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?


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.

Black Love: 30 Years in Film

Why the Nate Parker Case Matters Now

Over the weekend old news about Nate Parker surfaced. 17 years ago Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who he co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with, were involved in a rape case while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999. The victim said that she was raped by the two men after passing out in their room following a night of drinking while Parker and Celestin said that the sex was consensual. Parker, who had consensual sex with the victim on an earlier occasion was, somehow, acquitted and Celestin was convicted and then had it overturned in an appeal. The victim, whose name we don’t know, dropped out of Penn State, attempted suicide twice, and committed suicide in 2012 according to recent reports. Fast forward to 17 years later…

Parker is at the height of his career with his film The Birth of a Nation being talked about as an Oscar contender. But now his past has come back to haunt him and some discussions of it are inordinately focused on how it may affect his chances at an Oscar:

Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish ‘The Birth Of A Nation’

Nate Parker’s College Rape Trial Raises Questions for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Release

Is This the First Controversy of the 2017 Awards Season?

The industry is concerned that they may not see a return on their investment and their rising star might fall. This feels kind of familiar to me, as familiar as a father who, during his child’s sentencing for raping an unconscious woman said, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Turner was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault, sentenced to six months in jail, three years on probation, and will have to register as a sexual offender. His lenient sentence was attributed to his whiteness and privilege and his people’s desire to see him flourish after this hard time in his life. In many ways, Parker’s case reads the same.

There seems to be a need to protect men in power or on the brink of power in sexual assault cases. Parker is joining a line of men in Hollywood–and other men in power–with sexual assault cases on their personal resumes: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and the scores of others we don’t know about. I’m reminded of a story I pitched a year ago on Bill Cosby, rape culture, and Christian silence only to have a man in a position of power tell me that “outing” Cosby at the time–which was around the time of the South Carolina confederate flag debate–would be a distraction. As if we couldn’t address both. I was discouraged and felt like this man also shared a part in rape culture by keeping silent and trying to keep me silent–don’t worry, I did end up writing about Cosby, Christian Silence and Rape Culture on my personal blog. But this is just another example how men in power protect other men in power. (Want another example, check out this season of Orange is the New Black.) Hollywood’s interest is to protect these men because of the investment they made in them and Parker is just the latest. This isn’t an attack on him because he’s a black man on the come up, it’s par for the course for his position in the industry and for this day and age when talk of sexual violence is becoming commonplace. Given this, Parker’s PR has clearly been on their grind if his mealy-mouthed statements are any indication:

“I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”

“The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”

Maybe “mealy-mouthed” isn’t a fair description of his statement, it’s more than a mealy-mouthed statement and yet it is still less than what is necessary at a time when narratives of sexual violence are still more determined by men than they are by the women who are most affected by it. Parker tries to pay general attention to those affected by sexual violence, but in his particular role in enacting violence he, nor Celestin, take explicit responsibly for their actions and that feels violent to me.

I have a problem with the fact that the discussions of this are being couched in terms of how this will affect The Birth of a Nation‘s chance at the Oscars or its general release. That ought not be the issue and Parker’s deflecting from the problem of that framing is disheartening. I get it, Parker wants to tell Nat Turner’s story and wants America to face the truth of its history. But this encounter with his own part in the history of sexual violence is also an opportunity for him and America, particularly American men, to face the truth of the role they play in normalizing sexual violence. Parker’s statement turns away from the gross reality of how sexual violence narratives are scripted for men in positions of power. They are swept under the rug and a “not guilty” sentence is interpreted as innocence while the victim suffers in silence. Their stories can be revised and edited in such a way as to make the men the victims and cancel the real victim out. In this case, the spotlight is on Parker and Celestin but they are using it to focus on the wrong thing, themselves, their project, and their families as some kind of scapegoat that absolves them from anyone ever thinking they could do harm. All of this is the result of failing to recognize how easy it is for sexual violence narratives to be minimized and how they–Parker and Celestin–are a part of the problem.

17 years later this still matters because the effects of sexual violence have no statute of limitations, not for the victim, not for the suspect, not for anyone involved. We need a different word from Parker and Celestin, one that doesn’t deflect to their project and who they’ve become before it takes a long, hard look at the effects of a crime they committed 17 years ago and how the stories we tell about rape always matter. An accusation of rape always matters. A rape case always matters. The victim of rape always matters and Parker and Celestin seem blithely unaware that, 17 years later, this still matters as if it happened yesterday because rape matters.




Bill Cosby, Christian Silence, and Rape Culture Perpetuation

Recently I was in search of inspiration and I needed to start my day with a word of inspiration or at least a couple of good songs. So I turned to the local gospel station to find the Yolanda Adams Morning Show in full swing. Adams, like many over the past few days, talked about Bill Cosby’s deposition, in which he confessed to purchasing drugs to drug women for sex. Adams, instead of talking about how problematic Cosby’s action were, asked why a woman would go to a married man’s hotel room. She tried to deflect by saying that she wasn’t condoning what Cosby did but that it still remains that the women shouldn’t have visited the room of a married man in the first place. Following her comment others on the show chimed in to talk about what they felt were the missing pieces in the situation and one man even remarked about how, when he saw Bill Cosby’s stand-up routine years ago, he was just so inspiration. After they finished bloviating they moved on and so did I. My hope for inspiration was dashed away by everything they didn’t say and so I turned my attention elsewhere, specifically to Big Sean’s “Dark Sky Paradise.”

