage Black boy, breaks down in tears following yet another disappointment from his father (“How come he don’t want me?” he sobs to his uncle). If for Black communities, vulnerability must be shielded by comedy, it does not mean that the vulnerability does not exist. Fresh Prince holds so much nuance, but many other such shows do not: it’s almost like in an homage to the tradition of minstrel shows, American society can only see Black people as caricatures that don’t experience complex emotion. And for Black people, such phenomena create a difficult balancing act of both wanting to rise above circumstances and wanting to be acknowledged for what you have struggled through.
In an early scene of episode three (“Go for Broke”) of the Donald Glover written and produced Atlanta, Glover’s character, Earnest and his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Vanessa are laying side-by-side in bed re-hashing an argument. The couple have a daughter whom Vanessa believes Earnest should be doing more to support. (At the very least, she argues, he should have a stable job or pick their daughter up sometimes). While Earnest attempts to turn the conversation on Vanessa by claiming she doesn’t support the things that make him happy, she points out how quickly he dismisses her whims by calling her “crazy”. The conversation ends in an apology and Earnest asking Vanessa out on a date the next day. So, what would Black dissociative feminism look like? I think it would be Vanessa in Episode 6 of Atlanta: on a night out with a friend, she is pressured to smoke weed only to remember the next morning that she has a drug test at her job. Viewers watch as she spends the morning frantically attempting to clear the substance from her system only to end up skipping the test and revealing to her boss what has happened. The following interaction then happens:
KEIFER: I didn’t receive your sample… VANESSA: I smoked weed.
KEIFER: Okay. Well, urine samples aren’t sent off. The county can’t afford quarterly drug tests for its employees, so after the first one, they’re really just to keep people on their toes. Listen, everybody smokes weed. The system isn’t made for these kids to succeed, and you got to shake it off somehow.
KEIFER: I get it. (sighs) But unfortunately, you have admitted the use of an illegal substance to a superior, so I’ve got to fire you. To cover my own ass, as well as the school’s.
Shocked, Vanessa goes home, sits on the couch, stares blankly at the wall, and lights up. There’s a lightheartedness to both scenes that belies the show’s self-awareness. But would this nuanced understanding of Black existence have been possible had the writers’ room not been all-Black (which is very much a rarity)? Who else could subvert stereotypes with as much empathy and humor as the stereotyped individuals themselves?
It feels like most media are so far behind. Black women are tired of carrying triple burdens, but media just hasn’t caught up with their struggles yet because vulnerabilities have been coded as exclusively white. All I have to do is turn to my Twitter feed to feel that Black women are reaching a breaking point, unnoticed.
“Black women are tired. @KeishaBottoms told y’all we tired. @naomiosaka told y’all we tired. Now, @Simone_Biles is telling y’all we tired. People want us to take on the world for their benefit while actively tearing us down. We’re magic but we ain’t superhuman. I’m tired, too.”⁴ (@tamisawyer)
How do we hit the cultural reset button? How do we more consistently move beyond expectations of Black individuals and give them the space to explore all that they can be?
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I really started thinking about relatability in the content I watched. Growing up in predominantly white communities and being exposed to the exact same media that my friends were, I simply rolled with it. But the older I got and the more aware I became of my supposed otherness, the more I considered the idea that some audiences had never looked at screens and not seen themselves, and the more I wondered what it would be like to look into a mirror (albeit a funhouse version) instead of a white wall.
-Cañas, Tania. “Diversity Is a White Word.” ArtsHub Australia, January 9, 2017. https://www.artshub.com.au/news/opinions-analysis/diversity-is-a-white-word-252910-2354833/.
-Clein, Emmeline. “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating.” BuzzFeed News, November 20, 2019. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emmelineclein/dissociation-feminism-women-fleabag-twitter.
-Sawyer, Tami. “Black women are tired. @KeishaBottoms told y’all we tired. @naomiosaka told y’all we tired. Now, @Simone_Biles is telling y’all we tired. People want us to take on the world for their benefit while actively tearing us down. We’re magic but we ain’t superhuman. I’m tired, too.” (July 27, 2021, 2:56 PM). https://twitter.com/tamisawyer/status/1420095738265186304.
-Wanzo, Rebecca. “Beyond a ‘Just’ Syntax: Black Actresses, Hollywood and Complex Personhood.” In Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 16, no. 1 (March 1, 2006): 135–52. doi:10.1080/07407700500515985.
Watego, Chelsea. “Black women are tired. That’s it.” (May 4, 2021, 7:21 AM). https://twitter.com/drcwatego/status/1389540768566681602.
-White, Ruth. “Why Mental Health Care Is Stigmatized in Black Communities.” USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, February 12, 2019.
Winfrey-Harris, Tamara. “Black Women and the Burden of Respectability.” Bitch Media, May 22, 2012.
By Aïsha Philippe