A white girl’s refusal to live by the dominant narrative gets to be glamorous, whereas I cannot imagine how a Black girl’s refusing the terms of society ever could be.
A-Little-Bit-Over-the-Top Girl first appeared to me on screens, in the swath of prime time daylight when all good Millennial latchkey children were poised on their papasan chairs, eating cereal out of cups. I’m talking about the peak years of UPN, MTV, and The N. I’m talking about Winonas, as opposed to Gwyneths. A-Little-Bit-Over-the-Top Girl was sex-positive, spontaneous, and rocked an audacious, careless fashion sense that mimicked her audacious, careless heart. She had a skinless quality that tended to attract the worst men and the best stories. The protagonist’s mother always thought she was a bad influence.
I’m talking about the girls who’d always pick Dare. Girls who shoplifted, girls who swore. Her pyrotechnics demanded a witness. In all the stories, she was the one with the best lesson to dispense, the one that still seduces: You ought to give fewer fucks. But as this advice seemed tricky for a Black girl to take, I mostly settled for a view from the nosebleeds.
In a recent New Yorker review, Doreen St. Felix described the Black television boom of the ’90s, citing Martin, The Wayans Brothers, and Living Single, as part of a movement that “featured black characters living in all-black worlds who didn’t seem to emit a whiff of self-consciousness,” and I felt a sad little ping. Because my ’90s were spent in a mostly white, middle-class suburbia, Onlineness and its attendant self-consciousness seemed like pre-conditions of Blackness to me. As a tween in the papasan, I looked for television shows that mirrored my landscape. This meant a lot of nominally multicultural ensemble-driven teen soap operas, like Degrassi: The Next Generation.
With precious few exceptions (looking at you, Sister, Sister), I found a paucity of mirrors on prime time. The Black and brown characters in Soapland—Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, The O.C., and Gossip Girl—were often flat, fillers in Very Special Episodes and party backgrounds. Even on my favorite programs, girls like me were afforded pebbles of nuance. Often, they were well-off—like Dionne Davenport of Clueless.
Perhaps this was the work of well-meaning showrunners trying to subvert stereotypes about Black poverty, but in hindsight it feels like a telegraph to soothe the audience-members who would dispute these girls’ plausibility in suburban spaces. In any case, a Black girl’s presence on an early aughts ensemble drama was always exceptional, so her Blackness looked like a liability. The thing to be transcended, or explained.
Arc-wise, my avatars received slim pickings. In the early aughts, we had Hazel Aden of Degrassi: The Next Generation, a sycophantic popular girl whose one humanizing plotline involved her lying to everyone about her Muslim background on Share-Your-Heritage day. We had Liberty, another Black girl on the same show, who was simply an unlovable narc. We first meet Jal, of the British soap Skins, as she is laboring to get out from under the shadow of her strict father and into a posh music school. Well-meaning white friends tell Hazel and Liberty and Jal to loosen up in their respective capsule episodes. They are encouraged to “just be themselves,” then sidelined before audiences can get a sense of who exactly those selves might be.
A Black girl’s presence on an early aughts ensemble drama was always exceptional, so her Blackness looked like a liability. The thing to be transcended, or explained.
The most compelling Black girl on early aughts TV, in my humble opinion, was a cartoon: Jodie Landon from MTV’s Daria. Jodie was on friendly terms with the show’s eponymous hero but was well aware of her position in the social hierarchy at the mostly white Lawndale High. In a season two episode called “Gifted,” Daria and Jodie tour a private school, where cynical Daria—repulsed by the classist atmosphere—invokes a typical moral outrage. But Jodie is more forgiving of the richies. Toward the end of the episode, she explains why: “At home, I’m Jodie. I can say or do whatever feels right. But at school, I’m the queen of the negroes. The perfect African American teen. The role model for all of the other African American teens at Lawndale. Oops—where’d they go? Believe me, I’d like to be more like you.”
Jodie was the first character I saw on television who named the peculiar tyranny of tokenism in a way that felt authentic to my experience. But she also made me sad. She was so world-weary, so sagely un-fun. And, like Hazel and Jal and Liberty, Jodie was initially defined by shame and academic obligation. She seemed to prove “Just be yourself!” was a racket. An impossible thing to ask of a Black girl traveling alone.
To prove we belonged in the right (white) rooms, girls like me were taught to excel in school. Make the honor roll. Once we’d proven our brains’ worth, we could lean toward activities that let us insist on our individuality. Creative work, like writing.
We learned to develop defense mechanisms. Be the first, always, to laugh at jokes at your expense. I remember being in high school, smirking when friends said things like, “But Brittany’s not really Black.” I loved my friends. We were the kinds of girls who’d always been told we were gifted, raised by progressive, thoughtful feminists. We were bisexual vegetarians. We hated the war. We “didn’t see race,” but knew something was off, so we wielded irony, and thought we could control it. In a middle school project on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I insisted on playing Topsy in the group presentation, reasoning that no one else could do “the voice.”
