In this three-part weeklong series, ELIXHER examines the Black lesbian web series phenomenon. (Also read “The Web Series: Where are our Black Queer Women On Screen?”)
It is eight o’clock on a Monday morning and I am up bright and (entirely too) early to go find my sick femme self some state insurance. Blurry eyed, I traipse to the El and hope the lethargic elevator gets me to the train at the platform before it closes its doors. I look for an open seat, and spot two young, Black lesbians with an open seat next to them. I plop my morning stiffness and chronic fatigue onto the plastic bench and start to eavesdrop–the best part of the ride.
The dykes next to me couldn’t have been older than 17 or so, and they were talking about a show. Between Women. I instantly became excited and a little jealous. When I was a 17-year-old dyke taking the Path train from Newark to Christopher Street with my girlfriend while I was supposed to be at school, we didn’t have shows like Between Women to reflect our lives. Shortly after, my excitement gave way to worry. As much as I love Between Women, its positive qualities are sometimes overshadowed by its gleeful showcasing of lesbian-on-lesbian violence, uncritical valorization of masculinity to the detriment of femininities, and failure to investigate positive relationship models.
These reoccurring issues are ones I have with the vast majority of Black lesbian web series, and it has made me what Janet Mock describes as a “critical fan.” In her article on xoJane, “How I Landed in the Ring with Azealia Banks and Perez Hilton,” Mock states, “Being a critical fan means that you love a famous human being, knowing fully well they are flawed and can make mistakes due to their privilege-blindness or outright ignorance.” More importantly, she insists that “when they f*ck up, it is your duty as a critical fan to make them better, call them out and educate them.” But before I could proceed to do just that, I wanted to see where their heads were at as creators of new media that people are desperate for.
To get a better idea of the thoughts and cultural commitments of these creators, I spoke to Sheri Johnson, executive producer and co-writer of Studville TV, Michelle Daniel, the creator of Between Women, and Tramaine Renee, the creator of Sunny Reign.
I asked all three interviewees the question:
“What does healthy media for Black lesbians look like?”
Tramaine Renee posited that “any media for Black lesbians is healthy, whether it’s portrayed in a positive or negative manner,” as long as the representation is artistic.
Michelle Daniel, on the other hand, believes it “offers honest reflections of who we are and our issues, but…also offers healing, resources, and positive solutions to those issues to encourage and create unity of people and the community.”
The creators of these three series have good intentions, and make media in a climate that would much rather erase them than support them. All cite lack of resources, both in the form of help from others and financial difficulties. Some of the creators I spoke to said that one of their greatest challenges was a lack of support from the wider lesbian/ Black communities.
If you haven’t seen Between Women, where have you been? With YouTube hits in the hundred thousands for the first season, it’s clear that lots of people are watching. The second season of Between Women was released recently with new cast members and deepening plot lines.
Daniel explained that Between Women “has touched new lesbians, younger lesbians” and women who have been “ in a violent relationship” and that it showed her “that people are out there going through life without resources and support.”
In this sense, Daniel touches on one of the reasons independent Black lesbian media is so important and why people are slow to air their critiques: we lack resources and support. Part of critical fandom is recognizing that while criticism of cultural products is necessary, without such daring representations we would have a landscape devoid of images of ourselves.
Of these three shows, Sunny Reign is the only exception to the romantic comedy/drama formula. It’s a fast-paced crime drama issued in short, violent fragments. Each episode so far is under ten minutes long. The show centers around “stunt queens” who “profile” people to steal their identities. Renee says the show is based on “a relationship…based off of lust and money. The relationship alone inspired the show.” Since she knew “a lot of people who have good hearts and do bad things,” a crime-driven show is what emerged. Sunny Reign is refreshing. It is quite the lesbian film noir, offering us a vision of brassy femme fatales and handsome, caddish petty thieves who frequently land in hot water. And the writing really pops.
Sheri Johnson created Studville TV because she felt “studs always get a bad rap” and because of her desire to see a show about “professional and career-minded” studs. Most of these shows profile “professionals,” and prioritize distinctly capitalist markers of success (SUV’s, big homes, offices with glass walls, characters with no discernible job). One storyline that is unique to Studville TV is the emerging plotline of Channing’s attempts at conceiving and carrying a child.
I have some problems with the gender dynamics on all three of these shows to varying degrees. Namely, that all the femmes are: 1. “Secretly straight” as a plot device to make them look shady and inauthentic 2. Hypersexual/ized and/or 3. Incredibly abusive and controlling because of their own feelings of unworthiness or desperation for a masculine of center partner.
Of course, this is a problem that is disproportionately laid at the feet of the creators of emerging media. Established media creators frequently leave Black femmes out entirely (I’m looking at you The L Word and Cheryl Dunye). Still, I was somewhat dismayed when Sheri Johnson said that one of the comments she gets from studs who are fans of the show is that they’re “showing these femmes how they really are.”
In her interview, Michelle Daniel said that “as a community, we are hurting.” Everywhere I look, her thoughts prove true. Black lesbians are starving for representations that speak to their reality. So are these those images? Is this the way that we live? If so, then in addition to providing entertainment and fantasy they provide a mirror onto the problems that our community ought to fix. My interviews with Michelle Daniel, Sheri Johnson, and Tramaine Renee left me pondering the same question I asked: What does healthy media for Black lesbians look like?
What do you think?
– Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.
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