For Lisa Turtle: On Being Black, Beautiful, and Still Not Enough

I’ve suddenly come to a realization. I am Saved by the Bell’s Lisa Turtle.

I’m not her in the sense that I’m fabulously wealthy. The way I’m like Lisa Turtle is that on paper, I have what every guy is supposedly looking for (or so they say): brains, looks (if I may say so myself), talent, and likability. I’m nice, caring, goal-oriented and respectful of my elders. I’m the woman that, supposedly, every guy would like to find to take home to their mother. Even better, I think I’m a pretty good role model, something Lisa also was to many black girls who had never seen a rich black girl portrayed on television and felt represented by this new portrayal of blackness.

The only problem is that the guys haven’t been knocking down my door. Like Lisa Turtle, I am dateless. Perhaps unlike Lisa Turtle, I actually wonder why.

Urban legend has it that Lisa was actually written to be a snobby Jewish (read: white) girl, but Lark Voorhies impressed the Saved by the Bell folks so much they gave the role to her. After learning that tidbit, I have to wonder if the writing department then decided to change other aspects of Lisa’s characterization, such as who she’d wind up with in the dating department. For a show that came on in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it wouldn’t surprise me if they then decided that Lisa wasn’t the right kind of girl to end up with someone like Zack or Slater. As a black girl, she might work best with another outcast, like the terminally nerdy Screech.

“But Lisa dated Zack that one time!” Yes, that was that one time, a time so brief I don’t even remember it; I read about it online. Apparently it was only for one episode, and the reason they split up was to save the fragile emotions of Screech.

Instead, Lisa —fashion-forward, stylish, popular, cool, rich Lisa—was fated to always become Screech’s main crush. And even then, it would seem that Screech actually moved on from Lisa to a little-seen character named Violet Anne Bickerstaff, leaving Lisa officially the only character on the show who had never had a long-term relationship.

What was Lisa missing that denied her the opportunity to be a part of an It Couple like Zack and Kelly or Slater and Jessie? How come Lisa couldn’t have a relationship that showcased her femininity, vulnerability, and otherwise humanness? Why was she relegated to just being the rich snob?

I have to assume that race played a role in the writers’ inability to see Lisa as anything beyond just a joke character. I assume that because not only does it play a role in how characters are designed, but it also plays a role in how we choose our own potential partners and how we see ourselves in relation to said partners.

In an earlier article about Sleepy Hollow‘s Abbie Mills, I wrote about the trope called the Strong Black Woman. You can see many characters that fit this trope, even in a character like Lisa. So what is the Strong Black Woman? Allow me to quote myself:

the Strong Black Woman trope that became associated with positivity happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a prime example being Caroline Bird’s 1969 New York Magazine essay on black womanhood. Alternet rightly calls the article “flawed” since, as the site states:

[The essay] deems black women capable and independent (read: strong) by necessity. Black women fight, Bird says, because they have no one to fight for them, unlike white women with proximity to white, patriarchal power. “Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Negro women in America have escaped some of the psyche-crippling education of white girls. They haven’t been carefully taught how not to fight. On the contrary, some of them fight hard and develop a personal style of fighting that suggests that ‘grace under pressure’ which is supposed to be the essence of courage.”

Bird’s piece spins allegedly distinctive black female strength as a powerful weapon, giving African American women an edge over white women and black men–a dubious message. It also paints black women as possessing a durability that is nearly inhuman. For instance, Bird asserts that “The absence of Negro fathers hurts growing boys more than girls, and saved Negro girls from some of the dissatisfactions with their sex that brought many white women to psychoanalysis.” Abandoning black girls does not hurt them, this suggests; instead, it makes them stronger.

This article by Bird means well, but it basically does a good job of reinforcing the original Strong Black Woman stereotype from slavery times; that black women don’t have feelings and are immune to the societal and familial pressures others are. Somehow, they are more powerful than everyone, yet they are still the mule of the world because going by this analysis, the black woman still takes in society’s ills and is still burdened by them. However, the burden, according to Bird’s essay, is the pressure that makes the diamond form. In Bird’s words, the burden is necessary, not something that should be alleviated by society coming to grips with itself and uplifting black women as women and human beings.

