You can’t dougie. You make up rhymes in your room and pretend you’re a legendary poetesses, or for Issa Rae’s character J, a rapstar. You envision yourself in a music video whilst driving and sometimes (regularly) do the awkward, oh no, I can’t speak to them now, pretend like you’ve never seen them and walk on by…….and you’re black.
Yes. Black. There seems to be something awkwardly funny about Rae’s YouTube based comedy series Awkward Black Girl, simply because it has firmly attached a race to its title. That’s not to say you can’t have Awkward Asian Girl or even Awkward White Girl, let alone Awkward [insert race] Boy. We seem happy to accept gender as being a suitable tag in a title, but race – that becomes a dodgy issue. Having watched the whole series (and laughed very hard, not helping my current cold one jot), I could safely say that anyone who either publicly or privately defines themselves as being awkward, could easily associate with Rae’s character J. After being dumped by her cheating boyfriend she writes violent rap lyrics, cuts off her hair and returns to the job she hates. But it’s not just the story lines that the series follows, it’s the way the character, and her co-stars, are enacted. After watching the first episode, you want to repeat the famous line ‘I get you.’ There’s something very charming, sweet, and quietly humorous about Rae’s honest, bold comedy which doesn’t conform to the typical ‘black comedy’ stereotypes beaten to death by legends such as Chris Rock or Dave Chappell.
Yet Rae seems forced to continue emphasising that Awkward Black Girl is and has been conceived to be a ‘universal’ story for ‘all people.’ The world, i.e. Western media, seems uncomfortable with her stating that actually, it was conceived to represent a part of the black society which doesn’t get ‘crunk’, isn’t sassy with great come-backs, can’t dance, doesn’t have swagger, and is really just awkward. Now awkwardness isn’t confined to one race, but it’s clear to see when networks that have been interested in airing the show have wanted to exchange Rae for a ‘light skinned’ mixed race actress, that it does have a strong impression on marketability and stereotypical conceptions.
Zoeey Deschanel in the popular New Girl show, typically portrays the role of Awkward White Girl. Now, New Girl didn’t need to be called Awkward White Girl, because awkwardness and being white are a given – it’s an accepted commercial stereotype. Rae’s character, like Zoeey’s, is beautiful, does have men interested in her, and does happen to say things wrong time, wrong place, and often in a strange voice. They both have ‘awkward’ singing/rapping habits, and are clumsy.
But Deschanel’s character and that of the awkward girl seem permanently fixed within a ‘white’ concept. We’ve had Princess Mia (Princess Diaries), another Awkward White Girl who didn’t need to be defined that way because it was simply an implied given, Bridget Jones, Andrea Sachs (protagonist of the Devil Wears Prada), and even Ugly Betty (who would probably fit as Awkward Latina Girl, but we rarely ever see her in an explicit Latino context). These are all examples of prominent and well-loved awkward girls who ‘just happen’ to be white, bar Betty. Of course, those from other ethnic backgrounds were forced to interpret their stories as holding a ‘universal message’ in order to assume any affiliation what-so-ever with the plots, but were they conceived and marketed as being Universal?
By Rae emphasising it as the ‘Mis-adventures of Akward Black Girl and Friends,’ she not only provides herself with an immediate cultural fan base, but she gives a voice to the Awkward Black Girl with short afro hair who just can’t transform into the wide-eyed theme-song singing Jess of New Girl, or the klutzy skier Bridget, let alone the need-a-wax and a new scooter Princess Mia. Rae not only provides a space to explicitly re-value ‘black comedy’ enabling us to move away from talking about misadventures in ‘da club’, running away from ‘da popo’, racial profiling and the differences between black people and ‘niggahs’ (Chris Rock), but also sends out a blatant, yet subtle, challenge to our pre-existing network channels.
If awkwardness is/should be such a ‘universal message’, then why can’t, or rather why hasn’t, Channel 4, HBO, Comedy Gold or any other network created a show which stars a black actor/actress not as the loud mouth ‘i’m a cut you b****’, drug shufflin’, mac-daddy, or, if they’re really climbing up the ladder of ‘conscientious media racial profiling’, a member of the police squad or even, the President himself, and instead made a show where a black person could be Bridget Jones, or an equivalent Princess Mia or Jess Day, and not have it angled solely towards the ‘Black Community.’
Awkward Black Girl is a funny, insightful and charming show, which in its short guerrilla style filming, makes you laugh, want to share it, and have Issa Rae’s fantastic smile. It deserves to be on T.V without the characters undergoing the brutal regime of skin gradation to make them lighter and more ‘universally’ accepted, i.e., closer to a white sense of recognition. If you haven’t, check out the first series on YouTube, then click share. (Episode 5 is one of my personal favourites, but here’s the 1st one to introduce you)