For some time now, therapists have helped movie and TV characters cut through to the emotional core of their messy lives. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) has taken her sage and very patient psychiatrist, Dr. Noelle Akopian (Michael Hyatt), on a tumultuous ride of lows and (occasional) breakthroughs that have largely culminated in her ignoring her doctor’s advice. When Ilana (Ilana Glazer) needs to confront her inability to orgasm after a tedious several-month dry spell in a Season 4 Broad City episode, she seeks out a sex therapist—a soothing, free-spirited older woman named Betty (Marcella Lowery). And on the most recent season of Grace and Frankie, Sol (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen) seek professional counseling from Rebecca (Lorraine Toussaint) on how to navigate marriage to one another as older, out gay men.*
Each of these characters is wrestling with different illnesses and/or issues, but one thing is a constant across their sessions: All of the therapists offering them professional guidance are played by black women. There are certainly examples in which this isn’t the case: Tina Fey inhabits Kimmy Schmidt’s wacky therapist, while Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s couples counselor on BoJack Horseman is voiced by Lorraine Bracco. But if you watch enough shows with dysfunctional protagonists who get to the point of seeking help, you might notice that a lot of familiar black female character actors are popping up in roles that require they wield a notepad and pen while listening intently to other peoples’ problems. And with rare exception, their patients are usually white and at least moderately affluent.
Taking into account the long, often-sordid history of portrayals of black women playing maids and prostitutes watching talented actors like Hyatt and Lowery play smart, highly educated authority figures is a good thing, no matter how small the role. And yet, when looking at the bigger picture, it does seem a bit peculiar when if their storyline only pertains to the white characters they serve emotionally. Is the Black Lady Therapist just the latest outgrowth of the storied Black Best Friend?
The Black Best Friend trope stretches back decades and crosses gender lines, though women have been more likely to be cast in the role than their male counterparts, from Wanda Sykes on The New Adventures of Old Christine to Lisa Nicole Carson on Ally McBeal to a pre-Scandal Kerry Washington in Save the Last Dance. Having played second fiddle to a winsome white protagonist is almost a given on a contemporary black actor’s resume, though not all BBF’s are made in the same mold. On the benign end of the spectrum, the characters, like Tara and Lafayette on True Blood, are imbued with a bit of a personal backstory (relatives, significant others, and so on) and storylines that don’t always have to do with their white best friend. But in the most extreme cases their only true function is to serve as cheerleaders and givers of advice—often with a heavy dose of “urban” sass—to the white leads, a performance that evolved from the more demeaning and thankless parts as maids, servants, and sidekicks that preceded them.
The Black Lady Therapist falls somewhere in between Octavia Spencer in The Help and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water. As professionals, they align with the former: They’re on screen to do a job, albeit one signifying a wealthier class status, and ostensibly a product of choice rather than forced circumstances. Yet they exist in these narratives for the sole purpose of listening to the woes of their white patients, not unlike the BBF, and helping them arrive at a process for fixing themselves. As Rebecca on Grace and Frankie, Toussaint (known for playing the ruthless Vee on Orange Is the New Black, among many other roles in her decades-long career) is never seen outside of her plush office, moderating Sol and Robert’s back-and-forth grievances. In the 2017 indie film Band Aid, Retta (Parks and Recreation) spends her sole scene listening impatiently to Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally bicker about the same relationship issues they’ve always bickered about, before giving them her diagnosis and revealing she’s moving to Canada.
Samira Wiley played Justina, Gretchen’s therapist, in You’re the Worst during Season 3. Like the aforementioned therapists, she’s featured only in relationship to her patient—a patient who delights at spewing profanity-laced vitriol at her (“You goddamned cock … titty-sucking bitch”) once Justina tells her she’s allowed to say whatever’s on her mind. The clinically depressed Gretchen is a lot to handle, and Justina, being the professional that she is, takes it all in stride, even when, in a running gag, she routinely drops in unexpectedly on Justina while she’s out and about living her life, forcing her to provide therapy sessions at her command. By the time her story arc ends—she, too, is moving away; perhaps the only way for a Black Lady Therapist to escape her clingy patients is to skip town all together—we know little about Justina’s personal life save for her continued, questionable support of a lazy, unseen boyfriend. But she leaves a disappointed Gretchen with the reassurance that she’s come a long way.
Sometimes, a character like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Dr. Akopian will reveal more layers as time goes on—as in Season 3’s show-stopping Cabaret-inspired musical number, in which she finally feels hopeful that Rebecca has turned a corner, “This Session Is Going to Be Different.” But when we see the few black characters focusing all their energy on white patients, it’s hard not to wonder if Hollywood has just found another avenue to shift the expectations of black character actors of a certain age, from that of the BBF to the professional paid to fix broken white people. (For what it’s worth, a 2013 study from the American Psychological Association reported that blacks made up 5.3 percent of the active workforce, and that there were 5.8 black women active psychologists for every black male one.)
The BBF has become so prevalent that it’s easily lent itself to parody (even self-parody). A recent Funny or Die sketch suggests the Black Lady Therapist could be heading that way as well: Kristen Bell sings an ode to her “sweet therapist Jan Gray, Ph.D.” (another great character actor, Yvette Nicole Brown) when she learns that Jan is going to be out of town for a couple weeks and they won’t have any more sessions before then. It’s charming and witty—as pretty much everything Bell and Brown are involved in tends to be—but the lyrics reveal how easily the divide between the two tropes can collapse. Kristen seems to know everything about Jan’s personal life, and pines for her to be more than just a therapist, but also her best friend, and even a maternal figure. “I know we can’t be friends in real life, but sometimes I pretend in my mind,” she sings.
In slavery, black women were tasked with caring for the white children of their masters, hence the fraught Mammy figure embodied on-screen by Hattie McDaniels and other actors of her era. Since then, the link between black women and the care of white bodies has been fraught, especially in the sense that much of this social exchange has been borne of limited options on the part of black women. The Black Lady Therapist is a far cry from Gone With the Wind’s Mammy and Save the Last Dance’s Chenille. But until we get more examples of three-dimensional characters who have more going on than their patients—or even a black therapist in the leading role, à la Frasier or a better-conceived Gypsy—the Black Lady Therapist is just an extension of its predecessors, and the actors who play them deserve more.
*Correction, March 23, 2018: This article originally misidentified Martin Sheen as Michael Sheen.
*Correction, March 22, 2018: Due to a production error, a photo caption misidentified Michael Hyatt of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as Lorraine Toussaint.