Awkward Black Girl’s Success in New Media Highlights Old Racism

Curator's Note

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (ABG) is an Internet sensation. The debut episode of the first season earned more than 250,000 visits during season one and the number of likes on the series’ Facebook page has climbed from 17,000 during season one to 88,000 today. The series that follows an unlikely star -- a young, brown-skinned African-American woman who wears her natural hair short, minimal make-up and is more boho than boho-chic -- is supported by a multicultural cast of characters (East Indian-American, African-American, Latino, Bi-racial, White) whose cluelessness makes Jae’s awkwardness seem normal.  

The web series resonated with viewers to such an extent that when Rae and her co-producer/writer Tracy Oliver launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $30,000, they were able to raise $44,000 which spoke to the popularity of the series and the desire for online audiences to support programming that reflected an aesthetic and storyline not often found in traditional Hollywood film and television programming. Rae and Oliver re-imagined what qualifies as a “star” and what attracts viewers in an online space, proving that there is room for diverse perspectives and representation in media programming.

Rae’s success with season one of ABG has led to season two, which is produced by iconic music producer Pharrell Williams’ production company I AM OTHER, which focuses on projects that challenge mainstream culture’s perception of  “Others.”  While Rae had trouble selling the show to mainstream network and cable companies, she has brokered a deal with Shonda Rhimes, creator of ABC’s major hits Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, to develop a show called, “I Hate LA Dudes.”  It is not surprising that Rhimes, who has mastered the formula of selling multiracial casts of social misfits to American audiences, would step-in to help Rae take her work to the next level. Rae once wrote about how she was skeptical of launching the Kickstarter campaign because of the stereotype that black people don’t support each other.  How interesting is it that Williams and Rhimes, both African-American, have stepped in to help Rae take her talent and career to the next level.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl has had tremendous success with a multiracial cast and interracial storyline, yet has been unable to sidestep the racism (racist tweets when ABG won the 2012 Shorty Award for Best Web Series) that a show like hers might experience, including the inability to sell the series to HBO, a cable network known for giving viewers the opposite of what network television has to offer. If HBO has room for Lena Dunham’s Girls, then why no room for a series like ABG?  Perhaps HBO was still reeling from having to cancel cult favorite How to Make it in America, a show that follows a multicultural cast trying to make it in the fashion industry in New York City, due to low ratings.

Rae is not a passive actor (pun intended), which is why ABG resonates with critically thinking viewers. Being a black woman in America who doesn’t fit safely into dominant stereotypes or characterizations of blacks or women is a difficult way of being. Rae’s character of “J” reflects the humor in the struggle for identity and autonomy in one’s personal and professional life, even amongst a multiracial crew who seem like they belong on the island of misfit toys as opposed to a major West Coast City. 


Thanks for a great post. What is fascinating here is that you hypothesize (and I tend to agree with your assessment) that a show with a multicultural cast can only be defined by its racialization and not by any of the narrative characteristics that might set it apart. Again, whiteness is the thing that gets to be multifaceted and "Others" are just raced. As a result, in the cultural imagination ABG can only be about the same old blackness that we've always seen mass mediated. And as the racist Tweets suggest, being black is always less (in this case, less than quality) than white.

Thank you for your thoughtful post. I was particularly struck by your mention of the ways that people like Shonda Rhimes and Pharrell Williams have stepped in to help the show when the more conventional means seemed unavailable. It does seem that Rae has tapped into a hidden reservoir of fans united by the markers "black" and "awkward." I'm curious to see what will happen to that particular sensibility if/when Rae makes the move to network television.

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