Awkward Black Girl: Too Black for TV

Curator's Note

In media in the 21st Century, an abundance of black bodies on screen equals a black media text – intended, industrially speaking, for consumption by black people.  These black media texts are construed as being racially specific in their mode of address, thus hermeneutically sealing off the text from those not “in the know.”  Awkward Black Girl (ABG) is one such text that while featuring a multicultural cast, includes only two white characters, one named Boss Lady and the other White Jay, among its cast.  In a break from the normative understanding of multiculturalism, ABG is multicultural in its presentation of black, brown and yellow bodies rather than appealing to demographic pluralism by sprinkling in a few of these bodies in a sea of otherwise white characters a la Grey’s Anatomy and the rest of the Shonda Rhimes oeuvre.  In naming whiteness, via White Jay, and blackness, implicitly in its lead character, ABG and its creator Issa Rae embrace their racialization in our allegedly post-racial world.  But that racialization no longer matters when success is at hand.  Because Rae is Stanford-educated and does not “talk black,” as’s Francie Latour argues “it’s the awkward, not the black, that gives [the series] its comedic center and its ability to transcend race” in its pursuit of universal appeal.

However, Latour’s assertion misses a key issue.  ABG does not intentionally seek to transcend race, but embraces it in Rae’s short, kinky coif, its liberal use of “nigga” and “inside” jokes that originate from within black cultural/ comedic traditions.  As such, it is queer to watch Katie Couric on her nationally syndicated talk show assert the universality (and post-raciality) of ABG.  With the repeated pronouncements of the black sitcom’s death (and its subsequent relegation to the televisual ghetto that is BET, TVOne and Centric), why might a web series so embraced by the Hollywood establishment as post-racial be heralded as the savior of the black sitcom?  Additionally, Rae’s success with ABG has led to a development deal with Rhimes’ Shondaland Production – but not to produce ABG, but a series called I Hate L.A. Dudes, a show that, at least in its title, has none of the racial specificity that ABG has.  So, it would seem that although ABG is embraced as universal and post-racial, it is still too black for primetime TV.    


Excellent post, Alfred. And I completely agree that ABG's explicit deployment of interpersonal racial politics makes it unsuitable for today's TV. That her show is "I Hate LA Dudes" is somewhat sad to me. (And I wonder it's fate, as she's taken a hosting gig on Johnson's Aspire Network). In today's cultural climate, having "black" in the title is indeed "controversial." Consider the racist tweets she got after winning a Shorty from people who didn't know the show and just read the title. Or, on the other side, that BET changed the name of its Gabrielle Union vehicle from "Single Black Female" to "Being Mary Jane." It's the network executives. Talk to anyone who's pitched television to cable, and they'll tell you the executives reflect the content. For scripted comedy, the edgiest networks (and ABG is an edgy show) are all helmed by white guys who don't understand race or the black market and are vigorously focused on men 18-49: Comedy Central and FX, specifically, with whom I'd imagine Rae had meetings. Both networks have sought to expand beyond those markets to include women and black producers -- with Key and Pelle and Broad City on Comedy Central and Kamau Bell on FX -- but black female is an intersection they won't or can't understand. I anticipate this might change. Ratings are declining everywhere, including on AMC. Some executive is going to wake up and do what NBC did in the 80s. There's an untapped market, nothing TV networks love more.

Fantastic post. Like you, I have noticed how the mainstream media has used Rae's educational background and way of speaking to code her as "post-racial," in spite of the explicit race talk and insider culture on the show itself. And in spite of the show's "universality" (which is just code for "non-ethnic"), Rae's primary support seems to have come from people of color - whether the viewing audience or industry supporters like Shonda Rhimes and Pharrell Williams. In fact, the very slipperiness of the show's meaning (able to be read as simultaneously "black" and "universal") would seem to be in line with the type of code-switching and polysemy that has long characterized black comedy.

Al, lovely thoughts! I think you're absolutely right about how and what can be played to a mainstream audience. From what video I could find, Issa didn't even know if she would be in IHLAD or if they would even cast a Black woman in the lead role. This is the sacrifice of her "universal" claims. Universal means interchangeable and palatable and ABG ain't that. Although, somehow Lena Dunham's Girls is. (Yeah, I went there.)

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.