Here's a fun game. Name an iconic duo. Who is it? Are they both women? Is either of them a woman of colour? Are you struggling to think of a reference to two funny black women who are presented and celebrated on an equal footing? Sis, I feel you.
The irony is that the humble yet reliable buddy comedy is one of the biggest joys in entertainment. It’s a universal dynamic. It’s a tried and tested (and retried, and retested) formula that has been churned out in film and TV for years. So when women began taking bigger steps into the mainstream comedy space – Bridesmaids was an undeniable landmark – it didn’t go unnoticed. But that classic trope of dropping two best pals in a funny narrative and watching them bounce off each other has been slower on the female uptake. Take it a step further and you’ll notice that the reluctance to focus on the relationship between two black women persists even more.
Cult classics and worldwide favourites include Thelma and Louise, Romy and Michele and Absolutely Fabulous’ Edina and Patsy. These genre-expanding productions undoubtedly paved the way for this year's female buddy comedy hits, with Booksmart and Dead To Me furthering the case for stories about love and humour between two women. Save for its frustrating reliance on stale gender-flip reboots (see: Ocean's 8, Ghostbusters, The Hustle), Hollywood is slowly taking women in comedy more seriously, but for funny black women it still seems to be a case of one in, one out.
Hollywood is taking women in comedy more seriously, but for funny black women, it's still a case of one in, one out.
The 'token' black girl trope is prevalent in the buddy comedy world – that’s if black women are invited to the party at all. There’s Dionne, who balances the Clueless equation opposite Cher. There’s Regina King’s Sam Fuller to Sandra Bullock’s Gracie Hart in Miss Congeniality 2. Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling’s Late Night jokes about Mindy’s character literally being the diversity hire, but beyond that I’m not too sure where else we can turn to see at least one half of a female duo from an ethnic minority background, let alone a pair of acclaimed black women comics. It’s a similar case within the more prevalent, male side of the genre. Though we at least have Will Smith and Kevin Hart leading the black boy bestie tribe with Bad Boys and Ride Along respectively, in so many of the situations where one half of the buddy dynamic is a person of colour, the norm is to use the culture clash catalyst – typically white and reserved vs black and erratic – to drive the funniest bits of the comedy. Blockbusters like Rush Hour, Men In Black, and a chunk of Eddie Murphy's back catalogue in the '90s rinsed that dynamic for all it was worth.
So is it any wonder that the culture of competition between black women is so tricky to eradicate? Many women will be familiar with the undercurrent of rivalry that has long been a prevalent issue among us. Fuelled by the patriarchy and reinforced by media that tells us there’s only so much space for women to exist authentically, women of colour continue to be dismissed further because society doesn't seem to know what to do with more than one of us. We're all fighting for space in a world that has long been defined by men, then pitted against each other as a few of us at a time try to claim that small space and, slowly but surely, balance the problematic gender scales. But when it comes to humour, a crucial and dynamic aspect of our personalities that isn’t readily celebrated (it's much easier for society to label us aggressive or erase us altogether), the track record tells us that there’s only space for one funny black woman at a time. Breakout black ensemble hits like Girls Trip are an exception to the rule. Breakout star Tiffany Haddish's rise through Hollywood these past few years has been wonderful to watch, but we'd all love to see her in more well-crafted leading roles beside one of her contemporaries, crafted in an environment that she'd clearly thrive in. The animated Netflix show Tuca & Bertie, that Tiffany voices alongside Ali Wong is a brilliant, but very specific, starting point on that journey.
A culture of comedy thrives in hubs of black womanhood but we're yet to see this harnessed in mainstream entertainment.
The irony is that caricatures of the black female stereotype are so deeply ingrained in common comedy. The sassy finger snap in someone's face with that classic little head jolt is rooted in the image of black women with 'attitude problems'. Our community popularised the use of the term 'girl' as a knowing statement as opposed to a noun. There's a hilarious culture of quips, observational comedy and history-driven humour that thrives on Twitter and will have flourished in IRL hubs of black womanhood before social media became a fundamental connector between us. Regardless, we're yet to see this harnessed and simply enjoyed in one of the most popular genres of mainstream entertainment.
It doesn't sit right. We're all aware of the almost mystical power of seeing two (and specifically two) women lead a narrative together. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock have proved that time and time again, and now Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever have reconfirmed it. We do have Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba heading to our TV screens as the female answer to Bad Boys in new series-cum-sequel L.A.'s Finest, but that's not enough. I want to see more affirmation that black women can – and do – stand next to their sisters within a dynamic where the humour is defined on their own terms instead of the ethnic antithesis we're too often assigned.