The Era Of Selfish Black Women On TV

Photo: Courtesy of fX.
One thing about me is that I watch a lot of TV. It was my saving grace while I was navigating my teenage years, and it’s still there for me now while I try to figure out adulthood, and there were a number Black women TV leads this year who comforted me and taught me what it means to be a self-absorbed Black woman in very the best way, including the protagonists of Rap Sh!t, Everything’s Trash, Industry, and The Bear who offered new ways to be understood by reframing selfishness as a strength in Black women, instead of a weakness.
While I was growing up, selfishness wasn’t a trait to aspire to, it was something to be avoided. But everything changed for me at the end of my senior year of college. I felt pretty disappointed, and not just because I had my graduation over Zoom. I expected to feel so in charge of my life by then, ready to take on the world, but that’s not really how I felt at all. I was in the corporate world for the very first time, and because of that I knew I needed to fight for myself to get ahead, but I also didn’t want to appear too cutthroat, self-serving, or — worst of all — mean. I also struggled with the same things in my love life, confused about how much I truly deserved and what I should put up with in order to receive love from someone, without seeming “too picky” or “unrealistic.” It seemed like one of the worst things I could be labeled as was “self-centered,” and as a Black woman, this was something that had been instilled in me at a very young age.
In bell hooks’ 1993 book Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery, she writes that the negative images of Black women that are ever present in the media “make it extremely difficult and oftentimes impossible for the Black female to develop a positive self-concept.” I’ve found this to be true in my own experience growing up in an overwhelmingly white city and without many positive representations of Black women on TV. However, despite the continuation of these negative images produced by white-dominated mass media, hooks adds that Black women are offering their own images of themselves. Black women are using writing, film, video, and art to “offer radically different images of ourselves,” and we’re all seeing this now more than ever before. There are always Black women who are shifting the narrative, “moving ourselves from manipulatable objects to self-empowered subjects,” according to hooks.
Almost three decades later, one of those women continuing to shift the narrative is Issa Rae. I was super hyped about the release of the  Rae produced HBO show Rap Sh!t since I first saw the trailer for it, but when the show finally premiered I learned that not only was it a series about the highs and lows of being in a rising rap group, but it also showed the specificities of being a Black woman in the music industry, and the exploitation that comes with that, along with the breakthroughs and powerful relationships within it too. (Spoilers ahead).
Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max.
One scene that was especially inspiring for me was when Shawna (Aida Osman) is arguing with her long distance boyfriend Cliff (Devon Terrell), and he starts filming the drunken argument on Instagram Live to shame her for pursuing music with Mia instead of moving to New York for him (obvious loser behavior), but despite Cliff trying to tear her down, Shawna breaks up with him. Because why should she give up her dreams for someone who was secretly hating all along?
The other half of the rap group is Mia (KaMillion), and we see her learn to make herself the number one priority in her life too. From the beginning of the season, Mia is burning the candle at both ends by taking care of her daughter while also being a makeup artist, OnlyFans creator, and a new musical artist. After she comes back from her and Shawna’s trip to New York where Mia was traumatized by a man she met from OnlyFans, Mia slips into a depression, leaving her without any energy to take her daughter to school. When the father of her daughter, Lamont (RJ Cyler), asks her why she’s being so dramatic, she tells him about everything she’s doing for their child and how he doesn’t do anything compared to her. After she speaks her mind, Lamont steps up and makes more of an effort, and the two even start rekindling their past romance, but instead of simply following Lamont’s desire of getting back together, Mia decides to keep her options open and starts getting to know another rapper, Ca$h Cha$er, who gives her a fat stack of cash at the end of their date. I know that’s right!

[These TV characters] showed me that not only should Black women be able to be hot messes, but they should be celebrated for it.

