Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Separate But Comparable?: A Response to VH1's New Show Being Questioned as the Black "Sex and the City"
In 1896, Homer Plessey--a "Negro" who could pass as white--refused to leave the "whites only" designated cart, resulting in the infamous Plessey v. Ferguson decision. Plessey v. Ferguson mandated what would eventually become an American celebrated tradition--"separate but equal". It would not be until the 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, that Americans would come to find out that "separate" will never be equal in a society that favors whiteness and all the privileges associated with it. Some hundred years after Plessey and fifty years after little Linda Brown fought with others to overturn Plessey, we are still engaged in a fight for integration. Or are we?
Last week, Jezebel posted an article response to a new VH1 series set to air this May--"Single Ladies." A series with a seemingly strong presence for Black women, the show seems to have been inspired by last year's Beyonce -induced phenomenon. America fell in love when a married woman told other women to embrace single-hood. Confused? Yeah, me too. Don't ask questions.
Jezebel's article asserts "Single Ladies" might have led people to see themes from another popular cultural phenomena, "Sex and the City." Claiming the show is not the Black SATC, I began to wonder why it was every time a "Black show" comes out it is instantly compared to whatever popular [read: white] show or icon out there? Is it because Blackness and whiteness have been constructed through a dialectical of opposition? Is it because we live in a white supremacist nation that believes, reinforces, and promotes this myth of white superiority?
Whatever it is, it seems to rely on a historical amnesia to the realities that face marginalized communities and media in general. "Single Ladies", a show strongly and clearly marketed to Black women, follows a legacy of affluent "Black" shows. Why is "Single Ladies" already being compared to shows like "Sex and the City" instead of in the likes of "Living Single", "Girlfriends", hell "227"? Why must a show about Black women constantly battle a lack of visibility, but then when visibility is gained, battle being held against a white standard?
It should come as no surprise that women of color had a strong cultural reaction to "Sex and the City", asking how a show set in New York City had barely any representation for the sistas? Outside of service roles, the show did not have one steady character who was a woman of color. In New York City? *side eye*
Jezebel's article highlights the complexities we need to be conscious of as we move forward. Addressing "Single Ladies" as something other than a "Black Sex and the City" allows SATC to escape a critical examination of how a show set in one of the most multicultural regions of this country had no visibility for women of color. But also, even in that would-have-been visibility, it seems the underlying issue is white supremacy. Rather than constantly resort to a continual examination of Black women (and women of color) through the eyes of white women (and white men), we should learn to contextualize shows like "Single Ladies" within the realm of their predecessors--shows that deal with similar themes and have similar characters. "Girlfriends" faced a similar discussion, being questioned as the Black SATC. This type of discussion places whiteness as first and everyone else as secondary while also refusing to acknowledge the shows that existed before SATC. "Living Single" had four women and came years before "Sex and the City". Why is that not in our collective consciousness?
Yes, SATC became a cultural explosion. But there were shows dealing with similar issues--the restrictions and limitations placed on women in the public sphere. Just like Plessey, society still seems to be inscribing white as right, white as standard. Perhaps "Single Ladies" *is* the Black Sex and the City. How would it change how we understand the show in terms of race?
Unless we remain conscious of our racialized history, we are bound to echo historical themes. Whether we want to label "Single Ladies" the Black version of "white shows" is irrelevant because the show isn't about white women, at least not directly or solely--because there is the token white character. Or is she just extremely fair-skinned like Plessey? You'll have to tune in in May when the show finally airs. All I know is in a nineties kind of world, I'm glad I've got my...memory.