"Reflections on the Fabulous Black Girl Struggle"
by Britt Julious
Fabulousness must always be punished for fabulousness suggests a confidence and security of self that is threatening to the natural order. It is a confrontation of the mainstream. Fabulousness suggests that the mainstream might not even be relevant or necessary to people at all. They can exist outside of it. They can thrive in contrast to it.
Inherent in the perception of the black female experience is the idea that happiness and success are myths. The Fabulous Black Girl (or Woman) then is an affront to the stereotypes that keep the natural order in place. Fabulous Black Girls must be punished for their fabulousness in the fictional world as anything other than the struggle is an affront to our beliefs about whose stories deserve to be told.
I call this “The Fabulous Black Girl Struggle.” It is about the amount of time on the screen. It is about the confusion over their confidence and their self-esteem. But most importantly, it is about the punishment for having any of those things at all.
If we are told that a black woman is nothing and then we are given a character on screen who is everything, we must eradicate this challenge to the “natural order.” She is wrong for simply thinking she could exist outside of this life. The Struggle must occur because in the struggle we find the “righting” of the world. This is who you truly are. This is what you actually deserve.
The most important figure in the Fabulous Black Girl Struggle is Lisa Turtle from Saved By the Bell. Lisa was wealthy, fashionably, and had a mean streak that emerged when her fabulosity was encroached upon by her friends and foes. Ultimately, though Lisa was was the lead female who appeared on the show the longest (all the way back to the junior high days of Good Morning, Miss Bliss in Indiana) she had the least amount of character development.
Throughout the show’s run, Lisa remained a “fabulous” figure, but her fabulousness was a source of punishment. Rather than admire her greatness, we were taught to despise it. Screech’s affections personified the punishment of her fabulosity. Lisa would never truly give him the time of the day, but she had to learn to tolerate him for his affections (minus less than a handful of distractions) were all that she would or could truly get.
As a moment of character development, it was not until a late-Senior year episode (post-Kelly and Jessie) that Lisa is allowed a plot. In one episode, she fully realizes her fashion designer dreams, pursues a school to accomplish those dreams, and begins a hot yet temporary relationship with lead character Zack Morris (played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, her then real-life boyfriend).
Ultimately, Lisa’s escape from the struggle was merely a one-episode reprieve and perhaps just a way to explore betraying a friend (Zack to Screech) rather than ever truly being about Lisa. Although the episode ended positively, the romance was never brought up again. She could not simply exist and be herself and have things happen for her. If that is the case, then her escape from the struggle was never an escape at all.
Other relevant recent examples include Bonnie’s character arc on The Vampire Diaries (from fun, insightful best friend, to eternal vampiric sacrifice) and Tara on True Blood (whose character arc at one point included a forced sexual enslavement ultimately led me to stop watching the show).
Another such example includes Lacey Porter, a “lead” on ABC Family’s drama Twisted. During the first season of the show, Lacey and possible murdered Danny Desai began a private relationship. In the Twisted universe, Lacey and Danny were videotaped during an intimate moment. The video of their coupling was sent to the entire school and the focus of the storyline is how this affects their friend Jo Masterson. As I wrote earlier this month:
Students can write vulgar comments on Lacey’s locker and rather than spend a moment on Lacey’s feelings, we instead return to the Masterson home. The fact that Jo stayed home while Lacey struggled at school is representative of the core flaw of this show that I quickly grew to love and then resent: the perspective is unbalanced and absurd … The show’s creators and writers flipped the switch, making us care deeply for the characters beyond the murder plot, then lost focus when deciding who was most worthy of attention.
I’ve been obsessed with this idea not just because of how it plays out on the screen, but also how it plays out in real life. Michelle Obama is the Fabulous Black Woman of the past five years and during that time, her fabulousness has been a source of admiration, confusion, and anger. She must be put back in her place for to be in the place she currently is (as the First Lady of the United States) is an affront to what is American and what an American woman should look like.
When a woman interrupted a private event to chastise President Obama, some were actually upset that the First Lady did not do more to let this interruption continue. She talked back. She put her in her place. She was not “becoming” of a woman of her stature. But implicit in all of the media backlash was the idea that her appropriate response was just another example of her not fulfilling their ideal. In case she was confused, they had to let her know what was right.
I would have never called myself “fabulous” five years ago, but I might now. It’s a matter of confidence and triumph over adversity. Emphasizing the idea of fabulousness is a method of control over my situation in life. If I can not live as you think I should in this world, I will live for myself.
Therefore the Fabulous Black Girl Struggle is an important one. To move and think and breathe with purpose is to rebel against the world. It is a personal, everyday, and radical protest. It is freedom in the form of action. What these characters represent – what fabulousness represents – is the idea that the self succeeds.
There is no relief from the struggle so long as television is created under the same narrative structures that have existed in the past. To break the cycle once is not enough. We must strive to never let it exist at all and question its place on our screens when we see it in as vocal of a manner as possible.