Tag Archives: woman

Meet Zelda Wynn Valdes, the woman behind Hugh Hefner’s iconic Playboy Bunny

Hugh Hefner, the founder of the long-running Playboy Magazine empire, has died at age 91. I haz a sad.

First of all, before anyone decides to come for me for saying I’m a little bummed, YES, I know that Playboy is based on a sexist and, frankly, racially-biased interpretation of feminine beauty–regardless of Hefner wanting to appeal to the James Bond “lascivious gentleman” aesthetic of the 1950s and 1960s, Playboy, and the aesthetic it played upon, showcased women from the male gaze, and that’s putting it mildly. Also, despite Hefner being a supporter of civil rights and providing a platform for Malcolm X (who was interviewed for the magazine by none other than future Roots author Alex Haley), the track record for notable black Playboy models is bleak. The first black Playmate of the Month, Jennifer Jackson, made her debut in 1965, 12 years after Playboy was founded and first published. The first black Playboy cover model was Darine Stern in 1971, and according to Wikipedia, there are only 29 black Playboy Playmates of the Month (not counting Playboy‘s regular pinup shots), and the first black Playmate of the Year was Renee Tenison in 1990. (Complex has a good article on 25 of those Playmates.) In case you need more proof that Playboy has been behind the eight-ball in the area of representation, the magazine has only just had its first Mexican-American Playboy Playmate of the Year in 2013 with Raquel Pomplun.

I understand all of the issues surrounding Playboy and Hefner. And yet, I am a little downtrodden. As horrific as it might sound, generations have grown up with the presence of Hefner in his Playboy Mansion. For better or worse, he was a huge part of our pop culture fabric. And, despite all of the facts I laid down about Playboy‘s racial issues (and some I didn’t, like the fact that the majority of the black Playmates of the Month range from light beige to toffee-colored, further pushing a colorism narrative), there’s one Playboy fact involving the black image that goes routinely unnoticed–the iconic look of the Playboy Bunny comes from the mind of a black woman.

Zelda Wynn Valdes is who you have to thank for the classic Playboy Bunny costume, a costume so ingrained in our psyche that the silhouette alone tells you what you need to know.

Valdes, who died in 2001, opened the first African-American owned boutique, Chez Zelda, in Manhattan  in 1948 (the shop later moved to Midtown in 1950). She dressed some of the biggest names of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, including Dorothy Dandridge, Mae West, Ruby Dee, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Jessye Norman, Gladys Knight, the entire 1948 bridal party of Nat King Cole and Marie Ellington, and “the black Marilyn Monroe,” Joyce Bryant. She also served as the President of the New York chapter of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD), an organization founded by Mary McLeod Bethune. Later in life, she also designed costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem. She started working with the company in 1970 and continued there until she died at the age of 96.

http://ambitionzazastylist.tumblr.com/post/155720712339/joyce-bryant-in-one-of-zelda-wynn-valdes-gowns

http://dorothydandridge.tumblr.com/post/84783602930/she-had-a-gorgeous-figure-she-was-a-person-you

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Valdes’ flattering, sexy, body-hugging designs garnered Hefner’s attention, particularly because, I’m sure, he was opening his Playboy Clubs and needed costumes for his waitresses. The original idea for the bunny costume might have been conceived by the Playboy’s director of operations Victor Lownes, but it took Valdes’ flair and artistic eye to bring that idea to fruition. Also, Valdes’ Playboy Bunny costume became the first service uniform registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, furthering Valdes’ legendary status.

http://empiricalblackness.tumblr.com/post/102352513351/the-playboy-bunny-costume-was-made-by-a-black

Or, rather, it should be a legendary status. Valdes’ contributions to Playboy, and to fashion in general, seem to go unnoticed by society at large, and that’s a shame. Valdes helped shape the idea of a glamorous woman through her high profile clients, and for better or worse, she helped shape the ideal image of the the Playboy Bunny and the conversation we have about beauty and body image.

This is where the history of the costume gets into the weeds, since, ironically, the image of the standard Playboy Bunny is this:

http://monster-a-go-go-blog.tumblr.com/post/13762993533

http://missundeaddart.tumblr.com/post/31057568369

Despite the fact that the design was brought to life by a black woman.

