Black women television writers like Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, and Lena Waithe have created a new genre of TV, where Black womanhood gets explored in ways previously unseen on screen.
In 2012, The Atlantic published a piece about the future of TV-as-Literature. Culture writer Michael Agresta noted how, 15 years prior, HBO shows like The Wire and The Sopranos ushered in a new trend of high-brow serialized television fare. The emergence of new technological platforms perfect for narrative storytelling brought on an era of what Agresta calls “the serial television show as the novelistic medium of the 21st century.”
No longer concerned with the question of if the serial TV show could be successful as visual novels, Agresta wondered whether serial TV shows as new forms of literature should even be considered equal to great novels. Within the subsequent eight years, Black women television writers like Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, Lena Waithe, and Mara Brock Akil have answered with a resounding yes. Not only did these women embrace the trend of creating visual novels, but they also elevated the craft to produce moving picture memoirs. By mixing personal reality with traditional television conceits, they were able to produce Black stories and explore Black womanhood in ways that had not previously been seen on screen.
Issa Rae and the rise of the Awkward Black Girl
The onset of 21st century was an exciting time in television, particularly because a major shift in the way television was produced allowed creators to abandon the stifling constraints of the medium’s traditional mechanisms, and explore the possibilities for more in-depth storytelling. Laugh tracks were becoming passé, and single-camera dramas and comedies brought cinematic storytelling straight to audiences’ living rooms. The rise of the anti-hero — the Don Drapers and Walter Whites of TV — introduced an entirely new canon of flawed characters that evoked levels of empathy from viewers in spite of their questionable and, at times, downright reprehensible behavior and decision making. Because these character-driven shows were serialized, audiences’ needed to watch them sequentially in order to understand the story. Viewers didn’t just pop in to hang out with their favorite characters in shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Living Single anymore, but instead went on journeys with them and walked in their shoes. This made for more realistic, complex, and relatable storytelling since audiences’ felt like they were personally experiencing what their favorite characters were living through. The characters became relatable.
Relatable is how many described Issa Rae and her work as she burst onto the scene in 2011 with The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and later with Insecure in 2016. She credits her style of comedy to the influences of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, and Seinfeld. She wanted to find the comical in the mundane for black women; for instance, what it’s like to be an everyday Black girl, living everyday life, doing everyday things. But make it funny. At the same time, audiences’ appetites for realism increased with the popularity of YouTube channels, blogs, and other forms of user-generated digital media.
Of course, at this time, reality television shows offered a glimpse of their subjects’ “real lives,” but user-generated media removed a barrier between audiences’ and their favorite online personas that provided a newfound sense of intimacy. Awkward Black Girl fans felt a deep connection and friendship with Issa, and genuinely rooted for her success because they felt like they knew her. It was also a refreshing change of pace for Black women to see another Black woman on-screen be quirky and unsure of herself. She opened up space for imperfection, blunders, and comedy for Black women — other than being the butt of the joke or the angry, neck-rolling smart aleck. It was only a natural progression for Rae to leverage this online audience to a larger platform on HBO.
Rae became the first Black woman to helm her own show on HBO. Insecure centers on a young Black woman in her late 20s struggling to establish her identity as she navigates her friendships, an unfulfilling relationship, and a dead-end career. She tells The Cut in an interview, “I really wasn’t aware of my blackness as much because nobody else would have talked about it. In terms of trying to figure out what was the definition of blackness, and if I didn’t fit that definition—that stuck with me for years.”
Rae explores her blackness less so in Insecure, but it was a strong theme in Awkward Black Girl. Her awkwardness stemmed from her bumping up against “traditional” ideas of blackness, while also trying to insert herself in mainstream pop culture classic teen movies. Her recreation of iconic scenes like Laney’s hot reveal in a red dress for fake boyfriend Zach in She’s All That and the infamous dance routine to Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It” in Save The Last Dance were pure reimagined comedy. It was apparent a continuous question influencing her creative process was, “Where do I fit?”