Both of these characters learn to love themselves unapologetically, but not without a few faults. At one point, Mia gets into a fight with someone at a party, which gets filmed and goes viral, giving them both a headache later on. Later on in the season, Shawna and Mia also make a very public stage appearance for the first time, and Shawna quickly derails the show by cutting the music and freestyling by herself instead, which made the audience in the show and the real life viewers at home cringe. These events, although hard to watch, show that Black women are not and shouldn’t have to be perfect. They can mess up and learn from it, or they can even be messy on purpose. And what’s so wrong about that?
The “hot mess” archetype has been widely popularized by white women like Carrie Bradshaw, Fleabag, and Hannah Horvath, but Black women have been historically barred from the archetype because of our expectation to look and be flawless to soothe everyone else around us. However, one character I watched this year who was the pinnacle of the hot mess trope was Phoebe (Phoebe Robinson) from Everything’s Trash, who was the first Black woman character I’ve seen that boldly embodies being lovably trashy.
Photo: Courtesy of Freeform.
Phoebe is proud to be a self-proclaimed heaux, and throughout the first season of Everything’s Trash, she refuses to compromise her sexual freedom and personal pleasure for anyone. However, this results in a few problems for her, like when she — spoiler! — starts hooking up with the campaign manager of her brother’s political opponent, stages a photoshoot in her brother’s home without him knowing about it, and even eats out of her ex’s trash during a drunken bender. Phoebe takes the term “hot mess” all the damn way, and she has every right to do so. This character showed me that it's finally time for Black women to make space for themselves in the dirtbag genre, because we deserve to be self-serving too, even if it might not be a “great look”.
The protagonists of Everything’s Trash and Rap Sh!t are all far from perfect, which, in turn, makes them even more inspiring. Existing as a Black woman in the U.S. often means trying to appear as perfect as possible for your own survival, but these young women showed the parts of Black women’s personalities that we don’t get to see on TV often. They showed me that not only should Black women be able to be hot messes, but they should be celebrated for it.
On Industry, the character of Harper Stern (Myha'la Herrold), is far from perfect, but she’s also determined to get what she wants and often at the cost of others. Industry follows college graduates trying to climb up the ranks of a prestigious London bank, and Harper proves herself to be the most cut-throat, backstabbing, but successful of all of them. She never sacrifices herself for others and she always puts herself first, which you can see when she blackmails, lies, and plays multiple sides at once. But even though she might not be someone you’d necessarily trust in real life, she’s still a shining example of what Black women are capable of when they put themselves, and only themselves, first. Despite all of her faults, she’s still an inspiration because she conquers everything she wants in her own way.

We’re not the best friend who comforts the white main character, we’re not the villain, and we’re not even necessarily the hero. We are people who can fight for ourselves and whatever we want out of this life, and win.

On the other end of the spectrum, the character of Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) on the FX show The Bear could be described as determined and passionate, but ultimately self-sacrificing. She’s working in a restaurant that she’s technically overqualified for because of what the restaurant means to her and her father, while also being undervalued by her boss, who throws her to the rest of the kitchen staff who end up hazing her. She puts everything into her work and doesn’t get appreciated for it, but when she’s pushed to a breaking point near the end of the season, she ends up (one last spoiler warning, OK!) quitting when the restaurant needs her most.
Before Sydney quits the sandwich shop, the restaurant gets a huge influx of mobile orders due to an error with their new system and Sydney starts berating her coworker Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach).  She ends up stabbing him with a kitchen knife accidentally moments later. When I first watched this scene I was shocked at how she quit right after all of this and also during the shop’s busiest time ever, but then I thought, who can really blame her? It’s not like she got any props when she was working so hard all this time, and her quitting made her boss Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) appreciate her a lot more. It might not have been the most productive or “nicest” thing to do, but she had already sacrificed so much for the restaurant and it wasn’t appreciated at all, and once she finally gets the props she deserves from Carmy, she goes back to work, because now everyone in the kitchen knows not to play with her.
From Industry's Harper Stern backstabbing her friends/coworkers to get ahead, to Everything's Trash's Phoebe defending her own sexual agency even when messes up her other relationships, to Shawna and Mia doing their best to make a name for themselves on their own terms on Rap Sh!t, and The Bear’s Sydney refusing to work unless she’s appreciated for everything she does, these Black women might make questionable choices at times, but they’ve also reminded me that I don't owe anyone a damn thing, and that my own desires — no matter how hedonistic — have to come first sometimes as well.
With all of these shows, I’ve found that the weight of the responsibility to represent Black women as perfect, kind, and caring individuals is finally falling to the wayside. We’re not the best friend who comforts the white main character, we’re not the villain, and we’re not even necessarily the hero. We are people who can fight for ourselves and whatever we want out of this life, and win. And now that I’m growing into my own womanhood, when I’m faced with someone doubting my potential or what I truly deserve when it comes to work, dating, or even friendships, I simply think of these extraordinarily selfish women on TV and wonder what they would do.

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