There’s also a ton that can be said about the rigorous dieting the Bunnies must have had to be on to be able to successfully make it through pre-shift weigh-ins (wherein they could only gain or lose a pound), not to mention dealing with blatant objectification. Activist Gloria Steinem famously wrote about her time as a Playboy Bunny in an article called “A Bunny’s Tale,” which was published in Show Magazine in 1963. In the article, she outlines how degrading and sexually exploitative it was to work as a Bunny. Some of those awful working conditions seemed to be alluded to in the 2011 failed NBC Mad Men-esque drama The Playboy Club. Despite the fact that the show never quite got off the ground in terms of storytelling, it did, however, provide our best modern look at the Playboy Bunny costume in action, giving us an idea of what it must have looked like to see the costume at work in its heyday. Despite the awfulness surrounding the clubs themselves, you can’t deny that these costumes don’t have a touch of glamour, and even mystery, to them.

Naturi Naughton in “The Playboy Club” (Photo credit: John Russo/NBC)

The instantly iconic look of the costume is why you always see it every year at Halloween or any type of costume party. Heck, if you’re an anime fan, you’ve probably seen this costume on several anime characters, the most notable character possibly being Bulma from Dragonball. 

The Playboy Bunny suit has not only domestic, but international appeal. To me personally, it just looks cool. Somehow, Valdes was able to imbue playfulness, sexiness, allure, and a coquettish sensibility all in a corseted teddy, black sheer stockings, and bunny ears.

http://rowdyism.tumblr.com/post/165821746776/hugh-hefner-and-his-bunnies-1966-rip

Playboy, the Playboy Clubs, and all the other trappings of Playboy Enterprises all revolve around the salability of the woman as a product, it’s true. There are tons of articles that can be (and have been) written about Hefner and his sordid, yet weirdly marketable empire of T and A. While the news of Hefner’s death is fresh, you should be able to find tons of articles out there that can supplement this one with all of the hot takes you need. Twitter alone will provide you with multiple angles on Hefner’s life and the complicated legacy he leaves behind.

At the end of the day, though, if there’s anything that can be said about Hefner, it’s that he didn’t build his empire alone. He, like most American “self-made” men, built it with the help of a talented black woman. One of these days, I’m going to don the Playboy Bunny costume to a Halloween party in Valdes’ honor. If only I could get over showing my upper thighs. 🐰

“Star Trek: Discovery”: How Michael Burnham speaks to my perfectionist, highly sensitive struggles

As I’ve stated in my SlashFilm review, I’ve always been a Star Trek fan ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad about 20 years ago. But while Jean-Luc Picard will always be my favorite Star Trek captain ever (who can say no to Patrick Stewart and the way he commanded with calm authority?), Picard has to battle Spock for the title of favorite Star Trek character ever.

The reason? Because as a half human, half Vulcan, Spock has had to battle his reason with his human emotions, emotions that had the potential to get (and, in the reboot films, has gotten) the best of him. The battle between raging emotions and cold reason is a battle I face constantly. Never did I think Star Trek would continue to crystallize this struggle in such a poignant way, but the franchise succeeded again with Star Trek: Discovery‘s Michael Burnham and her relationship to her father figure (and Spock’s future father) Sarek.

I’ve stated many times on this site and in other publications about how much of my love for Star Trek stems from its ability to showcase varying struggles that exist under the umbrella of “diversity.” Thankfully, the franchise also includes psychological diversity as well, as is the case with the Vulcan race. The Vulcans have stood for many things to many viewers. Some see the Vulcans and their occasional misunderstandings as a way to thoughtfully approach the autism spectrum. Others see the Vulcans as simply uppity living cardboard figures. Speaking personally, the Vulcans have always shown a light on two of my big personal struggles–perfectionism and the highly sensitive (or even empathic) mind.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham. Photo credit: CBS

The running joke my sister and I have is that I’m a Vulcan. In fact, when I said it as self-deprication a few years ago, my sister replied thoughtfully, “You know what? I agree with that.”

I’ve always been a deep thinker, and too many times, that thinking has either gotten me in some type of mental trouble or made me appear as unable to connect with the “normal” outside world. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t connect with the outside world, because I’m so wrapped up in how other people feel, how I feel, and how to best convey those feelings to people who might not have emotions that run as deeply as mine do. As psychiatrist and Emotional Freedom author Judith Orloff accurately described, “It’s like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10. You have more receptors to feel things.”

Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a feeler, and our Western society makes sure it’s tougher than it has to be. As a society,we value loudness over softness, action over reflection, and doing over being. The stereotypes of a highly sensitive person make us out to be gooey bundles of mush that can’t defend ourselves because we’re supposedly so much weaker than the “average” person. That’s not the case–we aren’t weak. We’re actually quite strong. But you wouldn’t know it from how much emphasis people put on having an extroverted outlook and put down those of us who are reserved within ourselves.

