All the talk of Lena Dunham’s new show, Girls, has had me looking into the annals (heh) of popular culture, searching for the representation so sorely lacking in Ms Dunham’s HBO creation. So, a quick question: Do any of the names on the t-shirt above ring any bells for you? They should. For eight years, the women who bore those names were often funny, fabulous, sad, brilliant, awful and real. In a landscape where non-white women of every hue are still cast as ‘other’ rather than the norm – if cast at all – where little black girls are pronounced (by implication) to be ‘not innocent’, Joan&Maya&Lynn&Toni are very much missed.
The show was on the air for several of the years that Sex and the City was – in many quarters, it was called ‘the black ‘Sex and the City‘, almost as a ‘See? You have yours, now quit complaining!’. I’m a huge fan of SATC, and each season, I lamented the showcasing of a New York in which people of colour were relegated to service personnel and bit-part broad stereotypical caricatures (remember Chivon and his ‘angry black woman’ sister, Edina? Yeah.). So my options for ‘identifying’ were narrow – four skinny black chicks in LA? Or four skinny white women in NY? I loved both, but the winner by a country mile was Girlfriends.
Let’s start by playing the tiresome ‘which Girlfriend are you?’ game. With crushing inevitability, I’d have to say I am a Joan, with a dash of Maya, a soupçon of Toni and a smidgen of Lynn. *Sigh* I know. But it’s true. I recognised and identified with Joan’s foibles and worries with alarming ease; so many of her neuroses were my neuroses, dammit! Plus, following a disastrous first couple of seasons, fashion-wise (THOSE BAD WEAVES!), Joan’s style was the style I wanted to emulate, just as soon as I got my ‘serious career face’ on. So let’s break it down – below are the four girlfriends, each a magical unicorn doing rainbow poos, by virtue of their shimmering but brief presence on our telly screens before they disappeared into the pop culture ether.
Joan – the neurotic one
Joan Clayton (Tracee Ellis Ross) is the ‘Carrie’ character. In the first season, she was the one who did the breaking of the fourth wall by talking to the audience annoyingly (just like Carrie in early SATC). Joan was the mother hen, her home often the venue of the girlfreinds’ various adventures/discussions of their adventures. She was the obvious model of bougie success – up from a working class neighbourhood, goody two shoes with good grades, working her way up the career ladder in law. She had the nice house, nice clothes… But of course, as is often the case in telly shows, all her troubles lay in her inability to find and keep a man. Which would be fine (see Toni below), except Joan was really not pleased about it. Her friendship with Toni was the longest, and with that level of intimacy came the chance for the show to explore real, often uncomfortable issues in close friendships. When somebody knows you this well, the showrunners sometimes asked, how often does it tip from ‘brilliant/reassuring’ to ‘unhealthy/creepy’? (there’s a great Joan/Toni moment in this clip and another telling moment at 4:35 in this one)
Maya – the working-class-and-it-still-shows one
Maya Wilkes (Golden Brooks) – the woman who I invariably think of when I say to a fool acting up, “Oh, hell no!” – was very much meant to be the ‘hood’ one. She was the closest the show got to a caricature, but written and acted with enough sensitivity and balance to pull it off and not make her a mockery of ‘blackness’. She was the one who’d got pregnant in high school and married the blue collar Darnell (they would break up and get back together a few times over the course of the series). She was the one who was mocked by Toni (who always mispronounced her son’s name) for being poor and ‘ghetto’ (I hate that word) and unsophisticated. She worked as Joan’s assistant, accepted Joan’s hospitality when she and her son were near-homeless and she was the one to dispense no nonsense advice, wrapped up in common sense, ebonics and a tough hug. In many ways, she was the moral compass of the show (no coincidence she was the most obviously religious), often a cypher for the audience’s attitudes and prejudices, but with the capacity to learn and grow.
Toni – the straight up bitch
Antoinette Marie Childs – see what they did there? – (Jill Marie Jones) was a stone. Cold. Bitch. Selfish, un-self aware, unapologetically materialistic, snobbish, self-obsessed, a liar and a cheat when it suited. She was DRAMA in its unadulterated form, a force of nature with a sharp put down for you if you threatened her in any way. She was the one who never got her friend’s son’s name right, the one who excluded her best and oldest friend from her wedding. But she was also smart, funny as all get out, and worked and played hard. We loved her. And we loved to hate her. At least, I did. Toni was so damn freeing. A woman who didn’t give a damn about being liked (she was charming enough that people liked her anyway), and admitted to liking expensive things for no other reason than they were expensive – “if it ain’t front row, Toni Childs can’t go!” Toni was what white women characters have been and still are allowed to be without fear of typecasting or stereotype. That is to say, Toni was just a regular human being. Refreshing. PS: this is one of my favourite Toni scenes. And this clip helped publicise what black women have been doing since time immemorial – sleeping in a headscarf
Lynn - The over-educated bohemian
Hyper-intelligent, academically brilliant dreamer and love child Lynn Searcy (Persia White) was the ‘other’ within the group. She’s obviously over-educated (five degrees and counting), on the tab of her over-indulgent adoptive parents. She’s the fun one, the sometimes oddly naive yet sexually adventurous one (as a guest star, Common did spoken word about the filthy but never-expanded upon sex act, the ‘Lynn Spin’), the kinda loser-but-genuinely-happy friend. What you see is what you get with Lynn. For my money, she was the closest I’ve ever seen a black woman get to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (except she wasn’t mega-annoying. Or an obvious hipster).
With it’s sort of crappy theme song (and what the hell were they thinking putting them in those pastel outfit things in the opening credits?), Girlfriends can still take me from a quick 10-minute session to hours long binges on YouTube. It was a complex show, hardly ever patronising; a rewarding watch for its audience, as it tackled big themes like religion, marriage, politics, class, money, alcoholism, therapy and race – amongst other things. It even featured Rev Al Sharpton as a guest star. REV AL SHARPTON! Above all, it was a comedy that was actually very funny, and not many ‘comedies’ that make that claim deliver.
Man, I miss Girlfriends.