Insecure on the other hand delves less into the struggle of Rae to establish her identity and more into her struggle to establish her womanhood. It leans more fiction, with Issa crafting an alternative life for herself if she had not become a Hollywood success story, but still has sprinkles of reality based on Rae’s real-life experiences. For example, in season four, episode six, “Lowkey Thankful,” Issa — the character — internalizes her mother’s comment of her having her “hand in too many pots” as a negative thing. The scene was influenced by a true story of Rae overhearing her parents at age 11 say she was too bossy to be in a relationship, which informed her approach to dating for the next 23 years of her life. Unknowingly to Issa at the time, her parents really meant the comment as a positive thing in that she would never let a man walk all over her. But the experience was used in the show as a way to explore how parents inform much of the decisions we make as adults.
Michaela Coel’s breakthrough with Chewing Gum
When it comes to exploration of identity and human nature in television, white people, specifically white men, have traditionally been at the center. However, cable channels like HBO’s and Showtime’s emphasis on creating original scripted content and streaming services like Netflix hinging their business model off the position of individual consumption forced the industry to take more risks. Projects had to have the ability to stand out and apart, which made room for more niche and specific content geared towards individual relatability. Michaela Coel credits this type of risk-taking on behalf of Channel 4’s creative officer Jay Hunt as the reason she was able to break in the industry as a writer with her show Chewing Gum. The show — which debuted on British channel E4 in 2015 and found an American audience on Netflix a year later — centers around Tracey Gordon, a naïve twenty-something virgin from a religious family who tries to have sex for the first time, and in the process discovers her womanhood and sexuality as a Black woman in east London. Tracey was partly based on Coel’s 14-year-old self. She aged herself up in the show to explore more adult situations with embarrassing moments like the scene where she receives a horrific Beyoncé makeover complete with a blonde wig and blue eye contacts or when she fulfills a white man’s fetish fantasy by performing for him in a tribal costume before sex.
Chewing Gum the series was born from a one-woman, 20-minute play Coel created after she dropped out of her school’s end of year show. She was trying to be someone else and was failing, miserably. Instead, she was motivated to tell her own story, and after writing memories from her time in secondary school, she discovered that she could create a story from her own experiences. In an interview with The Guardian she confesses, “Having space and freedom to tell your own story is akin to therapy.”
That trust in the importance and worth of sharing her own story catapulted Coel’s career to new heights and garnered her two BAFTA awards for Best Female Comedian and Breakthrough Talent, which she was able to leverage to create content like Been So Long for Netflix and the staggering I May Destroy You on HBO — another series based on Coel’s life, but this time focuses on her harrowing experience being drugged and sexually assaulted while working on season two of Chewing Gum. At the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival she explains, “Like any other experience I’ve found traumatic, it’s been therapeutic to write about it, and actively twist a narrative of pain into one of hope, and even humor. And be able to share it with you, as part of a fictional drama on television, because I think transparency helps.”
Lena Waithe challenges traditional gender norms on Twenties.
Lena Waithe’s transparency in sharing her own experience of coming out propelled her career to new heights and opened up avenues for representation that otherwise would not have been possible. Waithe has hustled in the industry for several years, starting back when she assisted and worked for Hollywood heavy hitters like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond The Lights), Ava DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us), and Mara Brock Akil. But it wasn’t until she won an Emmy in 2017 for co-writing the “Thanksgiving” episode in season two of Master of None that she became a household name. Master of None, created by Aziz Ansari, was also a memoir-style type of show loosely based on Ansari’s real-life experiences. Waithe had been an actress on the show throughout season one, playing one of Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) close friends, Denise. In season two, the “Thanksgiving” episode — featuring Angela Bassett and Kym Whitfield — dramatized Waithe’s real-life coming out story to her family. The episode followed Denise, as she brought homegirl “friends” every year for Thanksgiving dinner. Her mother, played by Bassett, continued to refuse her daughter’s obvious attraction to women until Denise decides to come out to her over breakfast at a diner.