Lisa has shades of the Strong Black Woman because, despite having everything a character could ask for and despite the fact that she would be seen as desirable because of it if she were white, Lisa’s instead relegated to being an emotionally invulnerable character.  Despite being neglected by potential suitors, broken up with by Zack to save his friendship with Screech, or denied any other position other than “that black girl,” she’s somehow never broken up about the role society has given her. She doesn’t get hurt. Instead, as Bird suggests, she becomes stronger, more Lisa Turtle-y than she was before. She becomes the invincible rich girl who doesn’t need anyone because she’s going to become a fashion superstar.

I mainlined Saved by the Bell growing up, and I believe much of that subconscious Strong Black Woman programming triggered me. I saw myself as Lisa, as the girl who had everything going for her, but for some reason, couldn’t get the boys to like her. I wasn’t like Kelly or Jessie, who were white, therefore seen as more desirable. I was as smart as Jessie, so I wondered if I, as a Lisa, would ever get a guy like Slater, who was apparently into smart girls who wore mom jeans. However, what if the one thing Jessie had over me was her race? To be fair to Jessie and Slater, their relationship meant a lot to me because I could actually see that interracial dating was possible. Maybe it wouldn’t happen for me, but it was, at the very least, possible. But I still wondered how much more work than Jessie I’d have to do to get a Slater. Once again, white privilege allows you to be seen as more attractive than you might actually be. Case in point: the many black male athletes who tote their white trophy wives around. The most egregious example of this: Tiger Woods liking no one but white, blonde women.

I definitely had no illusions about being a Kelly; I knew I would never be America’s vision of an “All-American Girl”; I’m not white. I immediately saw someone like Zack as the unattainable fruit growing  high on a tree I wasn’t allowed to pick from. Even still, I wondered if Lisa would ever truly get with Zack, since they always seemed to vibrate around each other (apparently, Voorhies and Mark-Paul Gosselaar were dating in real life). But despite their off-screen romance, Lisa and Zack would never date on the show, save for that one time that hardly anyone remembers. Even in that brief dalliance, Lisa’s heart had to take a back seat to Zack’s supposed deep friendship with Screech. Even then, Lisa is thought of as the Strong Black Woman, whose emotional state is never considered because, as a Strong Black Woman, she’s thought of not having any.

Lisa and Zack’s unrealized potential as a couple also taught me something else: that racial divisions were still alive and well when it came to on-screen relationships. Seeing Lisa never getting a Zack or a Slater-type character made me worry about my own well-being in the dating department. Lisa was my avatar into the world of Saved by the Bell; if she, who had the money, style, glamour, popularity and rich-kid access to any and everything, couldn’t get the guy of her dreams regardless of his race, then what hope did I, a glasses-wearing kid who felt self-conscious about her weight have? I might have been as smart as Jessie and heck, I was just as lovable as Kelly, but if my black sister-in-arms wasn’t seen as desirable, what did the world think about me?

The first time I distinctly remember seeing a black girl with a white boy was on Boy Meets World, when Shawn dated Angela. Even though Angela annoyed me at times, I viewed their relationship as something that reaffirmed what I’d been taught about loving all people (back in the ’90s, the buzzword we were all taught in elementary school was “colorblindness”). It made me think that I was finally seeing what had been preached to me —about love knowing no color –actually being put into practice. The actress who played Angela, Trina McGee Davis, wrote about her Boy Meets World experiences to the Los Angeles Times in 1999. She wrote that most of the responses she received, particularly from the younger audience members, were positive, with many young viewers asking her when Angela and Shawn would reconcile.

“My character, Angela, has intimately kissed Shawn (Rider Strong) a number of times, and the show’s creators have never made an issue of our race,” she wrote. “…The black kids are not asking, ‘Why are you with that white boy?’ When I attended the NAACP Image Awards, a black girl lamented to me that Shawn and Angela are a perfect couple and should be back together. The next day, a white girl in a mall begged to know if Shawn and Angela are still in love…They are the new face of tolerance. These kids are not looking at race; they’re absorbing the love story.”

