When Netflix announced in 2020 that it would be picking up various iconic Black TV shows from the ’90s and early ’00s, it felt like a watershed moment. Revisiting them as an adult meant being able to reach back in time and watch shows that were monumental in aiding the representation of Black women on television, with the likes of Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends, The Game), Sara V. Finney and Vida Spears (Moesha, The Parkers) at the top of their game.
It seems they’ve passed the baton to a new generation of TV writers and actors, laying the groundwork for a cultural renaissance we’re currently witnessing on our small screens, where Black women are embodying fully-realised characters with depth and personality. First up: Quinta Brunson, whose sitcom Abbott Elementary won a historic Emmy for Outstanding Writing For A Comedy Series on Monday (notwithstanding Jimmy Kimmel’s, er, decision to lie down on stage during her acceptance speech).
Abbott follows a classic mockumentary format, where a camera crew is hired by the staunchly out-of-touch principal to follow the teachers of a Philadelphia elementary school and film their day-to-day experiences. If you’re a middle Millennial or early Gen Zer, you might remember Brunson’s previous gig as a Buzzfeed producer – watching her ascend from online skits to thriving on TV makes it feel like there’s hope for a changing landscape in Hollywood. After its release last year, Abbott’s first season alone became the most tweeted about TV comedy of the year, averaging around two million viewers per episode.
Much like what Brunson achieved with Abbott, multi-hyphenate Issa Rae also helped reshape the industry with her 2016 comedy-drama series Insecure, whose protagonist deals with the nuances of friendship, work and romance as a twentysomething Black woman in Los Angeles.
Both shows featured a mostly Black cast with Black creatives behind the camera, in the writers’ room, production team and almost every other role on set. This decision paid off: Insecure’s second season saw it reach over one million viewers upon release. According to comedian and writer Ashley Ray, Insecure’s success defined new standards for TV: “There was an expectation that you would have people who could actually do Black hair and light Black people on your show!”
Beyond that, Rae’s writing allowed her characters to find their way with humanity, paving the way for a future of watching Black women on TV who are just as messy as they are three-dimensional, without ever feeling unrealistic. “Her multifacetedness felt so new to me,” says screenwriter Shaznay Martin, “[and I] also loved seeing her so heavily desired by multiple characters.”
On the other side of the pond, Michaela Coel, with her comedy Chewing Gum and seminal drama I May Destroy You, helped fuel this renaissance while contributing to a paradigm shift in how Black female characters should be written and played on-screen. “Michaela Coel as Tracey in Chewing Gum – her quirkiness and just general aura brought me so much joy,” says BBC journalist Kesewaa Browne. “It was great to see a weird Black woman on screen [and] I just loved that she was a fully developed character.”
As mentioned in the 2021 anthology Black Joy, a world where stories of Black women living their lives, coming of age, finding love and experiencing hardships that don’t directly link to misogynoir seems to slowly be coming to fruition, as Black audiences no longer have to rely on scraps to feel seen. Another example of that came via FX’s and Hulu’s recent show The Bear. One of its lead characters, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is a chef who loses everything in perfecting her craft and pursuing her legacy. Her obsessiveness felt relatable in a fresh way.
The birth of this new era for Black women on TV can perhaps be attributed to the internet and democratisation afforded by social media. Of course, cultural gatekeepers still exist, but they can’t prevent someone from going viral and sharing their creativity with an audience who are desperate to see themselves. Brunson got her start at Buzzfeed, Rae on YouTube with her web-series Awkward Black Girl (2011). Meanwhile, Edebiri’s acclaimed Comedy Central web-series Ayo and Rachel Are Single (2020) was also hosted on the platform. That’s an undeniable pattern.
Earlier this year, Jennifer Aniston dismissed the idea of using the internet as a means of getting your foot in the door, controversially stating it was “diluting the actor’s job”. But when the standard of work is so high and characters written by the people they’re for, is it any wonder they gain online traction? Women like Brunson and Rae have strengthened the TV canon while giving a voice to people long used to not being heard. Michaela Coel has taken full control of her creativity and refuses to let anyone take advantage of her work, going so far as to turn down a deal from Netflix after they denied her proper ownership. A renaissance for Black women on TV, indeed – now that Brunson’s top of the class, here’s hoping it’s here to stay.