Black Television’s Bi-Problem

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in Black television shows that focus on the love lives of cis-heterosexuals. Girl meets boy, girl and boy go on date or are already dating, then girl notices something about the boy. Maybe there is something about his affect that makes her think he has an affinity for men. Maybe he wears what would be described as women’s feminine underwear. Maybe he had an experience with another man once and that shatters her confidence in what she thought she knew about his sexuality. Maybe it isn’t even speculation because boy tells girl clearly, “I am fluid, bi-sexual, queer, pansexual, etc.” Whatever the case may be, whatever the show, the woman’s reaction is nearly the same every time. A rejection of the man because she cannot get beyond her rigid ideas of masculinity and what she thinks a man ought to be. I like to call this “Black television’s bi- problem” although it’s honestly an LGBT problem, I’m a sucker for alliteration so here we are. It has presented itself on numerous occasions over the years but the last 4-5 years where it has been most poignant as a new generation of television creatives has hit the scene.

In 2016 we encountered the problem in Issa Rae’s Insecure. During a dinner date between headstrong attorney Molly and sweet Enterprise Rental bae Jared, they asked each other about past sexual experiences. Molly confessed to making out with a girl in college which Jared reacted gleefully to–of course. But when Jared shared that he received oral sex from a guy in his early 20s, Molly flew off the handle. Molly presumed he was gay and cut him off.

Fast forward to 2020 in Love is Blind when Carlton, after proposing to Diamond and during their honey half-moon, tells Diamond that he is fluid. Diamond is in a state of shock about this and tries to work through it with Carlton, but she is brutally rebuffed by him in part because of her response and in part because of what seemed like his failure to work on himself.

Finally, Black television’s sexuality problem is currently playing out on not one, but two Black Entertainment Television (BET) shows that air consecutively, Tyler Perry’s Sistas and Lena Waithe’s Twenties. In Perry’s Sistas, doe-eyed Sabrina meets pretty AF Calvin during her shift at the shadiest looking bank in Atlanta. Calvin first encounters her co-worker Maurice, a flamboyantly gay man who thought Calvin was interested in him until Calvin specifically requests to see Sabrina. After some small talk and what looked like the most unsecured transaction for a bank deposit, Sabrina agrees to a date with Calvin but suggests he meet her at a bar she will be at with her friends. In good girlfriend fashion, she tells her friends about her concern regarding Calvin’s sexuality and once they meet him they issue a snap judgment that he is gay. This, of course, gets into Sabrina’s head. Fast-forward to her first sexual encounter with Calvin and it is revealed that he wears lacy bikini underwear. For Sabrina, this certifies Calvin as gay and solidifies the driving plot of the relationship. Calvin goes through pains to prove he is not gay by giving an account of himself and Sabrina keeps looking through the dim light of those doe eyes for all the things she believes make a man gay, ignoring the man’s account of himself. Every episode of this series 20+ episodes manages to revisit Sabrina’s tired perception of Calvin’s sexuality.

The scenario in Waithe’s Twenties is probably the most inconspicuous of the trends, which may only be because the lead on the show is Hattie, a queer Black woman who is not hiding her sexuality amidst her striving in an otherwise heteronormative world. It is, however, Hattie’s friend Marie and her boyfriend Chuck who seem to be wrestling with both sex and sexuality. Early on we discover that Marie and Chuck have an uneventful sex life which viewers might attribute to Marie’s high-strung personality. But as the show progresses we see stereotypical hints at Chuck being the reason why their sex life is suffering. Chuck sings songs adjacent to show tunes. Chuck gravitates toward certain self-help books. Chuck seems to be soft and effeminate. And in an episode,  Chuck lights up when he and Marie watch a porno featuring a threesome of two men and one woman. That scene ends with a tight shot on Marie’s face showing a look of concern and revelation that implies, “Oh my goodness, my boyfriend might be gay.”

Each of the aforementioned shows fumbles the ball on the matter of sexuality by relying on tropes and stereotypes regarding gay and bisexual people. They cast their hetero character as ignorant at best and intolerant at worst regarding the spectrum of sexual experience and what it means to allow someone to give an account of themselves. Some shows have tried to clean this up, such as in Insecure when Issa tries to help Molly over the hump of her closed view on sexuality by lacing together some good Women Studies language on the topic.

So she’s supposed to stop seeing Jared just because he doesn’t subscribe to the heteronormative rejection of sexual fluidity.