She explains in an interview with the New York Times that winning her Emmy, “changed the way people looked at me. It changed the way I walked into meetings.” After a slew of much talked about projects like The Chi and Boomerang, both executive produced by Waithe, she was able to bring her very own memoir-style series to BET, Twenties. The show, which premiered in March, explores main character Hattie’s struggle trying to make her way into a television writers’ room for a prominent Black woman TV writer named Ida. It highlights the many mistakes and learning lessons aspiring television writers make in the early stages of their careers, which are undoubtedly based on Waithe’s real-life experiences as a Black woman in Hollywood. Hattie as the main character joins the ranks of characters like Anne Lister of HBO’s Gentleman Jack, strong female leads of a show who challenge traditional gender norms by bucking societal expectations in appearance, demeanor, and presentation. Waithe also told the New York Times, “This is the first time a masculine-of-center black woman has been the center of a show on prime-time TV.” In order for Waithe to see someone like her on television, she had to create the character and story herself, injecting her own persona in the character of Hattie.
On Love Is ____ Love Mara Brock Akil detailed vulnerability in intimate relationships
Veteran television writer Mara Brock Akil has adapted to this new style of creating visual novels for television after having created traditional sitcoms such as Girlfriends and The Game. Akil started her career as a writer on Moesha and has written and produced over 300 episodes of television. For the first time, Akil directly inserted her life into her storytelling with her 2018 OWN show Love Is ____, which is set in the ‘90s, and follows the rise of Mara’s and her husband Salim’s relationship and respective careers. The show follows Nuri a budding television writer and Yasir an unemployed film director as their worlds collide when they fall in love. The show is committed to revealing the messy parts of being in love once love has been proclaimed. For most of the first season, Yasir hides the fact that he is homeless and crashing on his ex-girlfriend’s couch while Nuri struggles to find time to spend with her new boyfriend and attend to her demanding schedule in a writers’ room. They continuously tackle obstacles that could be intimidating for a couple in any stage of a relationship, like a particularly fraught scene where Nuri goes home with Yasir for the first time and witnesses a tumultuous argument between him and the mother of his child. Or when Nuri reveals that she was molested as a child and Yasir confesses they share more experiences than she realizes.
Now off the air because of sexual assault and creative theft allegations against Salim, the show only lasted one season. But the show’s main themes stressed the importance of vulnerability in intimate relationships, something is rarely seen on television between Black couples in such intricate detail. Akil confesses in an interview with Collider that it was strange at first to be so open about her own relationship in the show, but she made it clear that she wanted to show the ugly parts, the hard parts of building a close connection with someone when life is constantly changing. “The funny part is the constant talking about yourself, as the character. That’s weird. It’s a little narcissistic and a little surreal, but I have to, at least, try to get to who I am, so I can go find the spirit of that in the actors. It became a really cool process, and it also became a very reflective one, personally, going through that and looking back on yourself.”
Relatability and representation aren’t all that make up a good story, and it has been critiqued that sometimes Black creators can lean too heavily on shared familiarity with Black audiences instead of developing well-structured and thought-provoking storylines. Regardless of where some of the above shows fall on the spectrum of great, good, bad, and ugly, these trailblazing Black women television writers broadened the scope of what Black womanhood consists of. The industry disruption that occurred at the onset of the 21st century provided the perfect opportunity for Black women television writers to tell the truth — their truth— about Black womanhood, in all of its beautiful complexities, colorful perspectives, and cultural differences. Similar to how a great novel could introduce someone to a new perspective outside of their own, the art these Black women created within the medium of television extended space for humanity and empathy for Black women not typically afforded to them on screen or in real life. They have opened the possibilities on what it means to be and live as a Black woman, while simultaneously carving out pathways for their own success in television.