Where's the black version of Liz Lemon?
By Leslie Pitterson
My freshman year of high school started out with a bang- by which I mean, I walked into an open locker door on my way to 1st period. Trying my best to be undetected, I scurried away, tripped on a book bag strap, and consequently hurled myself down a flight of stairs leaving my Steve Madden wedges behind. Ironically enough, it was this incident that made me finally heed my mother’s advice: “Hold up your head.”
As the girl who could make a hallway a safety hazard, I found my wins in AP classes. Hiding behind books, I developed an appetite for scholarly journals over Teen People, a preference that has stayed with me to this day. Reading through this week in the American Prospect, I found an essay that spoke to my soul, “Rise of The Female Nerd.” In the piece, Amanda Marcotte points to characters like Glee’s very own Rachel Barry and 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, and writes:
The female nerd has arrived, and she’s not interested in a makeover. Four major TV comedies have been built around relatable female characters whose intelligence is only matched by their social ineptitude: Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and now Glee… But the fate of Ugly Betty should be a source of concern. You can blame the show’s declining ratings on unimaginative storytelling, but last-ditch efforts to save the show included making Betty less ugly, implying that the network blamed the character and not the writing…We can hope that Hollywood will get over this skittishness. Female audiences fill seats and spend money, and they’re hungry to see more female characters who display ambition and humor and who don’t just stand around looking pretty.
As a former ugly duckling myself, I agree with Marcotte and fully embrace this new television heroine. She is the embodiment of my awkward middle school years. After years of deciphering the code of the high school cafeteria and spending my freshman year of college hopelessly trying to re-invent myself, I am glad to see more characters who remind me of my not so graceful days. However, I have to wonder- where is the black female nerd who reminds me of me?
Glee’s Mercedes Jones is played by Amber Riley, the sassy black girl who makes sure each episode is filled with its share of neck rolls and finger snaps. She is hardly a nerdy heroine- she is by no means gawky or socially handicap. A few weeks back, Shonda Rhimes peaked my interest with a flashback episode of Grey’s Anatomy that showed us a peek of Miranda Bailey (played by Chandra Wilson) in her first days a brainy, self-doubting intern at Seattle Grace. However, this nuanced look into the less than put together black woman is still a rarity in television and film.
Hollywood has churned out many negative views of the black woman, but the archetype most audiences embrace the most has been of the self aware, assertive, HBIC. However, in a marketplace that has been filled with Tyler Perry-esque female characters, where are the black Ugly Betties?
The strong black character is one that most black women can identify with. She is the educated, stiletto rocking, cultured, smart woman with a disposable income. She is the Joan from Girlfriends, Syd from Brown Sugar or the Shaunte from Two Can Play That Game. While Joan fought to handle her neurotic tendencies and Syd couldn’t see the love that was right in front of her, they were all women with a certain amount of success and even more enviable, swag (albeit neither Syd nor Joan had it like sashay Shaunte). These characters have all been women we could all identify with because we wanted to emulate their positives. Back in the day, I could only dream about inserting myself into one of those scenes and being that girl. Standing on my tippy toes, I would imagine being an accomplished writer like Syd, driving with the top down like Vivica or clicking into court with Manolos on my feet a la Joan.
Thankfully, I have grown out of my awkward middle school cocoon, but on the days when I can’t quite get my curls to set into place or I’ve plucked one eyebrow hair too far into my arch, I wish that I could move as gracefully as Tracee Ellis Ross on set, wearing Free City sweats while maintaining the best coiffed fro since Pam Grier. But looking back, I know that those years of muttering, “emotional wall up” before passing through jock filled hallways and reading through all three volumes of Chopra’s A Comprehensive History of India on the rides home helped to forge me into my better present self. As the female nerd rises in popularity on the small and big screen, I wish there was a character who reflected the lessons and memories of the not so photogenic period of my life.
Since the end of the Family Matters sitcom and the departure of Jaleel White as Urkel, there has not been a notable black nerd on television. Even with all her years at Princeton, the chatty Sandra Huxtable was the closest we have ever come. So Hollywood, I challenge you: invest in the black nerdy girl. I think my little sister, and all the other less than put together brown girls growing up now, deserve a heroine who shows them the awkward journey is not theirs alone. She’s a rich character with loads of character development and complex storylines to boot. Give us a brown girl who gets the screen time of Ally McBeal – instead of relegating her to play the predictable, headstrong friend. With her stories of mortification, misunderstandings, and blissful triumphs, she is sure to warm the heart of any audience. And if you’re looking for someone to mold and shape your character after- look no further, I got plenty of material for you.
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