In high school, a group of us made a satirical horror movie in which I created a role for Loud Black Girl Who Dies First. Mocking my token status felt like the closest I could get to ousting self-consciousness about it, and anyway the ability to mock denoted smartness, which denoted exceptionalism, which denoted “more than Black.” This is all to say that being a Jodie could sometimes feel like having power over the stereotypes I swam against—but it was exhausting, unfulfilling work.
I found more resonant models in Angela Chase of My So-Called Life and Lindsay Weir of Freaks and Geeks. These were girls who struggled to “be themselves” but were not roundly punished for it. (Spoiler alert: Jal gets pregnant and her boyfriend dies; Liberty gets pregnant and her boyfriend dies; Hazel all but disappears from Degrassi.) I loved how Angela and Lindsay ping-ponged between the urge to break bad and the proven path. They stood out in the pantheon of teen dramas because they were not defined by sexuality or school. In their sensitive, spiritual crises I saw my own—in addition to falling for the wrong boys, they struggled with God, grew disillusioned with teachers, and lusted after ways of living they didn’t have templates for. In the pilot episodes of both shows, Lindsay and Angela found those templates in the form of id-driven new friends.
Rayane Graf, Angela’s bestie, was the epitome of cool. She drank out of a flask and rocked eccentric accessories. Her pain was deep, but her laugh was easy. You could have a dangerous night out with Rayane, and the next day at school she’d holler for all to hear—“Didn’t we have a time?” Comparatively, Kim Kelly, of Freaks and Geeks, was brazen, sexual, obnoxious, and—that fabulous rarity for teen girls—able to strike fear into the hearts of grown men. Both of these characters spurred the protagonists’ journeys toward self-actualization. Rayane even encouraged Angela to make her first iconic stab at self-invention. In the infamous Crimson Glow scene, she’s the one helping Angela dye her hair.
That Crimson Glow scene reminds me—or is it vice versa?—of unsupervised nights when I felt goadedtoward a more dangerous version of my own life. Rewatching my favorite teen shows, I’m reminded of my own A-Little-Bit-Over-the-Top-Girls—like Samm, who was in a punk band and wailed like Karen O, or Maile, who made thrifted granny clothes seem fashionable. In an introduction to the DVD box set of My So-Called Life, Michele Byers writes: “We all have those friends in high school—the type who breeze into your life for a year or two, change the way you think and then breeze out again, leaving only ripples in their wake.” The very best shows seemed to render honestly the yin/yang friendships between the semi-straight and narrow friends and the messy accelerators we idolized.
All the best nights seemed to happen riding shotgun to A-Little-Bit-Over-the-Top girls. In their company, magic occurred—you might break into the neighborhood pool, or wind up walking through the city streets at midnight with your crush. You might sneak a joyride in someone’s mother’s car, or smoke a jay on school grounds.I didn’t know what to do with freedom. Didn’t even know how to ask for it. But Rayane and Kim and their IRL counterparts did. How could I help but follow such ecstatic stars?
The truth was, I resented my destiny. I didn’t want to be sensible, embittered Jodie, or tormented Hazel, or caustic Jal. I wanted exactly what Angela, my spirit sister, wanted: to be liberated from the rules of order, the tedious gymnastics of my cautious, neurotic mind. Even now, put me in a room with her, and I’ll eventually find a way to orbit the girl who takes up too much space. Like a lovesick, jealous moon.
That said, I dabbled in Rayane-style naughtiness during high school. I sometimes cut class, and made out with my boyfriend in the parking garage downtown—until two security guards caught us in the act, and took our names down in a little book. When I got caught with that same boyfriend in the family living room, the bottom fell out of this experiment, and I was grounded for several months of the eleventh grade.
In my circle, this punishment seemed exorbitant. Friends asked why I didn’t just sneak out. (“Just be yourself!”) My indiscretions weren’t so bad—to put my badassery in Clueless terms, I was still a virgin who couldn’t drive. Meanwhile, on television, Lindsay Weir crashed the family station wagon but was back to business with the freaks by the very next episode. This logic tracked in real life, too; while my white friends got in trouble sometimes, very few got in trouble, the way I did. But how to explain that I could never slam the door like Angela, or run screaming to my room like Lindsay?
Though he was not harsher than any other Black father I’ve ever met or heard of, my Dad wouldn’t suffer that mess. Once during my grounding, I actually went to the bottom of the stairs, poised to sneak out—but lingered there like Ella Enchanted, instead. Bound to the transom, I cried the frustrated tears of the thwarted.
Meanwhile, on television, Angela was brought home in a cop car. Doors were slammed and independence was declared on Degrassi and Skins and Gilmore Girls. My heroes hurled epithets down hallways, shrieking, “You don’t understand me!” But I knew it wouldn’t fly. Rather than broach confrontation, I started lying to my parents. Mostly about small things, like where I was sleeping over. I was bad at lying, and often got caught. Their eyes grew sad with lost trust, but I could not stop staging this pathetic rebellion.
