It’s kind of a big deal that Lena Waithe is April's Vanity Fair cover star. The creator of Showtime’s The Chi is riding a career high after making history for being the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, thanks to her collaboration with Aziz Ansari on his Netflix series Master of None. In the profile, written by Jaqueline Woodson, Waithe is heralded as one of Hollywood’s disrupters, forcing diverse change onto an industry that has hardly opened its doors for black voices and stories, let alone queer ones. And Waithe knows it. Tweeting about her issue, Waithe included one hashtag that made it crystal clear what kind of progress she is ushering in: #WhoSaysABlackLesbianCantBeOnTheCoverOfVanityFair.
Waithe sits on the April cover photographed by Annie Leibovitz and wearing the slightest smirk, a gesture that seems to speak directly to folks who would dare question what a masculine black woman was doing in her position. Her expression emulates something she says to Woodson during their interview. “Being born a gay black female is not a revolutionary act. Being proud to be a gay black female is.” Waithe’s pride in her own identities and how they’ve made her so much better at her job has not lent itself to exceptionalism. She is brutally honest about just how far the industry she’s mastered has to go in order for others like reach the same peaks. But while Waithe is rightfully proud that she made the front of Vanity Fair as a black lesbian, I’m struck that the publication made space for a black lesbian who is known primarily for her contributions behind the scenes.
Vanity Fair is a pop culture periodical that in the past has been known to go for the biggest name. Waithe’s cover comes the month after Oprah graced its front with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. It is all about Hollywood starlets and/or hunks. Sure, Waithe had a recurring role on Master of None and even popped up as a clerk on this season of This Is Us, but that certainly didn’t draw all eyes on her the way her writing and producer credits did. That Waithe has built such a high profile as a content creator is a feat in its own right. Conversations about inclusion in Hollywood have stubbornly remained in the realm of representation.
The faces and cultures that get portrayed on screen and recognised by awarding institutions are not reflective of the vibrant heterogeneity of America. Counting bodies of colour and looking for cultural references has become a habit. More and more, we are recognising how important it is to see people of colour writing, producing, directing, and showrunning as well. How do we get there? By showing young people and novices of colour that white men aren’t the only ones capable of pulling strings and calling shots in entertainment. For that reason alone, Lena Waithe is right where she needs to be.