Reused, misused, and overused, the “angry black girl” trope extensively pushed onto the narrative of black women since the beginning of television. The sassy black woman was epitomized by the show Amos n Andy, in the 1940s, wherein the character, Sapphire Stevens, represented someone who was domineering, aggressive, and emasculating. Sapphire’s character could have fallen on the lines of powerful had she not been created by two white males or been canonized as a comical caricature not for her acting, but because of the color of her skin. Sapphire, ultimately, became a stock character for most black situational comedies and was centered for laughter while also belittling black males. A few years following, we get Aunt Ester in Sanford and Sons, once again a dominant persona who is constantly angry at the men. The overrepresentation of black people in situational comedies allowed for the laughter of Sapphire and other black characters with overly aggressive characteristics; consequently, disallowing the talent of black actors in other realms of television.
The continuation of this Sapphire stock character allowed for the recycling of her characteristics as points of laughter – as seen in Tyler Perry’s infamous Madea character. I see this even in some of my favorite shows: Shirley Bennett in Community, and Angie Jordan in 30 Rock. At times, I feel blinded by it, but, in reality, it has become so part of our comedy, that it no longer feels like anything new or problematic. Repeatedly, media shows us only one way of being black: you have a Madea, a Sapphire, Rochelle from Everybody Hates Chris, or an Angie Jordan, or a Bad Girls Club wherein all the black girls represent sassy personalities.
This tactic, however, does not only stop with black actors and personas for it has been used in shows such as Modern Family, wherein Sofia Vergara as the spicy Latina becomes the center of comedy. Again, her “unnatural” behavior becomes centralized so as to highlight her difference, thereby, further centering her unassimilated differences, her Latina characteristics. I question, here, are people of color simply laughing stocks? Are we used solely to heightened the appeal of white peers?
The use of Sapphire no longer only stops at situational comedy. The Sapphire has transgressed into TV drama, yet still conveying similar characteristics of anger, malice, and strong physical qualities. Their characteristics become a center for contention, an area of disapproval or reason to justify punishment against them. We can see this in characters like Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder as she is depicted as this domineering Professor, always carrying a strong facial feature, strong sense of power in her physical presence; therefore, reaffirming a narrative of an angry black woman or even a sassy black woman. The problem arises when the actress, Viola Davis, becomes type-casted as this domineering character. Why must these roles be given to her? Is it about her acting or physical appearance that allows for the development of this roles? She portrays the qualities of an angry black woman with no rational reason behind her anger, besides, perhaps, that she is a lawyer and experiences many tough cases. I still wonder: must she never smile?
These tropes transform beyond scripted characters and onto real situations and people. The “angry black woman” is easily recognizable, extensively talked about, and continuously used against for the policing of black woman. This form of stereotyping through media becomes a form of discrimination affecting not only the actors and actresses casted, but also the underprivileged others who suffer due to the societal implication of such representation in media. For example, the overrepresentation of black woman fighting on YouTube and popular news magazines with headlines specifically denoting “two black women fighting,” instead of saying “two women.” Expressing “black” becomes important because naming the color of someone’s skin in this situation, and for black people, in general, has become normative – an act of furthering their “othered” and minority position in society.
So where does Issa Rae’s web-series Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl fit into all of this? It does not. Her series attempts to reconstruct the way black women are casted and represented in media. “Awkward black Girl” is a character that has hardly been seen in mainstream media while the “Angry Black Girl” reigns in representation in shows like Bad Girls Club wherein the black women are portrayed as sassy, confrontational, or snappy. They are the characters that do not fear getting in people’s faces or standing up for their girlfriends. Issa Raes’s Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl goes against this angry black girl narrative by centering the reality of a black girl who does not fit into these black women stereotypes. Issa Rae allows for her character to encounter interactions that she feels socially inept to handle, thus, working in juxtaposition to how black women in media are typically represented.
Issa Rae began her web-series on YouTube, a public space that almost all people could easily have access to. She plays J, an awkward girl in her late 20s or early 30’s who is struggling to enjoy her dead-end, miss-managed, office job. She is passive aggressive because social confrontation is hard for her. Instead, she holds back her words around people not close to her then goes home to rap about what made her angry. She avoids confrontation but is creative when imagining what she could do if she wasn’t so angry.
In the pilot scene of the screenshot following, J is attempting to avoid talking to a co-worker she once drunkenly hooked up with. At the party, J was having a hard time socializing, so she began drinking heavily in order to make the party easier to withstand. Unfortunately, she ended up hooking up with someone who would take things a little too seriously.
This scene illustrates the extremes to which awkward people go to avoid anxiety-provoking interactions. Issa Rae succeeds in capturing just how awkward she sees not only her responses but also her inner thoughts such as, “is it rude to do the dramatic slow down” or showing the “fake phone call” along with other tactics. J is a character he stands her ground yet, struggles to socialize at parties, dates, and even public speaking. Her character embodies all the characteristics that, in mainstream media, are given to a nerdy boy or girl, all of which are typically not black women. J raps, but she is not the very good at it; nevertheless she keeps trying and leaves it a secret only for her best friend to know about.
Media is the forefront for how social norms get produced and reproduced, while also influencing viewer’s actions. When TV shows like, Girls or Modern Family, are introduced to the public, it sends a message to the public about how “Girls” live in the city, and how a Latina adds oddity to a family. These shows, although seemingly progressive, still play on stereotypes about minorities such as women in the city (Girls); the gay couple and the young sexy Latina wife (Modern Family). They might stray away from normative suburban life, however, the Sexy Latina trope is still being centered for the laughter of the show.
The Angry Black girl reigns and becomes a lot more recognizable even outside of media and into the policing of black women in society. The angry black woman trope becomes a way to identify black women as crazy and outlandish, thus, providing justification for the policing of black women. As the angry black women brings about laughter in media, it simultaneously instills fear on those black women who are still being watched due to how they are represented through media.