When I picked up this book, my first thought was, "Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country?"
A few months ago I started hearing about this new makeover show called "Girlfriend Intervention," which the initial press release described as featuring “four wise, poised and stylish African-American women, who, in each episode, help a white sister seeking a complete makeover to restore her confidence and inner glow.”
I had so many questions. (White sister???)
But in a world where we choose our battles, I admit I did my best to file it under More Problematic Media Representations of Black Women and go on about my business of writing and acting in projects that might work to combat that epidemic.
But "Girlfriend Intervention" wasn’t going away. I read about it more and watched bloggers weigh in with (valid) criticism despite very little actual footage from the show being available to preview, which is telling in and of itself. Still, the press release trumpeted that “Everyone loves a makeover show,” sounding like a Stepford Wife being forced to throw an impromptu dinner party and suddenly finding that she has nothing to offer her guests except “makeover show,” and trying to make the best of it.
It also states, “We're making over the makeover show this time. It's black women making over white women!”
My first thought upon reading that was that those two sentences would probably have worked better had they been divided between the words “show” and “this.” My next thought was NOPE.
Also, that press release seems to have replaced the term “white sister” with the generic phrase “one woman.” This led me to believe/hope that perhaps the show title and initial press framing were the television equivalent of clickbait. That maybe it was just a fun makeover show hidden under the unfortunate conceit of this “girlfriend” malarkey because despite the desperate cry of the publicist, makeover shows are a dime a dozen and they needed theirs to stand out. Not that I enjoy or endorse clickbait-y shenanigans, but that would have been preferable to me than aggressively perpetuating destructive tropes in the service of a makeover show.
For those who may not be familiar, that old trope has a name: The Mystical Negro. Also called the Magical Negro, it describes the far too common scenario in entertainment wherein a black person exists solely to guide a white person along their journey with seemingly innate knowledge and expertise and no fleshed-out storyline or journey of their own. They might be a minor character who pops into a story or they might have a large role like that of John Coffey in "The Green Mile," or even be the titular character(s) as in "The Legend of Bagger Vance."
Or "Girlfriend Intervention."
It’s bad enough that the Mystical Negro is still prevalent in scripted film and television, but in the guise of a makeover show it is inexcusable. Hot new outfits and a fresh hair color need not rely on reinforcing old tropes.
One of my characters, Triflin’ Cousin Yvonne, introduces a sketch I did on the trope earlier this year.
As offensive as I found the basic premise, I still would never comment on the content of the show without watching it. So I asked for and was sent a full episode, and I can now say confidently that it is even more offensive than the basic premise suggests. I was prepared to not like it because of the stereotypes about black women. I was not prepared for it to be so offensive to white women as well! I was sent the third episode, which I found curious until I saw that Variety had succinctly derided the first two episodes, so perhaps they are no longer being shared.
The four women on Team Girlfriend are “beauty pro Tracy Balan, home and sanctuary guru Nikki Chu, style and fashion maven Tiffiny Dixon and soul coach Tanisha Thomas,” as described in press materials.
Ms. Thomas is by far the most recognizable face of the bunch, having risen to fame on the second season of Oxygen’s "Bad Girls Club," and its spin-off "Love Games: Bad Girls Need Love Too,"and as a cast member on VH-1’s "Celebrity Fit Club." She also hosted several "Bad Girls Club" reunions and eventually landed her own reality show, "Tanisha Gets Married." I am familiar with Tanisha’s popular reality TV persona so I was ready for the high volume, finger-snapping sassiness of it all.
But when she is using that loud voice to proclaim that “trapped inside every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out” and that black women are “taught to always have it together and tell you like it is,” we cross over from something that may not suit my personal tastes to something that is actually dangerous.
The Mystical Negro theme is dehumanizing enough, but dehumanization can happen through alleged praise as well. The Strong Black Woman™ stereotype is what intensifies the stigma surrounding mental health treatment for many black women. It makes many of us reluctant to show the cracks in our often assumed fierceness, and keeps us from getting help. Whether as mammies or matriarchs, we were historically expected to shove our own emotions aside in order to take care of everyone else.
We may not be plantation wetnurses anymore, but culturally speaking, there are still white babies sucking at our breasts. And the pressure to “always have it together” denies our right to the full spectrum of emotion, a birthright of white women that Lifetime gleefully affirms with this show.
It hurt my soul when Tanisha said, “Black women, we are taught to always look your best. Even though hell could be happening behind closed doors, honey as long as you look fabulous that is all that matters!” I suppose now I need her Soul Coaching services to heal it. But those services are only available to white women on this show; I’m not a candidate. So...sisterhood or nah?
Actually, according to this show I’m not black at all. Joanie, the white makeover subject who needs to “get her groove back ASAP,” comes across as a lovely woman who is uncomfortable with weight gain and aging, and those discomforts are exaggerated by her history as a dancer, an industry that focuses on looks and weight. I completely relate to Joanie, and not at all to the outsized caricatures of the SistaGurls. I would love to be comfortable relating to all sorts of people, but the show insists on drawing such strict racial lines that I found myself in quite a quandary.
Joanie expresses discomfort in joining her performer husband at red-carpet events, which was declared Only A White Thing. Actual quote: “There is not a sister on this planet that would miss out on a red carpet event because she felt like she was too fat. Honey that is a white girl problem if I ever heard one.”