But to no avail, Molly lets Jared go because she is unable to fathom the idea of his heterosexuality being uninterrupted by an experience marked as gay. She is unable to allow the man to give an account of himself through his own words that it was “one time, one man.” The other show that has demystified Black television’s bi-problem is Lena Waithe’s other series, Boomerang which avoids the issue by confronting it head-on with Ari, the Prince-like, bi-curious character who wrestles with his sexuality in ways that might be identifiable to those who’ve had similar experiences. Ari’s struggle may be portrayed well because the executive producer of the show, after Lena Waithe, is an out gay Black man, Ben Corey Jones. So Jones’ consultation and direction in this regard may be Boomerang‘s saving grace.

We have no resolve from Love is Blind‘s Carlton and honestly, the internet is already full of think pieces about how Carlton’s revelation about sexual fluidity was received by Diamond and Black women the world over, so I won’t rehash that.

In all of this, I am concerned about what we are teaching people with these portrayals of our community’s bi-problem. And as I write this it occurred to me what the bi-problem might signify. The bi- is not for bisexual but it is for the binary construct that structures portrayals of love in our community. The binary is that one is either straight or gay, there is nothing in between, there is no spectrum and there is no need to wrestle with one’s narrow view of sexuality expressed by Black men. In shows that center heteronormative love, men must fit neatly into a heteronormative box. Anything that transgresses the boundaries of the box becomes a red flag, a thing to be contested, a way to reject a subject because the primary subjects are so tightly wound in the hetero world. Yet I wonder how we can better portray and tell the story of love in consideration of a vast expression of male sexuality, whether that sexuality can be clearly marked or not. Maybe we can even wrestle with the root cause of our need for Black men in these shows to show up as heterosexual Alpha males through and through, which sometimes means these men carry toxic masculinity traits. How can we create a space where we allow the Black man to dwell in liminal spaces and not always be subject to the tired narrative of who he ought to be as a Black man?

IMG_9142

It’s fascinating to me that we are another decade into the 21st century and we are still rehearsing the same issues, making heteronormativity the predominant discourse in Black entertainment and casting anything outside of that identity as an aside or an issue to be managed. Is art imitating life? Have we not really progressed in these matters? Does this mean that shows that feature a queer or questioning character require an LGBTQ writer, executive producer, or showrunner? If the answer is “Yes”  does that let cis-heteros off the hook and still susceptible to making the same mistakes?

It seems I have more questions than I have answers but I am not above wrestling with this as someone who consumes her fair share of television and as someone whose work is concentrated in sexual ethics. The matter of how Black male sexuality is represented on Black television and in Black culture matters. I believe this is a fair discussion to have in consideration of the proliferation of character-based programming coming at us from every angle and streaming service. If we are to persist in the production and consumption of this programming, we have to demand better representation of the stories of everyone and not allow heteronormativity to be the dominating framework.

And maybe there’s a possibility that these shows are actually setting us up well to have the discussions about sex and sexuality that our community sometimes like to avoid. If that is the case, it really is time we have a talk.

Sex Talk in Song Then and Now: What Do You Remember Hearing?

This is the first semester of my doctoral studies at Emory University and I have the good fortune of serving as a teaching assistant for Religion & Sexuality. This undergraduate-level course is all about, you guessed it, religion and sexuality and the many ways they are related. Students study the main religious traditions perspectives on sexuality, significant thinkers in the disciplines, media coverage and pop culture. Keeping in line with the latter, yesterday the professor started to dive deep into this discourse by focusing on Freud and Foucault. But, so as not to completely lose the students due to the denseness of these two thinkers matter, he offered a more contemporary resource to help them understand what is at stake in discourses on sex by using, wait for it…

Yes, Salt-n-Pepa’s 1991 hit supplemented a discussion on Foucault’s discourse on sex in the Victorian age and I was here for it. But as the video played and I surveyed the room to observe its reception, I saw many of the students just staring at it blankly. It hit me that no one in the classroom except for me, the other teaching assistant, and the professor, was born when the song dropped. I was 11 when the song came out and I remember it as the first song I’d ever heard that explicitly talked about sex. The students in the class weren’t even zygotes in 1991 and I realized that, to them, a song that explicitly talks about sex could mean something entirely different.