All this leads to is, aside from a smattering of depression, a bad case of perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” now, but for a long time, I’ve been investigating where my perfectionism came from. I’d have to say that there are a lot of reasons for it, but one of them is because I’ve used perfectionism as a bad coping mechanism for the harsh world who can’t handle tears. I grew up comparing myself to others who I thought were better than me simply because they could they naturally handled emotions in a different way than I did. I didn’t realize that the way I handled my emotions was simply my nature–it’s as much an integral part of me as my black skin is. After growing into adulthood I’ve realized that there’s no reason to try to change myself, since my emotions work just like how they’re supposed to work. They are part of the inner strength that help make me a better version of myself each day.

Arista Arhin in Star Trek: Discovery (Photo credit: CBS)

Michael Burnham seems tailor made for this type of exploration of inner strength. I see in her what I’ve seen in me all the time. I see her struggle to adapt to her Vulcan upbringing and tamp down her human (i.e. emotional) self. I see her struggle to fit in with her Vulcan peers, possibly feeling a lack of self-esteem at not being like the others. I see the shadow of perfectionism that showed itself as cockiness when she first enters the U.S.S. Shenzhou–you can tell she thinks she knows everything about everything because she’s been the first human to graduate from the Vulcan academies and excel amid intense pressure and a stacked deck. I also see her struggle to understand that her humanness–her emotions–is what makes her great.

Her struggle against emotions is also apparent in Sarek and other Vulcans. Big fans of Star Trek know that Vulcans do, in fact, feel. As Memory-Alpha states:

“Contrary to stereotype, Vulcans did possess emotions; indeed, Vulcan emotions were far more intense, violent, and passionate than those of many other species, including even Humans. It was this passionate, explosive emotionality that Vulcans blamed for the vicious cycle of wars which nearly devastated their planet. As such, they focused their mental energies on mastering them.”

Vulcans, including human-born/Vulcan-raised members like Michael and Vulcan-human hybrids like Spock, always suffered with deep-running emotions. Here on planet Earth, there are tons of folks like me who always seem to be drowning in their own emotions, even as we attempt to tamp them down. The actual suffering doesn’t come from the emotions themselves, but from the attempt to control them. But if you unleash those emotions, then what? The fear of being out of control in any fashion is what, sadly, keeps the suffering going. It’s the Vulcans’ own fear of a lack of self-control that keeps them perpetuating what is essentially a culture of emotional abuse and intense perfectionism over and over. The aspiration to be the ultimate Vulcan, as it were, is what causes Vulcans to stay at war with themselves.

The Vulcan brain can also be a scary place to be due to their intense emotions. Again, to quote Memory-Alpha:

“The Vulcan brain was described as ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium.’ This had some basis in fact, as the Vulcan brain was composed of many layers…Unlike most humanoid species, traumatic memories were not only psychologically disturbing to Vulcans, but had physical consequences as well. The Vulcan brain, in reordering neural pathways, could literally lobotomize itself.”

The human brain can’t lobotomize itself (although it can block highly traumatic memories from ever reaching the surface), but his description of the Vulcan brain, especially the part about how much of a puzzle it is, fits the highly emotional mind as well. A mind that is constantly drenched in deep emotion is a mind that is mystery even to itself. The fact that there’s science spearheaded by the leading HSP expert, Dr. Elaine Aron, that show that the highly sensitive person has a hypersensitive wired nervous system and empathy-targeted brain is evidence that the highly sensitive mind is an overactive (and sometimes over-reactive) place. Also, like Vulcans, those who consider themselves highly sensitive or even empathic have extremely strong reactions to events as well as the mundane, due to the fact that–like Vulcans–we can usually sense the emotions of others.

James Frain and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sarek and Michael. (Photo credit: CBS)

However, with all of this going on, it’s fascinating that Sarek still saw the value in human emotions, so much so that he entrusted his ward to Capt. Georgiou in an attempt to give her the human experiences she never had. It’s also poignant to note that he only shows his true emotions to those closest to him, like when he does his best to hold back a proud smile as he introduces Michael to Georgiou for the first time. Or when he reveals to Michael through their mental connection his regret at not showing her the emotional support she needed throughout her life. His statements are made simply, but you can see the depth of feeling there. You can tell how much he loves Michael and does truly believe in her, like any good father would. Like any parent, he’s made mistakes in raising his child, and he’s emotionally intelligent enough to be able to admit that–and his emotional state surrounding this fact–to Michael. As we already know from Star Trek, Sarek sees a lot of admirable qualities in humans, so much so that he married one and had a child. Perhaps it was raising Michael that helped him open his eyes to the importance of having a balance between emotion and reason.

