he black Sex and the City.” Since its debut in the fall of 2000, UPN’s Girlfriends has been compared to HBO’s critically acclaimed show about four women friends in the big city. Obviously, it’s unfair to dismiss Girlfriends (or any show with a black cast) as a copy of a white show. (And technically, isn’t Sex and the City the white Living Single?) Even if the shows often deal with similar issues (including sexual addiction, marital dilemmas, and the strains of friendship), such a tagline is too clumsily designed to make Girlfriends look “universal.”
What’s most interesting in this context are the issues the show sets up as potentially “universal.” Consider the situation for biracial Lynn (Persia White). Adopted by a white family when she was young, she grew up in a predominantly white environment and only learned about her black heritage while in college. Not unlike A Different World‘s Freddie Brooks, Lynn moves between communities. While her girlfriends are black, she has never denied her biracial heritage. For her, “race” is a daily negotiation.
Refreshingly, Girlfriends repeatedly raises patently political questions. At the start of the second season, an athlete publicly accuses a sports beverage company of being racist, and Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), a successful L.A. attorney, steps up to defend the company. Her friend and assistant, Maya (Golden Brooks), who often refers to her own working-class community roots, feels that Joan is selling out, in particular because the company exploits inner city residents. Joan and her colleague, William (Reggie Hayes), by contrast, feel that they are just doing their jobs as attorneys, and not black attorneys. Joan also has a specific stake in the case: if she wins, she’s one step closer to making partner.
This plot sets up a debate about blackness and the politics of social class that goes beyond Joan and Maya’s conflict. In laying out both Joan and Maya’s cases, the episode points out that the black “community” is not monolithic. The show challenges viewers to consider various questions: where and how do race and class determine one’s identity, perceived by others or understood by oneself? What does it mean to be an attorney (or a teacher, or writer, or whatever), as opposed to a black attorney? Is it possible to imagine oneself as a professional “without” race?
These questions are connected, of course, to Girlfriends’ status and/or marketing as a “black” show, and it self-consciously uses these questions to provoke laughter, calling attention to differences in the girlfriends’ class and lifestyle. For one instance, Joan, Maya, Toni (Jill Marie Jones), and Lynn go shopping at an expensive clothing store. While Toni, the resident “black American princess,” is only concerned with how certain blouses accentuate her cleavage, Lynn is worried about cost, as she’s in debt due to her pursuit of multiple master’s degrees. At the same time, Joan is trying to talk Maya into splurging on a dress. Maya is skeptical about the purchase. She has to take into account that she and her husband Darnell (Khalil Kain) have a dinette set on layaway.
When, despite her initial hesitation, Maya buys the dress and brings it home, Darnell reacts. After listing the reasons they can’t afford it (they need to fix the car, get the dinette set), he concludes that she has to “Take it back.” Maya mocks him her under her breath as he walks away. When he asks her what she’s just said, she quips, “I said, ‘Stay black!’” The joke is multifaceted, allowing viewers to identify with the couple’s strapped finances (not unlike the Connors on Roseanne), but also to appreciate the specificity of their blackness (and their self-awareness) in relation to the surrounding culture. At its best, Girlfriends is unafraid to introduce controversial issues but also point out the humor in them, encouraging viewers to think while they’re laughing.