I didn’t turn on the radio to hear what Yolanda Adams and friends had to say about Bill Cosby but since they decided to speak, I hoped they would speak correctly about the situation. I haven’t even talked much, publicly, about Cosby because I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s an expedient use of my time and voice. But as the days wear on and more information is revealed and I see how people are processing it, I realize that I can’t remain silent. I can’t remain silent because there are so many women who remain silent and even now their silence is being eclipsed by those who choose not to see situations, such as the one we are currently watching unfold with Cosby, as a cause for concern. Silence is a huge part of the issue of hand with Cosby, scores of sexual abusers, and the abused.

When you do a search for Christian websites who have covered the latest news on the Cosby situation you come up with nothing. They aren’t talking about the fact that he confessed to purchasing the drugs; they aren’t talking about the fact that he used the drugs and his power to sexually abuse women; they aren’t talking about the problem with the people who, only now, believe he raped the women because of the deposition; they aren’t talking about anything. Yet, these same sites that are quick to talk about the implication of the SCOTUS’s same-sex marriage ruling. They are also the same sites that publish endless articles about pre-marital sex and other people’s sex and sexuality, but given the opportunity to talk about sexual violence they remain silent on the issue more often than not. They fail to realize that sex is an issue of social justice  which means that sexual abuse is a stifling of that justice. Christian silence on the matter suggests that the only sex we ought to care about is consensual sex between married and unmarried people or non-consensual sex between pastoral authority figures and those under their care; i.e. Catholic priests, youth pastors, senior pastors, and others in roles of power. Yes I said it. There’s no problem publishing articles on these men, but usually in doing this, the women, the victims, are left behind. Christian silence on Cosby, also suggests that maintaining the pristine image of the fictional figure of Cosby in American consciousness deserves more attention than the heinous crimes he committed.

I’ve heard some people remark about the loss of one of America’s greatest father figures and, as most of us know, Cosby’s confession has led to several networks pulling “Cosby” and “The Cosby Show” off the air. My problem with this is that it isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. I will suffer the loss of a fictional figure if it means that, in reality, a woman gains her wholeness back. Since the allegations against Cosby started, many questioned his victims accounts. I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess that, initially, I was skeptical about the veracity of the multiple victims’s claims. I understand that for many it was hard to believe that our fictional father, the lover of Jell-O pudding pops, the funny guy with the ugly sweaters, was guilty of raping countless women. He has lived as a moral exemplar in our consciousness for so long–for at least as long as I’ve been on this earth. So, for at least 34 years, Bill Cosby has been a moral exemplar for dads all over the world and his family has been the template for every wannabe perfect black family.

So I get it, given this it was hard to strip him of his illustrious title when the allegations broke. But this is also the problem with our culture, we exalt public figures to god-like status and sometimes conflate their fictional selves with their actual selves if they’ve graced our television screens for long enough to leave a mark.

(SN regarding the show: What we ought to grieve, if we grieve anything connected to the show, is the fact that people are so blithely unaware of the affirmation of patriarchal values implied in taking the show off the air. By this I am suggesting that taking the show off the air communicates that the most important person on the show was Bill Cosby/Cliff Huxtable and it discounts the power and value of the influential female leads. Personally I learned a whole lot more from Claire than I did Cliff, so I hate the idea of killing Claire with Cliff. I believe her legacy in black consciousness is just as strong and worth keeping the show in syndication.)

Back to the lecture at hand: To grieve the loss of Cosby the fictional dad before you part your lips to say a word about the matter of rape culture that pervades this entire situation is to idolize the man and sin against your brother and your sister. The idol must be destroyed and the people, the victims, must be built up. But first, people have to admit that rape culture is the most important issue at hand here and that it must be talked about.

A few people got the Cosby story right by calling it what it is, “Rape Culture.” In this context rape culture is, as public intellectual Marc Lamont Hill states, “NEEDING Cosby to admit he’s guilty before we believe it.” Rape culture is more news headlines saying nothing about rape in their coverage of the Cosby case. Rape culture is putting a statute of limitation on the amount of time a woman has to report her sexual assault before no legal action can be taken or it won’t be taken seriously. Rape culture is every action that gives more power, even if only rhetorical, to the rapist over caring for the victim. And finally, rape culture is every Christian who is silent on this or thinks that the discussion of rape culture within the context of Cosby case is a distraction. I’m here to say it is far from a distraction if you consider the sheer volume of sexually abused bodies that line church pews Sunday after Sunday. Given this, talking about Bill Cosby without talking about rape culture is the real distraction. And continuing to be silent and/or talk about the wrong thing in cases like these will only serve to further wound the wounded.