Awkward Black Girl: Do We Ignore Some "Isms?"

6 years ago

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl is a wildly popular web series that chronicles the life of J (played by co-creator Issa Rae), a twenty-something Black woman who lives and works in Los Angeles. J has a difficult time fitting in with her peers, and she writes violent and over-the-top misogynist rap lyrics as a way to vent her frustration for not being able to openly express her feelings about her single life, her crappy job, her almost crippling shyness, and her awkwardness. At her job, she meets Cece (Sujata Day), a young South Asian woman who shares J’s quirky sense of humor and her general disdain for their co-workers.

Most recently, in Episode 11, Cece consoles J after a horrendous date with White Jay (the white friend of Fred, played by Madison B. Shockley III), and they take turns dissing “Angelina Jolie,” White Jay’s ex-girlfriend. In trying to make her friend feel better, Cece disses “Angelina” by calling her a “tranny bitch in heels,” alluding to the belief that the ex is rather unattractive (or must be).

If you are a fan of the series (like I am), you know this is not the first time ABG has splashed in the murky waters of offensive language and politically incorrect behavior. Later on in this same episode, J remembers the reactions from her co-workers, most notably one who asked her if she was a lesbian when she first cut off her hair. In Episode 10, one character emulates what is supposed to be the speech of a hearing-impaired person.

The dialogue between the two characters is one of the best aspects of the show. In many cases, such as during this particular episode, I laughed out loud. And judging from other fans, many others have reveled in the "keep it real -- warts and all" mentality the characters have.

Like it or not, the characters' verbal diarrhea matches the conversations I have with close female friends: At times, our conversations are filled with whatever colorful profanities that best describe how we are feeling at the time. Do we sometimes use language that is most definitely offensive to someone, based on their gender, ability, sexual preference or color? Probably. But what happens when those private conversations are expressed publicly? When the "realness" that the characters portray -- realness many have compared to the relationships they have in their own lives -- is transmitted outside of our living rooms and out into the world?

Among the people who are not laughing are the contributors at Crunk Feminist Collective. While early supporters of the series, the bloggers at Crunk were offended, and on their Tumblr site, wrote a friendly, yet direct open letter to Rae and co-creator Tracy Oliver (who plays Nina, J’s nemesis):

We have seen your responsiveness to the fans of ABG and we hope that by raising this concern you will respond accordingly by not using such language in future episodes. There are so many awkward queer, trans, and disabled folks who love the show and it hurts to see and hear our lives used as punchlines. For those of us, the awkward black, queer folks who have lived at the intersections of our awkwardness, our blackness, and our transness, words like “tra**y” erase our lives, and our humanity. Phrases like “No lesbo” and the use of affected speech to imitate hard of hearing people detract from the vision of creating representations for the rest of us who are all too often maligned in mainstream media. 

We look forward to many more episodes of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl that are hilarious without the use of marginalized groups as a punchline. We have confidence that you have the creativity to continue to push comedic boundaries in new ways and educate your audience in the process.  

The response to the letter was overwhelming. As per usual, there were those who applauded Crunk Feminists Collective’s letter and those who did not, telling them to "get a life." What was unfortunate is it seems like there were more that seemed offended that someone would, in their minds, malign a very successful and groundbreaking series by two independent Black female filmmakers. How dare they?

The well-worded but seemingly vague response from Issa Rae and Tracy Oliver separated the camps even further:

Some of our viewers may have been offended by some of the language in our recent episode. We take this matter especially to heart, considering the CFC and members of the LGBT community were among the first to embrace "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl."

Since our first episode debuted in February this year, "Awkward Black Girl" has received an incredible outpouring of support from hundreds of thousands of fans. We love and appreciate each and every one of our fans! In return, we strive to provide a show that uses irreverent comedy and humor to address the oftentimes uncomfortable situations that many people have experienced at some point or another in their lives.

In creating a series of this nature, we are willing to accept the praise when the jokes work and the feedback when they may not.

Andrea Plaid from Racialicious responded to their rebuttal, believing that their response was weak: 

See, here’s my thing: if you’re saying that folks in LBGT communities are some of the first fans of your show, wouldn’t you go out of your way to not turn off that fan base  by simply saying something like, "I/We deeply apologize for saying the word 'tr***y' on the ep. I could’ve used another word to talk about J’s discomfort instead of making trans people–and, by extension, our transgender fans–the butt of a joke," instead of essentially stating you stand by a transphobic slur that is used in conjunction to do much more damage than just create "oftentimes uncomfortable situations that many people have experienced at some point or another in their lives?"

The Champ from Very Smart Brothas alludes to the fact that perhaps politically correct behavior has run amok:

I’m sure they probably wish that the Crunk Feminist Collective didn’t get offended. But, wishing someone didn’t get offended isn’t the same thing as apologizing that someone’s been upset, and I appreciate them not taking the easy bait.

I really, really liked them for creating a series that’s witty, offbeat, irreverent, and intentionally toes the line of political correctness (and has proven to be an equal opportunity shot taker), and I think I love them for not apologizing for it.

Some have also said that the outrage over the "tranny" remarks is hypocritical, since as of this writing, no one has questioned other questionable language in the show -- such as the overly misogynistic language in J's raps, or Episode 11’s reference to White Jay as being a "white nigga.” Or even the liberal use of the word "nigga" in general. Why is this? As Andrea from Racialicious points out in her post, "tranny" and other slurs directed towards men and women in "real life" can lead to physical violence, and in some cases, murder. The causal references in how it is used in the series then alludes to an indifference to the real issues facing trans men and women. This issue also touches on the rampant homophobia and ignorance that is prevalent in marginalized communities, especially those communities in which there is emphasis on coming together in order to improve access to opportunities for the next generation, and communities that are suffering from racism and religious intolerance... and should know a thing or two about being discriminated against. Quite frankly, and sadly, I saw a lot of this in the comments to posts discussing this issue.

Do we blindly support Black entrepreneurs because there are so few people creating programs that reflect Black stories in the public eye? Do we feel that we have to overlook some "isms" because we are grateful just to see Black faces on the screen?

For example I find the underlying themes of religious faith and the questionable views on Black women in Tyler Perry films troubling -- yet, Perry is the most successful Black filmmaker in Hollywood history. There are Black male actors who are capitalizing on the "plight" of the pathetic Black woman, such as Steve Harvey, Hill Harper and most recently, Tyrese, and yet, movies are getting made and people are buying their books and / or they are getting major press from their "opinions." We might not like what they do and how they make their money, but there are people out there supporting their work.

I am personally on the fence with this issue. I applaud Crunk Feminist Collective for standing up to what they believe in, for crafting a letter that softly chides Rae and Oliver instead of blatantly accusing them of rampant transphobia, homophobia and ableism. They are completely in their right to do so. On the other hand, as artists, Rae and Oliver have successfully created a series that reflects real the real-life circumstances of men and women who are trying to make their way through this difficult and complicated existence. The characters are not perfect, and that is what we love about them, and that is why so many people love the show.

I think it is fair to say of the vast majority of viewers that we have all spouted some very politically incorrect things in conversations with our friends in the sanctity of our private spaces. We have said and done some things that we would not want to be publicly shared, but through The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, they are. It’s uncomfortable, it’s offensive, but it's real life. Perhaps we need to stop chastising a web series and start thinking about what we think about people who have different lives, preferences and values than us, in our "real lives."

*At the time of the writing of this post, Issa Rae has not responded to our request for her to provide us with a response to this issue.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

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