When I say “explicitly talked about sex” I mean that sex talk in song was direct and not reliant on the oftentimes hyper-aggressive, hostile, violent, and sometimes rape-y sex talk in songs today. The students’s experience of sex talk in song is most likely different from my experience of sex talk in the songs that I came of age to such as Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and TLC’s “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” all songs which spoke about sex in plain terms–although the argument can be made that these songs were pushing boundaries at the time. These songs were still tame in nature, didn’t use potentially harmful language, and promoted safe sex either explicitly in the lyrics on in their corresponding videos. This, however, is probably not the reality for young people who were born in 1994–the approximate year I believe most of the students were born in–because by 2005, the sex talk in song sounded something like this,

I’ll take you to the candy shop
I’ll let you lick the lollipop
Go ‘head girl, don’t you stop
Keep going ’til you hit the spot (woah)
[Olivia]
I’ll take you to the candy shop
Boy one taste of what I got
I’ll have you spending all you got
Keep going ’til you hit the spot (woah)

That is an excerpt from 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” a song that was number eight on Billboard’s 2005 Year-End list. But this still might not be the first song with sex talk that they’ve heard. There may have been something earlier or later but I’m curious about what they first heard and how that formed–or didn’t form them. And now I’m curious about what many people first heard and how that formed–or didn’t form them. So I’m throwing the query out to readers,

What is the first song you recall hearing sex talk in or the first song you heard that was all about sex? How did the song make you feel? What did it make you think about sex? Also be sure to include the approximate decade in which you were born and when the song came out. I may or may not be using this for research. 😉

So…Let’s talk about sex!

#TheEmptyChair: The Numbers Behind NY Mag’s Cosby Accuser Cover

cosby-nymag-cover-1Last night the cover for New York magazine’s issue featuring the stories of 35 of the women raped by Bill Cosby dropped and it left many, myself included, shaken to our cores. The black & white cover, pictured below, features the 35 women and an empty chair symbolic of the women who have yet to come forward. I only read two of the accounts before turning away from it because it was just too heavy but I couldn’t escape it as #TheEmptyChair became a trending discussion on Twitter last night.

There are so many empty chairs. Not only the empty chairs in the Cosby situation but empty chairs in general for the countless number of women who have yet to come forward, report their rape, and share their story. To put some weight on an already heavy story I’d like to share some numbers that, once I saw them, I could not unsee them.

A Department of Justice report on rape indicates that for every white woman who reports her rape, five don’t and for every black woman who reports her rape, 15 don’t. Taking those numbers and applying them to this cover to determine the potential number of empty chairs we would end up with approximately 220 empty chairs. That’s 220 unreported incidents of sexual violence against women. 220 stories never told. 220 women still bound by their captors even though their captors have long left them. The trauma that women face after sexual violence remains with them long after their abusers have left the side of the bed, room, the dark alley, the bathroom, and every other domain where sexual violence occurs. Even a story told does not remove the memory and the trauma but for those who are brave enough to come forward it starts them on the process toward healing. But there are at least 220 empty chairs out there that may never be filled which means there are women who may never find any semblance of peace, healing, and wholeness. Though we can proclaim that they are not what happened to them it is what happened to them that is keeping them silent.

It is my hope that women who have yet to sit in the chair will be encouraged not only by the 34 women on this week’s cover but that they will also be encouraged by the scores of people, myself included, who believe and support them. Even though I don’t see you, I want you to know that you are seen. Even though you haven’t spoken, I hear you. Until then, I pray for peace in the midst of this storm and for your courage to come forward at the right time for you. Know that there is no statute of limitation on your freedom and recovery so whenever you do come forward–whether within the ridiculous limits of our legal system or not–freedom and wholeness are there for the taking. Also, until then:

And for those of you have who have come forward, particularly those who were courageous enough to come out on the cover, I will honor you and read your story. Thank you for your courage.

Video: How to Stay A Virgin

Things have been fairly heavy on Sex & the Sanctuary so I figured I’d lighten things up a bit on this Humpday. Earlier this week I asked on Facebook how people who have committed to abstinence, either as a premarital principle or for another reason, maintain that commitment. I wanted to know the practical and impractical measures people take to remain chaste. Unfortunately only one person responded with the tip that she stops shaving and waxing “the naughty bits.” I was disappointed because I know I have friends who are practicing abstinence but another friend alerted me to the fact that my question might be a little more complex than I realize–and also that people might not feel comfortable answering that question in a public space. Point taken.

Interestingly enough though, a response to my question landed in my inbox yesterday. Granted this isn’t a direct response–I don’t know this guy in real or virtual life–and he is addressing a young woman who is a virgin, but I do appreciate his advice to her. It isn’t the Evangelical Christian clichés rattled off to young people about remaining chaste–which means it isn’t full of that rhetoric. It’s real, practical advice guided by one person’s experience and a good sense of humor.  So here it is:

What do you think? Are daytime dates and unshaven naughty bits what you would suggest to someone? If you or someone you know is abstinent or celibate, how is that personal commitment maintained? What are the practical measures taken to remain abstinent if such a lifestyle is chosen? (There is no wrong answer, additional I’m not an undercover agent for Purity Culture or Pro-Abstinence, I’m just a writer/researcher interested in the topic and what people really do when they are abstinent.)