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How ‘Girlfriends’ Paved the Way For Black Women on Modern TV

How ‘Girlfriends’ Paved the Way For Black Women on Modern TV

Girlfriends collage
Photo Graphic: Okayplayer

With Mara Brock Akil’s Girlfriends coming to Netflix, we got three Black women culture writers to dissect the legacy of the classic sitcom.

Girlfriends was Mara Brock Akil’s ambitious foray into the Black television canon.

Based in Los Angeles, the sitcom explored the messy, funny, and sometimes disastrous happenings of four very different Black women. Every Monday, viewers tuned in to UPN to watch Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), Toni (Jill Marie Jones), Lynn (Persia White), and Maya (Golden Brooks) live successful, colorful lives. Inklings of how class affects one’s blackness were also heavily explored on the show. This was made clear from the very beginning as Joan — the den mother of the group — started the series as a lawyer, while Maya, a wife and mother, was her slick-mouthed receptionist. Additionally, Toni, the bourgeois friend began the show as a realtor. Lynn, the free spirit, hopped from one home to another with no stable job.

Beyond their professional lives, the series offered a glimpse into their personal experiences with dating, sex, and mainly their friendships with one another. Girlfriends was unique in the way it offered a space for Black women to see themselves on television during the ‘00s. Over eight seasons, fans also watched as the characters dated unsteadily and work towards sustaining healthy relationships. The show was a mild hit during its eight-year run (which consisted of it switching from UPN to the CW.)

When Akil brought the show to UPN, alongside Kelsey Grammer and Regina Y. Hicks, she had already been a television veteran. Akil spent years writing for shows like the short-lived South Central, Moesha, and The Jamie Foxx Show. Under Akil’s leadership, Girlfriends maintain a tight balancing act: the sitcom’s writing regularly featured dry humor, but it also was known for its serious moments. Abortion, AIDS and being sex-positive were heavy topics explored in the eight seasons the show aired.

Despite ending abruptly after being canceled in 2008, Girlfriends will always be remembered for the way it dissected interpersonal relationships between Black women. It imagined Black women as whole beings, but it also presented them as imperfect, intelligent, and more than capable of maneuvering through life strategically no matter the obstacles. The series set a precedent and blueprint that is still seen today.

Today (September 11) is the 20-year anniversary of the show’s premiere on UPN. Today the show also comes to Netflix — bringing a new awareness and audience to the show. To celebrate the occasion, we tasked three Black women culture writers to dissect the legacy of Girlfriends. Over a series of intimate conversations, each of them divulged their experiences with watching the show throughout their lives, where the show lies in the history of Black TV and much more.

Written By Robyn Mowatt in conversation with Morgan Grain and Gina Cherelus

Robyn: To start things off I’d like to talk about how Mara Brock Akil’s Girlfriends was a precursor for the Black television shows we’re seeing today like Insecure, Twenties, and more. I think the characters are the reason why I engaged with the show. To me, Girlfriends was a complex, well-written, and funny show that dug into the complex lives of four different Black women. What do you think of when you think of the show, the characters, or the writing?

Morgan: I definitely think about the characters more just because it was about them and their friendship. For instance, when you talk about Sex and the City versus Girlfriends. I feel like for a lot of people, New York is a character [on Sex and the City] and one of the best characters on that show because it was on location. Whereas Girlfriends, it’s a set and you don’t really get to see Los Angeles like that. Even on Insecure, you’re in LA. So the characters are what really stand out and they have to because you’re not getting any other type of background, any other type of characters. The characters are what make the show.

Gina: I think about the character and what they represented because, at the time, when I started watching it in the early ‘00s, they were aspirational for me. They’re four Black women. I was young and I’m like, “Oh, OK. I see.” At that point I was watching a bunch of shows geared towards people in my age group, most of them were white. And I was watching shows on UPN or reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin. Maybe I could try to connect with Martin’s Gina or Pam, but Girlfriends was like, “OK, these are Black women who have succeeded in some way or they’re on their path to.” Or they are secure in a way that I just wasn’t feeling at that point.

I definitely think it was the characters and their relationships. And so I can’t ignore the writing if the relationship is close to me; that was how Mara presented them and their relationships to each other that was so intriguing to me. I had best friends at that point at my age, but our relationships weren’t [as] complicated. I can’t separate the two. I think that the writing also stood out to me because I felt like I was getting a peek into what my life might be like in my late 20s. And I felt like someone was letting me in on a secret and the way that each episode stood on its own, it’s like I was getting background information on all these different ways of being a grown Black woman.

