Watching Sister, Sister in 2020 is the equivalent of logging off Twitter, putting your phone on Do No Disturb, and curling up under a heavy-ass weighted blanket. The comfort of re-watching the series cannot be overstated — it’s a salve of certainty in uncertain times, a balm of fictional banality amidst real-world chaos. Twenty years after the sitcom aired its final episode, Tia and Tamera are the same regular suburban twin girls with duelling personalities you may remember. But they also mean so much more. For me and countless other Black girls who grew up with the twins, getting to choose between their contrasting characters was as unremarkable as it was radical simply because of how normal it all was.
Sister, Sister, which ran from 1994 to 1999 and is now (finally!) streaming on Netflix Canada, opens with a wild yet predictable premise: twins, separated at birth and adopted by different families, are reunited by a chance run-in at the mall. The encounter happens while they are — hilariously and adorably — vying for indistinguishable sweaters, but we soon learn that their dispositions are anything but identical. In the pilot, dressed in matching denim, Tia says, “I have a little trouble talking to boys,” to which Tamera counters, “Really? I have trouble keeping quiet.” With these statements, our girls have cemented their archetypes.
Tia (Tia Mowry) is the introverted brainiac who cares about boys but not as much as she does school and rules, and Tamera (Tamera Campbell) is the extroverted free spirit who cares a bit about rules but more so about boys and never about school. As the series goes on, these rigid personality traits loosen slightly, but the big things remain the same: Tia and Tamera have very distinct personas that don’t fall into the stereotypical Black girl categories we were used to seeing on TV.
Blackness is not a monolith, and in the ’90s, way before 'representation' became a buzzword, Sister, Sister was proving that two Black girls could look the same but think and act differently. What a concept.
Are you a Tia or Tamera?
Naturally, that was the simple and defining question for the viewer. For me, a kid who worshipped at the altar of Sister, Sister reruns every day after school, my chosen twin became very important to my adolescent identity. I was a Tia of course. My good grades, shyness, and constant need for parental approval made my Tia-ness a no brainer. I’d roll my eyes at my TV when Tamera would brush off homework and cringe when she forced her sister to cheat on a test. And when, in Season 3, Tamera has to go to summer school and Tia has to work as a camp counsellor and they switch places, I, too, thought going to school would be more fun than camp (I am slightly less of a dork as an adult). Choosing between these two completely different Black girl characters was, at the time, just a thing I did while watching my favourite show. Now, I know how freeing and significant it was that I got to see myself in Tia while also not seeing myself in Tamera. Blackness is not a monolith, and in the ’90s, way before “representation” became a buzzword, Sister, Sister was proving that two Black girls could look the same but think and act differently. What a concept.
By the late ’90s, everyone at my elementary school knew if they were a Mary Kate or Ashley (who guest-starred as themselves in Sister, Sister’s penultimate episode of Season 4). The Olsen twins were already building their billion-dollar empire. Mary Kate was a tomboy in snapbacks while Ashley was the princess in pink (our pop-culture gender norms were less evolved back then). With two older brothers and an obsession with basketball, I was a MK, hands down. However, at my predominantly white school, when it came time to choose our roles at a recess reenactment of It Takes Two, I was relegated to playing the nameless Black girl with two lines in the movie’s opening baseball scene. I still know them by heart. Similarly, I was Sporty Spice in my soul. But every time we played pretend Spice Girls; I was forced to be Scary Spice. You can guess why.
I know these seem like minor gripes in the grand scheme of things. I know it’s silly to remember how much I cared that before Princess Tiana came along, my “friends” either excluded me from their Disney princess games or made me play Nala, the lion. But back then, every time there was a Which Spice Girl Are You? or Are You a Mary Kate or Ashley? quiz in J-14 magazine or Seventeen, I was othered by my so-called friends and reminded that I did not belong in those pages (Tia recently revealed that she and Tamera were denied a teen magazine cover for being Black). It all really mattered to me. A kid should get to take part in the frivolity of childhood without feeling erased and belittled.
That’s what Tia and Tamera gave us. Deep in my Sister, Sister rewatch last week, I tweeted out the show’s most important question:
My favourite response: “I was definitely a Tamera with a Tia rising.” Before astrology was dominating our timelines, at least we had Tia and Tamera to make sense of our various temperaments. It’s also telling that so many Black women of a certain age can immediately identify which twin they related to more, and give you a detailed diatribe as to why.
In a pop culture landscape that perpetuates Black stereotypes — where Black characters are mammies or magical negroes or angry or oversexualized — Tia and Tamera gave me a sense of pride and normalcy (on top of the laughs). They gave me the inconsequential playfulness my white peers took for granted. But forget the white gaze, Tia and Tamera were just ordinary teenagers who loved rollerblading and Beavis and Butthead, and had hamsters named MC Hamster. The show does dabble in big topics like pay equity, online predators, and fraternity hazing, but it mostly doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s just really, really funny, and Tia and Tamera just get to be themselves. Race isn’t overtly discussed, but one of the things I love most about Sister, Sister is that the world the twins inhabit is Black — everyone, from their friends at school (save for a few token white girls) to their teachers to their boyfriends, is Black. So, not only were we getting nuanced, unique human beings in Tia and Tamera, we had their parents Ray (pitch-perfect Tim Reid) and Lisa (the inimitable Jackée Harry), and countless guest stars and supporting characters to see ourselves in. This is also the world that many Black people in America call a reality. Not everyone exists in the orbit of whiteness and our TV shows should reflect that. Sister, Sister did that.
In the ’90s golden era of Black sitcoms, there were other Black girls on Black shows to emulate. There was Moesha, and as much as I thought I was Moesha growing up, she was actually a Tamera (but better at school). Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Ashley Banks was a studious Tia trying desperately to become a rebellious Tamera under the watchful eye of a dad 10 times scarier than Ray (RIP Uncle Phil). Breanna from One on One is definitely a Tamera. The twins’ personality tropes aren’t groundbreaking, which is why they’re so easily assigned. And that’s the beauty of them. It’s not complicated. Two decades after Sister, Sister ended, you could go back and dissect which jokes make you wince, get pissed at the colourism on constant display, or agonize over the scenes that don’t hold up in 2020 (like Roger’s borderline incel behaviour in early eps), but what’s the point? All we can do now is revel in the nostalgia of it all and demand that television does better today.
For Black millennial women like me, Sister, Sister was the beginning of seeing our worth and our distinctiveness on screen. Tia and Tamera embody what we’re talking about when we say “representation matters”: they are whole characters who got to be serious or silly, logical or impulsive, boy-crazy or booksmart. And they gave us the freedom to be all of the above too — well, depending on whether you were a Tia or Tamera.