Awkward: The Floating Signifier

Curator's Note

Awkward: lacking grace or skill when moving.

Awkward: difficult to use, do, or deal with. (From link)

Awkwardness is key to the appeal of Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (ABG) and its creator, Issa Rae. The show has found particular resonance with African American viewers who appreciate Rae's representation of a type of blackness that does not fall into conventional tropes. Additionally, the show itself is "awkward" from mainstream television logic because of its predominantly non-white cast of characters centered around a black female lead.

However, does Issa Rae's specific brand of black, female awkwardness remain legible when placed in a mainstream media landscape that is still negotiating the politics of representation? In the clip above, we see Issa Rae as a commentator on T.J. Holmes talk show, Don't Sleep, which airs on the BET network. Rae offers a comedic analysis of the "ratchet" VH1 reality show Love and Hip Hop – specifically, cast member Mama Jones' forthcoming perfume, "Pumkash." The segment is similar to another Rae web series, Ratchetpiece Theatre, where Rae offers snarky commentary on hip-hop songs. Rae herself often wittily invokes awkwardness and ratchetness simultaneously. In Ratchetpiece Theatre, she casts her own sister to demonstrate how to dance to ratchet songs. In the season 2 ABG trailer (featuring a cameo by N.E.R.D. frontman Pharrell Williams), Rae raps: "Yes, I'm the shit. Yes, I'm so good: little bit of awkward, little bit of hood." And, in the Don't Sleep clip, Rae's good-natured mocking of Mama Jones' hand gestures reveals Rae's own familiarity with the show and possible fandom.

On Don't Sleep, however, this playful ambivalence disappears. Holmes introduces Rae as "a very strong black woman" in direct contrast to the "pop culture bar that continues to get lower." Thus positioned not only as a clichéd trope but also as the antithesis to what Holmes sees as problematic representations of black women, Rae's comments are shoehorned into a binary of positive/negative representation.

Much of the pleasure in Rae's performance of awkwardness on ABG is the way that she invokes multiple variations of blackness at the same time. While Rae makes it clear that one can be "awkward" in any number of ways, the term loses fluidity when placed within more conventional spheres of media.

Recontextualized to mean "positive," "awkward" ends up reifying categorical boundaries of black identity – the very situation that the term, Rae, and ABG have tried to escape.


Great post Racquel. The reductive positive/negative binary remains slippery and problematic and I think most people realize/recognize that is the case. As such, language is becoming re-configured so that other words, like "awkward" begin to stand in for "positive." I think it's also worth noting that Issa Rae can enjoy ratchetness because she positions herself (and others position her) as outside ratchet. In a way, she demonstrates how she can both be inside and outside of ratchetness, thus allowing awkward and black to remain imprecise and precise at the same time.

Gates, nicely done! I think you bring up a good piece with the slipperiness of how Rae uses "awkward" as both simultaneously universal and specific. The lengths that she endures to sell the story as something about a Black girl whose personality falls in line with popular mainstream characters on Parks and Rec or Curb Your Enthusiasm is some serious labor. And I agree with you that the universality of "awkward" limits the types of specific types of representations that could fit under that banner rendering it a positive attribute as opposed to a political statement of sorts.

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