Morgan: I agree, Gina. I don’t think you can separate the writing because the writing informs the characters. Mara had to write those characters. I’m sure all of the actresses brought something to the table. But the blueprint —the skeleton —Mara laid that all out in the writing. When you think about the characters, you’re thinking about the writing, because if it’s not on the page, it wouldn’t have shown up on screen either. So I definitely agree. I don’t think you can separate the two.

Four Black Women talking
Photo Credit: Paramount Network Television

Robyn: Let’s get into Girlfriends existing in the scripted series canon thanks to how Mara depicted Black women in love, having sex, seeking pleasure, dating, and how they experienced romance. I think that today’s shows are somewhat mirroring what Girlfriends was doing years ago. But I also think in a way it’s definitely set a blueprint in terms of how it presented modern Black women and what we go through in our 20s. Do you agree that Mara was light years ahead in how she depicted Black women on a television show? It’s kind of interesting that looking at shows right now, Insecure is the example I can think of off the top of my head.

Morgan: I would say, I don’t think it’s an agree or disagree. I think it’s more so that Mara showed that Black people can be more than punchlines in television shows. And not everything is strictly comedy. Issa Rae talks about this a lot because she has had Wendy Raquel Robinson and Kyla Pratt doing cameos. I thought that was actually a really good nod because people have been bringing this up since Netflix has brought all these old Black sitcoms out. People miss seeing those cameos of people that you know, who are famous, but they have like a really small part in the show.

Issa talks about how those people paved the way for her. It’s not even like ahead of their time or setting a blueprint, but it’s just paving the way, how we talk about just knowing the Black women that came before us, who’ve allowed us to even be able to show these parts of ourselves or be able to create the art that we create, write about the things that we write about.

A lot of times people joke about how a lot of white studio executives and network executives aren’t familiar with Black people at all. So you’ll have showrunners and writers pitching stuff about the Harlem Renaissance or something. And they’ll be like, “Well, what is that?” They can’t imagine it because they’ve never seen it. So it’s up to creatives like Mara and Issa and Yvette Lee Bowser, and even producers like Sara Finney and Eunetta T. Boone to create these shows that kind of open a different dimension for Black existence. And it’s not even just about the white gaze, like proving that Black people live regular lives too. It’s just like, for white people, who cares? It’s really just about showing Black people being people.

Gina: I don’t know if it’s a matter of Girlfriends being light years ahead or being a blueprint more than it is the show pushing the needle. Living Single came out in the early ‘90s and Yvette Lee Bowser was already on that. But because Yvette created Living Single she created that space where you had these women living their lives. They’re just Black people being black being their normal selves, going through daily things that’s not always attached to racial trauma.

I do think that Girlfriends pushed the needle. Mara did in a way that allowed for a showrunner and a writer like Issa to be able to do what she’s doing with Insecure. And, for that reason, I think even other shows where you have a Black female lead, or it’s a Black female-centered show, they’re able to sort of show the different intricate parts of being a Black woman because of Girlfriends.

Black women at spa
Source: Paramount Network Television

Robyn: Let’s talk about the characters. Because, for me, I think Lynn definitely stood out. I remember she was the character that I really was inspired by because she just didn’t care what anyone had to say or society’s standards that are placed on Black women. She would just keep living her life and it’s not even that she was wandering aimlessly. I think she just knew that she wasn’t going to be a typical person her whole life. It was great that Mara had her as a character because not everyone wants to be a lawyer, not everyone is going to be a secretary, everyone has different paths. By including Lynn, I think that Mara just kind of specifically addressed, “Yes, some people may be upwardly-mobile, but also not everyone has those aspirations.” That’s what Lynn’s character kind of signified for me on the show.

Gina: When I was younger, I definitely connected to Lynn. I was [also] big on Maya, just because Maya is outspoken. I feel like I’m more outspoken now, but when I was younger I was not. So Maya being that comedic relief in the show, and she was just so quick-lipped and slick out the mouth but also someone who was very down to earth. I could relate to her down-to-earth-ness. I was like, “OK, I just need to be more outspoken. I want to be more like Maya.”

I related to Lynn and Maya, but I wanted to be Toni. I wanted to be Toni, because she took no shit. As I was getting older and I rewatched Girlfriends at school, re-watching reruns, and I got my driver’s permit as soon as I turned 15. I got my license early. I was like, “I need to be independent, I need to be like Toni.” Toni, for me, was the blueprint. I’m like, “I need to be more like that.”