Showing Sarek reveal his emotional side to Michael, and Michael revealing her emotions to Georgiou, brings up another point about highly sensitive people, or at least, someone like me–it’s difficult showing your full self to the public. It’s much easier–and much more intimate–to show the full extent of your emotions to those closest to you, to those who understand you. Not everyone realizes that emotions aren’t there to be played with or used against the person; we highly sensitive people only feel safest revealing ourselves to those who mean the most to us in our lives. Those people have earned the right to know us as we are, and that is a coveted position to hold. In Star Trek terms, it is a coveted position to have a Vulcan as a friend, because they will probably be extremely loyal to you because of the position you hold in their life.

James Frain as Sarek. (Photo credit: CBS)

The scene between Sarek and Michael in the mind meld was extremely special for me. It hit home in a way I didn’t expect that scene to do. It made me feel like I finally have someone who understands my personal struggle on television, and she’s also a black woman. It showcases a different side to blackness that is rarely seen on television (so much so that tons of Star Trek fanbros are up in arms over Michael leading the series). She’s not loud or brash. She’s not sexually promiscuous. She’s not even funny, really. She’s a no-nonsense, yet naive woman who is still trying to find herself amid her place between two cultures. She’s ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium,’ and it’s good to see someone like her exist in our pop culture. She lets other black women like me, women with Vulcan brains, know that not only are they just fine, but they can–yes, I’m saying it–live long and prosper. 🖖🏾

“Star Trek: Discovery”: Was [REDACTED]’s death even necessary? (Spoilers ahead)

I have several things I’d like to spout about when it comes to CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, I’ve already spouted some of my opinions over at SlashFilm. But what I’m focusing on right now is a section from my review in which I tackle the death of a major character.

From this point on, there will be spoilers, so leave or face the consequences.


Alright, if you’ve read below the horizontal line, you’ve either seen the first two episodes–the second one in particular–or you don’t care about spoilers. Either way, I’m divulging my opinions on the first major death of the year, Captain Phillipa Georgiou.

Photo credit: CBS

Georgiou, played by veteran actor Michelle Yeoh, basically has the same arc as Captain Pike in the Star Trek reboot film series, particularly Star Trek Into Darkness, which had him die to further both Kirk and Spock’s emotional growth. Did Pike need to die for this to happen? I don’t think so. Granted, I’m averse to killing characters anyways, but I don’t think the story really needed Pike as a casualty to move the story along. Similarly, I don’t think the second episode of Star Trek: Discovery warranted Georgiou to give her life in the line of duty just for Michael Burnham to really feel the sting of her actions (actions that were in the hopes of saving everyone, but still, they were treasonous).

The main reason I’m concerned about Yeoh’s death is that it plays on some of the same themes as the death of Veil from Into the Badlands. To quote myself from my SlashFilm review:

If there’s one negative, it’s the fact that Georgiou dies in the second episode. On the one hand, this provides Burnham’s story with more emotional weight since Burnham probably feels like Georgiou’s death is her fault. However, for Asian viewers, Georgiou’s death might feel like a setback. I write this because a black woman’s death on TV often feels like a setback for black female characters as a whole.

Take for instance Into the Badlands, one of the most inclusive shows on TV. Even with the show’s “wokeness,” as it were, to the issues that can occur with stereotypical portrayals, the series still committed the crime of killing a prominent black female character — Veil, Sunny’s wife-to-be and mother of his child — solely to propel Sunny’s emotional arc as the show heads into its third season. Many black female viewers were heated about this, since it seemed like Veil sacrificed herself even though her safety was literally steps away. Her death was even more hurtful since it came after having her tortured for the whole season.

It’s not so much the act of killing a character that’s upsetting — if a character has to die for the story, then that’s something to take into account. But killing a character that represents an underserved market is something that always has to be taken seriously. From my own talk with Into the Badlands EP Al Gough, I learned that Veil’s death was heavily discussed and argued over in the writer’s room. But what might have not been taken into the account was the fact that Veil was the only woman of color in a prominent position on the show. Killing her has now left a huge void in a show that has been buoyed in part by viewers who are, in fact, women of color. A similar outrage might happen with Georgiou’s death. She might be one two women of color in this first two episodes, but she’s also the only woman of Asian descent in a prominent role on this show. Killing her in just the second episode might ring as a slap in the face to Asian viewers, particularly Asian women. Again, like Into the Badlands, I don’t think Star Trek: Discovery means any harm. However, Georgiou’s death is something that is bound to send shockwaves throughout a community that has already fought against whitewashing in a big way in recent years, especially in 2017.

