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Posted under: Opinion Feminism

Black women and the media: Why we can have diverse stories, too

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Epic Twitter soap opera Zola, the return of Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Amber Rose’s Slut Walk taken social media by storm this year. Opinions on the black woman in media have ranged from praise of creative storytelling to bolstering criticism for exposing a side of black female identity that isn’t considered "family-friendly." As Olivia recently revealed her affair with Fitz, Annalise revealed that an old girlfriend was the love of her life in college, and Real Housewives of Atlanta came back to grace all of our screens with its iconic foolery (you know you’re tuning in this season, even without NeNe).     Tweets and Facebook memes ranging from “turning a hoe into a housewife,” to criticizing a black woman being in love with a white male to complaints about showing the queer black female experience on television tend to find their way onto my timeline, no matter how much I attempt to block the ignorance. Critiques on these women, whether merited or not, tend to revolve about what perception these characters give white people about blacks, rather than what these characters decisions mean for their own lives in the show.  It has led me to ask a few questions: Why do black characters, in particular, black women of color, have to have some curated, Huxtable-like experience?
Why can’t black women, like every other human on earth, be sexual, nerdy, outrageous, or flawed?
Why aren’t we allowed to share our stories of affairs, unrequited love, career failures and sexual diversity on camera? I’ve met many black women in my life, and not one has been the same. Some reflect Cookie Lyon's fierce, fabulous, and proudly-from-the-hood demeanor. Some reflect Annalise Keating: excessively flawed, ruthless, bisexual, and at the top of her career (though, thankfully I haven’t come across any somewhat-murderers). And must we forget the Mary Janes of the world? Intelligent, conflicted, and looking for a new start at every corner.          
Why do black characters, in particular black women of color, have to have some curated, Huxtable-like experience?
None of these women reflect every black woman, nor should they. But I can almost guarantee you that at least one black woman has the brashness of Cookie Lyon, while another may reflect the methodic ruthlessness of Annalise Keating. One might find their relationship history or goals reflecting that of the happiness found in black, heterosexual love in relationships like Dwayne and Whitley on A Different World, while a gay or bisexual black woman might find herself identifying with Lena Adams and her happy, successful relationship with Stef on The Fosters.          When our society watches predominantly-white TV shows, such as classics like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, or Breaking Bad, we don’t expect those characters to uphold some non-human status quo of perfection. We laugh at their dating experiences, identify with their failed relationships, cry when certain characters are killed off, and we find ourselves identifying with aspects of their dysfunctional family members. So why don’t black characters get the same chance? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussed the danger of a single story in a Ted Talk. "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that the are incomplete. They make one story become the only story," Adichie brilliantly noted. Black women have been the backbone of political movements, households, and much of the foundation upon which our community stands today. To say that we can tell only one of those stories, the one that abides by societal standards, is a disservice to our community within and to us as we continue spreading our diaspora around the world. When we share only one carefully-curated story, we tell the world that we're embarrassed of who we are and not human enough to make mistakes. We waste time sharing only one story when there are millions of beautiful others for the telling. Media should never reflect perfection, thus it would be boring. Producers and writers such as Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris, and Mara Brock Akil are reveling in that truth and showing black people and the world we live in that black women, just like everyone else, are worthy of being imperfect humans and trying to find our way through this world every single day. And that is perfectly ok. When I see criticisms of women on Love & Hip Hop not being “wifey” material (which, by the way, did anyone ask any of them if they wanted to be “wife material," whatever that means) or when black people get uncomfortable because white people see the ghetto fabulousness Cookie so effortlessly flaunts that we’ve all seen in various women during our upbringing and gave us all sorts of life, I question where our intentions lie. Is our community that uncomfortable with the vastness of our blackness that we must stick to the heteronormative, $100,000 plus household income as the only story we can bring to the media? Or can we accept that black womanhood exists beyond boundaries of income, career choices, gender, sexuality and religion? We're long overdue to reach the point where black women can tell their stories boldly and unapologetically.    
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