Hi, my name is Pia Glenn and I am a black woman who has avoided red carpet events because I felt like I was too fat. Fact. But I don’t exist in their world. Which would be fine if their world didn’t share such a minimizing view of black women with the rest of the world. Girlfriend Intervention sprinkles Strong Black Woman™ fairy dust onto the white makeover recipient’s weight issues and makes a foolishly clichéd race distinction. ALL black women love their bodies while we’re told, “my white girlfriends, if they are anything other than a size two they are nervous and scared.”
Black women are less likely than white women to seek treatment for eating disorders. We are also less likely to be accurately diagnosed by doctors because the lack of visible sufferers perpetuates the misconception that we don’t get eating disorders. In my own case, even as I was asking for help, doctors repeatedly brushed me off as looking fine. It took undeniably unhealthy heart and blood test results and an astute doctor digging deeper for me to be believed and granted treatment. Because I look so Strong and Black.
I know, all Lifetime wanted was to make over the makeover show and here I am bringing up mammies and eating disorders. I’m such a party pooper! And no, not everything has to be Politically Correct. But this makeover show isn’t even fun. It’s an endless barrage of stereotypes, shitting on the white woman as well. It is declared that “With Caucasian women, you get married, you marry the man of your dreams, you have his children and now it’s time to stop taking care of you.” Really? This is exclusively a Caucasian phenomenon? Oh.
Joanie’s husband is black, although all parties involved take great care to never call him “black.” Instead he is a “hot sexy chocolate brother” or a “fine chocolate man.” I couldn’t possibly care any less who loves whom in this world; love is a beautiful thing in every variation and combination. But if you are a white woman with a black man I beg of you to please drop the codification and additional adjectives. There’s just no need. If you genuinely call your partner “chocolate” then rock on, but personally I am so sick of watching well-meaning white women say every word but “black” to describe her black boyfriend/husband/crush. When I was with a white man I never said “Ooooh he’s just a tall glass of whole milk, my sexy icicle…” No.
But since Joanie has a black husband, this opens her up to even more unnecessary racial ridicule as it’s announced that, “A black woman would never let herself go with a man like that oh nosiree!” Good to know, Lifetime. And then there’s this blanket statement: “With Caucasian women, everybody’s afraid to say how they really feel.” NOT ALL CAUCASIAN WOMEN!
The problem with stereotypes like these is that they didn’t appear out of thin air. They have historical precedents and a grain of truth -- or at least many true life examples -- that seem to prove them as valid. But a great many of our ideas around race have historical precedent; that alone is no reason to keep them around. And I will say for the zillionth time that context matters. This is not someone‘s one-off YouTube video or a standup comedy bit. These are damaging stereotypes being perpetuated on an established cable network series with no artistic content or redeeming value.
"Queer Eye For the Straight Guy" was offensive on its face as well. But that was 11 years ago. And that show adjusted its content and tone to be more inclusive as it went on, and also featured engaging experts who displayed genuine expertise from time to time. On "Girlfriend Intervention," when Joanie dons a very flattering peplum dress, no one present utters terms like “draping” or “peplum” but instead the sum total of their commentary is ooh girl yaaaassssss. In fact, Joanie gestures toward the peplum and says “I love the…what do you call this?” Shame there wasn’t a fashion expert handy to answer her.
"TRANSform Me," VH-1’s 2010 makeover show featuring a trio of transgender women, raised similar concerns, but series lead Laverne Cox was also the show’s producer and she worked to highlight the legitimate skills of the makeover team over presenting them as caricatures. That same year, we got "RuPaul’s Drag U," a spinoff of "RuPaul’s Drag Race," where professional drag queens were giving the makeovers. "Drag Race" is problematic for some, but there is no denying that professional level drag performers have makeup and wardrobe expertise to impart, by virtue of their profession. "Girlfriend Intervention" thinks that we have makeover expertise to offer “messy white women” simply by virtue of being black.
I didn’t assume that a Lifetime makeover show would be an enlightening journey of intellectual pursuits, but it didn’t have to be this bad. Even within the ugly tropes there could have been a small but meaningful moment where a Sista could’ve leaned in and told her that of course we cry too; that we feel things because sometimes everyone does. And then there could have been a funky music cue and they could have hopped right back on the Soul Train and kept it moving. But I suppose 30 seconds of sincerity from a black woman is too much to ask of this show. Feel free to ogle their leather dresses, but when it comes to emotion, it’s not about them. It’s about the white woman. Period.
At one point Joanie doesn’t like an outfit and makes an angry face. They replay it in slo-mo and say “You see how quickly we brought out that sista? That black woman within came out like WHAT’S WRONG WITCHU?!”
Because that’s what we are. The Angry Black Woman™. And if you think it’s harmless for Tanisha and Co. to occupy their corner of reality TV perpetuating this trope, consider that Tanisha was recently added to the cast of Netflix’s highly acclaimed "Orange Is The New Black." When that is all they see that becomes all we are.
I’m not angry right now. I’m exhausted. I’m so tired of fighting to be seen as a human with strengths and weaknesses who can exist on a plane with white women in ways that cannot be described as coach, guide dog, entertainment, or servant.
But I’d better stop complaining now and go see how I can be of service to a white woman.
"Girlfriend Intervention" premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.