Shawn and Angela’s relationship was revolutionary not just in the interracial dating department; it also positioned Shawn as just a guy, not the unattainable white guy that all non-white girls would have to work hard to get. If there’s one thing that was taught early in ’90s television, it was that The Beautiful People were white, despite some of the Beautiful People also being black, like Lisa Turtle. Lisa could use her popularity to become a satellite of the group of chosen ones, but the true chosen ones were the white ones, the ones who would immediately be crowned Prom King and Prom Queen.

Kelly and Zack exuded that classic white teenager trope of being good-looking, desirable, congenial, popular, and amenable to everyone while still having an invisible, bulletproof shield of white privilege surrounding them. In fact, it was white, able-bodied privilege that made them seem desirable. Because of that intangible privilege, they had a leg up on the nerds of all races and the minority kids like Lisa and Slater. Kelly—the head cheerleader and volleyball, swim, and softball captain, and Zack—lovable class clown—were the highest recipients of of this intangible privilege, allowing them to rule the school without having to work hard for respect; it was just given to them. As Lisa Turtle, I’d have to work twice as hard just to be seen as competent.

Developing this mindset at a very young age has left me paranoid in the love department. Sometimes I do wonder if race plays any part in why I’m not with anyone. I distinctly remember a high school classmate of mine saying, as if it was the most normal and self-empowering thing to say, that she wouldn’t marry a black man because she wanted her kids to look like her. I didn’t say anything, even though I was furious, and the guy I did like—who was basically Zack Morris—did his best to try to get her to shut up for my sake. But I wondered since she could say that out in the open, for my ears to hear, if a guy, particularly the guy I liked, felt the same about black women. I wondered if too many guys felt that way about black women. In fact, I limited myself from my chance to tell the guy I liked that I actually liked him for fear of being rejected—either because of my inflated idea of my own nerdiness, my weight (which wasn’t bad in hindsight; I was a size 10), my emotional sensitivity or —the big reason—because I was black. I saw myself as Lisa Turtle, and Lisa never got with Zack Morris.

Sometimes people don’t realize how sneakily racial discrimination can worm its way into a child’s mind. They don’t get how truly menacing white privilege can be. When you see images of yourself constantly alone, you begin to think that that’s what you should expect. Nowadays, it’s even worse; not only are young girls afflicted by the white privilege happily flaunted by the Taylor Swifts and Gigi Hadids of the world, the It Girls who have magazines falling on themselves to cover every moment of their lives, but they are seeing how people treat actresses like Leslie Jones, who was actually removed herself from Twitter for a short time to escape trolls sending her demeaning comments solely because of her dark skin.

Girls growing up today not only worry about how their race affects how people view them, but how their bodies are being judged as well; everyone wants a Kim Kardashian-esque big butt, and you can read how I feel about that. The pressure on girls is immense, and the pressure they place on themselves is even bigger. Thankfully, there are more examples of black women in relationships of all kinds than there were when I was growing up. But there need to be more. There needs to be enough examples of black women being treasured to stamp out the persistent question many black girls have growing up: “Am I enough?”

So what can I say to the other Lisa Turtles out there? I actually wish I could give you the step-by-step of “Here’s what I did to get over my self-imposed stigmatization.” The truth is that I still struggle with my dating paranoia. I still imagine what it’s like to be a Lisa Turtle that actually gets the guy. But perhaps, I can say this: You are not what society deems you to be. Dating sites can make all of the studies they want to “prove” how black women and Asian men are deemed the least desirable to prospective dates, but do your best to let none of that affect you. No matter what anyone or any site says, you are a beautiful, vibrant, complex, vulnerable, emotional, and loving black woman. You have everything you need to have. Keep being you, because you are everything the man or woman of your dreams is looking for. America—and for that matter, the Western World at large—might not realize it, but you, Lisa Turtle, have earned your right to be here.