Echoes of TV's First Lady

Published June 22, 2009

In a culture in which every white woman is presumed to be Everywoman until proven out of the mainstream, Obama has brought the normalcy of black women into the broader social consciousness. All it took were her two Ivy League degrees, a six-figure boardroom salary, a Norman Rockwell family, soccer-mom bona fides and an ability to dress herself without the aid of an entourage.

In many ways, the first lady has made people see -- really see -- black women for the first time. For example, when a black model appeared on the May cover of Vogue, news articles credited the "Obama effect," ignoring the concerted lobbying by fashion industry activists that began long before Barack Obama was even a presidential contender.

The role of style in defining the first lady might easily be dismissed as a distraction from more substantive issues. But Williams says the fan magazine breathlessness is significant because "it implies a kind of parity we really needed."

Enthusiasm over glossy-magazine beauty as defined by a darker-skinned black woman has to be seen against the backdrop of history, when black women's appearance was used as a tool of oppression. High culture rhapsodized in love sonnets about ivory complexions, flaxen hair and ruby lips. And today, black women still mostly surface as sidebars in beauty stories.

"Somewhere in the core of it is the question of whether black really is beautiful," Williams says. "That's why I think it's not about superficiality. It's a precarious moment. Only a minute ago, she was Angela Davis."

Fighting Stereotypes


In the NAACP's most recent report on diversity on television, the civil rights organization noted in December that "it is hard to draw any positive conclusions." And in particular, it pointed to "The Hills" and "Gossip Girls," which are aimed at a youth market. Viewers in their teens and 20s live in a more diverse society than their parents did. But little had changed since what the NAACP called the "whiteout" years of shows such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld" -- and more recently "Sex and the City" and "Lipstick Jungle" -- which were situated in the melting pot of New York City but seemed to exist in a parallel, nearly all-white universe.


Hollywood producer Mara Brock Akil was a regular "Sex and the City" viewer. "They were able to show women as layered and flawed -- and spending obscene amounts of money on accessories -- and still empowered and smart women," Akil says. "I related to it, but I longed to see myself physically validated, which they rarely did."

Akil, 39, grew up middle class in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles and in Kansas City, Mo. But unlike television viewers who find themselves disappointed by network offerings and can only blog about it, Akil had the ability to alter the landscape.

So she created "Girlfriends." It debuted in 2000 on UPN, a new network that was aggressively courting a black audience. Among black women, it was appointment television. The ongoing saga of Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross) and her trio of friends gave professional, stylish black women a voice on television.

"I almost felt like a documentarian," Akil says. "I wanted people to know what's on our mind."

The show talked about romance and work, and it poked fun at the assumptions about black culture vs. white. Joan, for example, was a huge fan of Celine Dion -- because Akil is -- as well as more soulful singers such as India.Arie.

"I also wanted to combat a stereotype on TV that black women are either the sister-girl or the asexual judge with no life. I can be fearless at work, but I can also be stupid over a guy. I can be all those things at once. I wanted to show how fashionable we are. The fashion and the femininity, I really wanted to talk about that," Akil says. "My agenda was to speak to the widest audience possible, but I knew the core would be the African American audience."

"Girlfriends" ran for eight seasons -- eventually moving to CW. In that time, it was a favorite at the BET Honors and the NAACP Image Awards, winning at least five times. It was nominated for only one prime-time Emmy -- in 2003, for cinematography. It lost to "Will & Grace."

The show didn't have the broad cultural impact of "The Cosby Show," which, during its eight-year run, won virtually every award possible except a Nobel prize. No other show about the professional black class has made the inroads that "Cosby" did. None of pop culture's most enduring archetypes of funny, smart, professional, pretty women -- from Mary Richards to Murphy Brown to Carrie Bradshaw -- have been black.

And Clair Huxtable, despite Rashad's successes on Broadway, is now most often seen by middle America as the latest Jenny Craig spokeswoman touting her weight loss.

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Written by Robin Givhan, Washington Post Staff Writer

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