UPN has one of the blackest audiences of any TV network, and Monday, when it broadcasts four sitcoms featuring predominantly dark-skinned casts, is its blackest night. Three of these four shows— Moesha, The Parkers, and The Hughleys—have never captured my attention. (Although when I lived in Amsterdam, I did get perverse pleasure out of Dutch attempts to find subtitles for the Ebonics on Moesha.) Take The Parkers, the top-rated show for black viewers. Starring a robust mother and daughter, it’s the kind of show where one character says to another, “My baby’s daddy, meet my future baby’s daddy.” Call me hopelessly bourgeois, but I just can’t relate to that.
However, I’m addicted to the fourth show. Girlfriends features Joan, an elegant lawyer whose wardrobe I covet; Lynn, her college friend, a perpetual graduate student and activist; Joan’s childhood friend Toni, a woman who takes her cues from the film How To Marry a Millionaire; and Joan’s secretary, Maya, a ghetto superstar who lords her sexual exploits with her husband over the other three.
The little “moments” in Girlfriends ring eerily true. Toni’s new white beau keeps her up late at night in bed inspecting the texture of her hair, which fascinates him. There’s William, Joan’s law firm colleague and the girlfriends’ male foil, who struggles with his failure to fit into conventional black stereotypes (the same stereotypes that once led Colin Powell to tell a reporter from The New Yorker, “I speak reasonably well, like a white person” and led Julian Bond, then-head of the NAACP to agree that Powell is “verbally, not black”). William and his ilk are usually caricatured on television as that most pathetic of all creatures, the white black man, an Oreo who can’t dance, can’t rap, and can’t hang. Instead of poking fun at him, Girlfriends sympathizes. When the women chastise him for dating white women, he retorts that he’s not popular with black women because he’s not dangerous enough. “White women think I’m edgy just for being black,” he explains.
Girlfriends addresses skin color prejudice, the dirty secret of the black community, both implicitly and explicitly. Toni, the it-girl of the group, is the one with the darkest skin. This is a welcome anomaly. For all the instances of black pride bursting forth from The Cosby Show, the two women Bill Cosby chose to play his older daughters, i.e., sex symbol age, were biracial, light-skinned, long-haired black women. And on ER, one of my other favorite shows, it seems that every couple of years the producers issue a casting call for a beige black woman to play the love interest of decidedly nonbeige Eriq La Salle. Spike Lee, who has acknowledged his inability to write rounded female characters, usually casts a fair-skinned black woman—a visual descendant of Lena Horne—as his leading lady.
When Toni rejects a wealthy suitor because she thinks his skin is too dark, her friends chastise her, telling her that she wouldn’t exactly pass a paper bag test herself. Later Toni tells Joan (who is played by Diana Ross’ biracial daughter) that Joan doesn’t understand how hard it is to be considered attractive when you have dark skin and that she doesn’t want a daughter to endure what she does. Refreshingly, there’s no moralistic plot twist in which Toni learns to appreciate her dark skin.
Finally, Girlfriends is wonderfully void of studied Afrocentricity. Joan lives in a home that she’s very pleased to have purchased for herself. Ordinarily a black TV home would be resplendent with racial kitsch: African masks, Jacob Lawrence paintings, and maybe a bit of kente cloth. But Joan’s home matches her cool, minimalist taste in clothing. And rather than presenting her boyfriend with a book of Pablo Neruda poems for Valentine’s Day as Joan did, she would have handed him a book of Maya Angelou’s finest since, in the world of television, an expression of love between two black people could never be captured by a nonblack writer. That would be unpridely.
Girlfriends probably wouldn’t be on the air without Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer, its executive producer and godfather. Grammer refuses to espouse politically correct platitudes to explain why a middle-aged white man is producing a show about four black women. When told that Spike Lee didn’t like it, Grammer told the Seattle Times, “Fine, I don’t care.” And neither do I.