It got to be a joke, how irrational my fear of parental disapproval was, how dumbly self-defeating. What exactly did I think would happen—spankings? Jail? Military school? As graduation day loomed, friends wanted to know why I didn’t just ask if I could come along on the road trip or borrow the car. Was their wrath so inevitable? I couldn’t explain, even to myself, how I was so sure the answer to all those questions was “yes.” Instead, I nursed the increasingly bitter certainty that my friends’ brand of rebellion was not a plausible arc for a Black girl, or at least the kind of Black girl I was. Looking back on the punishment years, all I can think of is Jodie’s sour prophecy. The weary longing in her voice when she says: Believe me, I’d like to be more like you.
Michael R. Jackson, the author of the musical A Strange Loop, has a song about Black folk who grew up adoring A-Little-Bit-Over-the-Tops. In “Inner White Girl,” Usher, the show’s protagonist, laments that white girls:
. . . get to be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious
They get to be wild and unwise
They get to be shy and introspective
They get to make noise
They get to mesmerize
I’m struck by the verb choice in this lyric. It isn’t that white girls are this plethora of things—it’s that they get to be. The stories we tell about unruly feminine urges often punish the protagonist, but never equally. Before they are entitled to anything, white girls and women are entitled to particularity and contradiction. Whereas Black girls, in many dominating mythologies, typically “get to be” just one or two things, like rich and hard-working, or wry and smart. Now I see more plainly what separates the Jodies from the Darias, the Lindsays, and especially the Rayanes: Rayane’s refusal to live by the dominant narrative got to be glamorous, whereas I cannot imagine how a Black girl’s refusing the terms of society ever could be. Because it’s hard to feel free in a world that can only comprehend you as an exception, and it’s hard to be un-self-conscious when you’re the only one like you in a room.
We are still in the cop cars, quaking in handcuffs. We are on the sidewalk. They do not bring us home.
And more than that, it’s hard to feel safe. I understand my parents better now. I know what they were so worried about, when they demanded excellent grades and reasonable curfews from all their children, thinking obedience and a shiny veneer could protect us. I picture Angela being brought home in a cop car and let off with a warning. I picture Lindsay totaling the station wagon. In the latter’s grand punishment scene, a livid Mr. Weir threatens: “I could call the police, you know that? I could call the police and report this as Grand Theft Auto. I could send my own daughter to jail.” For all his discipline, I cannot picture my father ever invoking the police as a punishment. Because there is no redemption on the other side of that arc, not for a Black teenager.
I was suburban and sensitive and trepidatious just like Lindsay, but can you see the epic poem between our childhoods? Can you even bear to watch those scenes now? Both of my heroes were back to their poignant interior dramas by the very next episodes. But Black girls, ha, of course not.
I look out my window. I feel so world-weary, so sagely un-fun. I think, of course it tracks that we can’t be “wild and unwise” on television, when the real-life consequences of Black children disobeying remain what they are.
We are still in the cop cars, quaking in handcuffs. We are on the sidewalk. They do not bring us home.
My boyfriend teases me for this predilection I have for high school stories. I remain quick to gobble the latest oddball-teens-against-the-world episodic, though I am old enough now to see narratives not as prophecies, but tools, with specific utility and specific limitations. The stories we gobble can free or inhibit us. Thanks to Angela and Lindsay, I felt affirmed in my sensitive-smart-girl angst, and that affirmation watered my confidence to pursue a life in the arts. But why do I keep returning to that pre-watered consciousness? Was it really because I had such a great time?
I think I’m trying to correct something. The narratives I gobbled about high school imparted some bad lessons. As an adult, I’ve had to muscle myself into believing I was worthy of love from even the hot idiots, the Jordan Catalanos of this world. I’ve had to muscle myself out of seeing women of color as my competition for the “token” slot that television implied was all we could hope for. And I’ve had to muscle myself into understanding why I always felt more like a witness than an agitator, never quite free to be over the top. Reminding myself when and where I learned the unhelpful fictions—the unreliable classrooms of Hollywood—helps me see the toxicity in them. When I’m forced to admit that the structure I built myself on was so precarious, I am galvanized to reimagine, and rebuild.
At least there are more models for Black teenagers today. Many particularized Black psyches fret away on Dear White People. Living Single is on Hulu and A Different World is on Prime. I have shaken off some of my self-consciousness, but am still on the lookout for a story—on screens and IRL—that doesn’t punish literal lust for life in a Black girl; doesn’t blight her with anxiety or shame in the best-case scenario, or violence, violence, violence in the worst.
On a time-traveling mission, I binge the glorious PEN15, and admire Maya Ishii-Peters, a character who is unruly, noisy, mesmerizing, and hapa, among many other things. And I am so jealous. I could have used that girl when I was fourteen, I think. What might I have done with the permission she granted?
Maybe nothing so different, in this blighted country. But it’s still nice to think about. When you get to grow up confident that the world can—at the very least—imagine your existence, god, it must save so much time.
Brittany K. Allen is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer and library goblin. Her prose appears or is forthcoming in Catapult, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Kenyon Review Online, and Longreads, among other places, and her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her stage plays have been produced and developed at Portland Center Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and elsewhere.