And now I’m 28. I feel more like Joan. I always look at Joan as being the den mom, the strong friend. She kept everyone together. A lot of her complaints about dating and stuff are really her comforts. I never felt like one character. I do still connect with Lynn in that Lynn is such a good character in that she represents that you can always start over. In a figurative sense, all the characters can be one woman in real life, at different points in her life.

Morgan: I had a kinship with all of them. Lynn was one of the first people that I did connect with only because she was so free-spirited and I felt like at the time; that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up because I wasn’t as a child at all. I’ve always been very serious and strict.

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I was like, “Oh my god, yes. I’m going to be super boho chic like that when I grow up. I’m about to be super creative and do what I want.” But then I realized that I am a little bit more responsible than Lynn. I like being self-sufficient. So that’s kind of what attracted me to both Toni and Joan. They’re both such hard workers and they were so, like, “I’m going to stand on my own. I’m going to be independent.” And so I really loved Toni because she was very unapologetic about who she was and what she wanted.

Joan was very much like, “I’m responsible. I’m self-sufficient. I am kind of like the core and the center.” Very unyielding and very self-assured. And I really liked that about her. And I liked how she did open The J-Spot, her restaurant. I think that was my favorite thing at the time when I was in high school, part of my dream was to have a magazine and a restaurant.

Maya was also a hustler and I liked her trajectory, too, throughout the entire series actually, where she was the assistant, but she always knew that she could be more and do more. And she had a voice and she believed in it and she was like, “I’m about to sell these books out of the back of my car. I don’t care.” And she got a three-book deal.

Having those images of Black women so early on was super beneficial because we all know, you walk out into the world and it’s a bunch of people telling Black girls, “You can’t do this. You can’t be this. You can’t say that.” So seeing four black women on two shows on television doing just that and getting what they wanted. It was definitely a time in my life where I was like, “Wow, I can do anything.”

Black Women of Girlfriends
Source: Paramount Network Television

Robyn: Where do we go from here? I’m looking forward to binge-watching Girlfriends and seeing the online conversations that are sparked. What are you two anticipating most?

Gina: I’m looking forward to the premiere of Girlfriends on Netflix. And having watched the episodes throughout the years, I’m looking forward to the dialogue that comes up online about it. The way that people were sort of realizing how there was fat-shaming in Moesha and how Frank is an awful father. I do think that there are many elements of Girlfriends that do not age well. There’s one episode where William is being coerced by his boss to do some me Me Too shit, to just annoy a woman on the phone and just try to get some sex. William is obviously uncomfortable.

I’m looking forward to seeing people dissect those things. And I hope that they do it by giving the show some grace and understanding that it was of its time. I hope that people give Girlfriends some grace in that.

Morgan: Art has a twofold — like a double functionality — where you want to reflect what happens in real life, but you also want to show what life could be. And I think something that I worry about a lot with critiques of television is that there’s this crave and desire for perfect characters to do the perfect things at all the perfect times. That’s not a TV show. That’s boring. It’s not real life.

For example with the AIDS episode, [“The Pact”] Joan was schooled on being prejudiced against people with AIDS. In the same way that there’s an episode where Lynn meets this spoken word poet, and is trying to pretend that she’s celibate and that she hasn’t had sex with a lot of guys. And then Common comes and does this disrespectful poem about how she’s slept with so many men? She’s like, “No. It doesn’t matter how many men I’ve slept with.” And I thought that was so cool. Because at the time, we weren’t having these conversations about Black women and their sexuality, and their freedom to explore their sexuality, or their promiscuity, or whatever the case may be.

Lynn was kind of that character who stood in her truth, and was like “I love free love. And this is the person that I am. And it really shouldn’t matter who I slept with because it’s none of your business.” And it’s just like those conversations, we don’t have them in television shows which is the birthplace of water cooler talk, when are we going to have these conversations? So yeah — having grace and then just also understanding that TV shows are supposed to be places of conversation and supposed to be places of touching on uncomfortable issues and exploring possibilities of life.

There are some things that are super tone deaf and don’t age well culturally. But I also like to think of TV shows as snapshots of particular cultural phenomenons within society. The whole point of television shows is to have characters go through moments that everyday people go through and make decisions, and be like, well, what would you do in this situation, or what would you do in that situation? You don’t want all your characters to do the same thing. You want that conflict, you want that drama, and you want to show how different people react to things. Because that’s how people grow in regular life and real life. And that’s how people grow on television shows.

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Gina Cherelus is a journalist and culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can hear more from her on Twitter @jeanuh_
Morgan Grain is an LA-based writer and producer with southern Atlanta roots whose work focuses on black women’s contribution to entertainment, media, visual arts, and culture.

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