Beloved Black sitcoms and what we can learn from nostalgia
It's more than okay to still thoroughly enjoy Moesha, The Parkers, and Girlfriends and other shows from that era that made similar mistakes.
A host of popular Black shows from the 90s and early 2000s are finally being made available to stream this year, and many of us are rejoicing. As we should. There has been a glaring gap on popular streaming platforms lacking Black shows from this era and it’s nothing less than egregious. We deserve to be able to dive into the significant cultural artifacts of our childhoods and adolescent years in the same way that fans of Friends and Sex and the City have been able to for many years now.
The thing about nostalgia, though, is that it can cloud our vision and often even skews our perspective on the reality of what we actually experienced, witnessed, or participated in all those years ago. We go about our lives remembering things, moments, and scenarios fondly that, in retrospect and with hindsight (colored by maturity and experience), are sometimes actually quite harmful, traumatic, and oppressive.
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Watching the likes of Moesha (1996-2001), The Parkers (1999-2004), and Girlfriends (2000-2008) this year has been an interesting experience in my 30s. It’s been even more interesting to watch other people’s immediate reactions to the shows on social media, something that was not possible when they originally aired.
The other thing about nostalgia is that—once you make it through that initial haze of excitement about revisiting the beloved artifacts of your youth—you eventually begin to notice just how much these things actively participated in our indoctrination into the very systems that marginalize us.
Moesha‘s middle class Black family was good for perpetuating an elitist and classist view, and it’s particularly evident in an episode where Moesha loans money to her friend, Hakeem, and handles the situation terribly. She also both allows and actively participates in horrible displays of fatphobia towards one of her closest friends, Kim—once even telling her that she needs to lose weight out of jealousy and vindictiveness when Kim gains access to spaces and people that Moesha feels she is entitled to but not Kim.
Kim and her mom would make the crossover to a spin-off, The Parkers, a few years after the premiere of Moesha. There Kim and Nikki Parker wouldn’t be treated much better as fat Black women characters. Nikki in particular would be written as desperate, undesirable, and predatory—spending the majority of the show stalking and shamelessly throwing herself at Professor Stanley Oglevee, who openly despises and is fatphobic towards her.
Existing within the same universe as these other two shows, Girlfriends gave us a story about four very different women and their romantic relationships and—to a lesser extent—career ambitions. Throughout its eight seasons, the show would engage in fatphobia, colorism, elitism, queerphobia, transphobia, sexism, misogyny, rape culture and hazardous ideas about sex, sexuality, and (cisnormative, heteropatriarchal) gender roles, and more. There are multiple conversations about how to behave respectability in front of white people and the transphobic “secretly used to be a man” trope rear its head more than once, as well as the odd choice to play police brutality for a joke and a Black republican as one of the main characters being romantically involved with a cop.
Those of us who grew up watching and laughing at these shows were too young to appreciate the gravity or the severity of the things they presented to us and the messages they delivered, but we were not too young for all of this to impact us and how we would understand the world and our place within it.
That means that we laughed at jokes at the expense of fat Black characters, dark-skinned Black characters, poor Black characters, and queer Black characters—and, by extension, we laughed at the expense of the Black people like them we knew/know in our real lives. Or even at the expense of ourselves, and maybe we hid away those parts of ourselves because it was reinforced for us again and again that those parts were worthy of laughter, ridicule, and shame.
We didn’t understand how detrimental The Cis-Heterosexual Agenda™ was (and continues to be), especially to those of who were queer Black kids growing up in environments that never allowed us to bloom in our queerness. We didn’t understand how fat antagonism and diet culture have always gone hand in hand with capitalistic exploitation, ableism, and anti-Blackness. Or how Black Respectability and elitism would never deliver us from the hellmouth of capitalism and the nation-state’s racial violence.
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While engaging with these shows now and in the future, nostalgic indulgence can bring up feelings of shame and disappointment in ourselves. That’s understandable, but it’s important to acknowledge that we simply didn’t know any better and our early indoctrination was not our fault.
Nostalgic dives allow us to confront those things and the many ways that they are still present in our lives, but they are also opportunities to see how far we’ve come and how much we’ve learned. We can stand back and see the amount of work we’ve done to unpack these things. We can be proud of what we have done and are doing to combat these ideologies and unlearn the harmful “truths” in the messages we received in our younger years.
That’s why watching people’s reactions to these shows has been so interesting for me, and I hope we all can watch them with the assurance that it’s more than okay to still thoroughly enjoy Moesha, The Parkers, and Girlfriends and other shows from that era that made similar mistakes. It’s okay to be—and, in fact, we should be—critical of the things we love and cognizant of the ways they fall short. It helps us grow.