As a writer (even a writer who doesn’t like writing death), I understand that death has a purpose in a show, particularly when it’s done well. This might be a random example, but I think a great way death has been examined on a show is when Mr. Hooper died on Sesame Street. (I’m also dating myself since I can remember Mr. Hooper.) The actor who played Mr. Hooper, Will Lee, died in real life, and this provided the children’s show the unique challenge of addressing mortality to its young audience. Without getting into a tangent about how children’s shows fail to address big issues like this in today’s time of padded playsets and participation trophies, Sesame Street utilized a real life tragedy and turned it into one of the finest and most sensitive moments on television, compassionately teaching children about the inevitability of death and how to deal with life’s unanswerable questions, while also showing how to grieve and remember the memory of a loved one.

It’s a lot for a children’s show to handle, even one like Sesame Street, which regularly tackled real world issues due to Jim Henson’s insistence that the show be treated as something both kids and their parents can watch and gain something from. But Sesame Street showed how it can be done with tact and respect. For writers, it shows how to make a character’s death impactful and actually mean something. Will Georgiou’s death mean something other than a potentially lazy way of injecting more pathos into an already pathos-laden situation? I hope so. I know it’ll be referenced later in the season, but let’s hope that Georgiou’s death will have some serious weight and make a large impact on Burnham’s development.

In short, my point in my Black Girl Nerds article about Veil’s death mirrors how I feel about Georgiou’s death:

Let’s take out the racial component for a second because the devil’s advocate rebuttal to Veil’s death would be that Black women characters have just as much of a chance to die as white women characters do. In a democratically-written show, this is very true. However, if we take out the racial component, we’re still left with another woman who had to die for there to be “emotional depth.” Couldn’t there have been emotional depth built with her still living?

Just switch around the races and my sentiment is basically the same. Couldn’t there have still been emotional depth with Georgiou still alive?

Photo credit: CBS

Georgiou’s death isn’t the only surprise death from the second episode–the major Klingon threat, T’Kuvma (American Gods‘ Chris Obi), also bites the dust in a way that seems ill-advised for a show that still has several episodes left to prove itself. According to the Star Trek: Discovery brass, they have a tightly-wound plan in place that connects the first episode to the last in a very specific way. But regardless of the plan, Georgiou’s death will have a ripple effect, and not just in Burnham’s storyline, but in the viewership as well, particularly Asian viewers.

Now, I’m not an Asian woman, so maybe I’m only speculating. But if I see shades of Veil and, frankly, Sleepy Hollow’s Abbie in another female character of color, then I feel like I should say something.

What did you think about Georgiou’s death? Did you think it was egregious, or do you think it was sound storytelling? Sound off below!

When your feminism isn’t intersectional: Raquel Willis on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent “trans women” comments

Channel 4 Twitter/YouTube

The internet is full of faves, but it’s always the moment that they’re put on a pedestal that your faves end up disappointing you. Partly because they are human and humans will disppoint you, but also because you realize that sometimes, your faves still need schooling on certain areas of life and social politics. Case in point: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Adichie was on Channel 4 News recently, being asked about feminism and women’s issues. Then, she unwisely said that “trans women are trans women,” alluding to her opinion that trans women don’t belong under the same “woman” banner as folks who were born as ciswomen.

Here’s what she said:

Okay, let’s pump the brakes for just a second. As you know, Adichie came to full pop culture power when she was featured on Beyonce’s Flawless. She became lauded for her viewpoints on feminism, particularly where black feminism fits in within the entire “feminism” conversation. Her book sales skyrocketed and she became an overnight “fave” of the Beyhive and laypeople alike.

It’s unfortunate that Adichie has this viewpoint about who does and doesn’t belong under the umbrella of “womanhood,” because trans women are women, full stop. In fact, how she said it and what she said is eerily similar to how black women have to fight against white feminism all the time.

However, you don’t have to take my word for it. Raquel Willis, an advocate, activist, and member of the Transgender Law Center, wrote an important Twitter thread about her experiences as a trans woman and how Adichie’s comments are just a continuation of the kind of oppression trans women face on the daily from ciswomen.

Adichie also wrote an article for The Root, called “Trans Women Are Women. This Isn’t a Debate.”

Some key points of the article:

“I was inspired by seeing another black women so unapologetically claim the feminist label and be willing to discuss it publicly. However, I should have known that her [Adichie’s] analysis on womanhood would exclude transgender women. Plenty of other mainstream feminists have shared their own transmisogynistic (anti-trans-women) views with a conflation of gender, sex and socialization in their core beliefs about equality.”

“…She began by gaslighting transgender people. On one hand, she wanted to give the appearance of inclusion and understanding, but on the other, she stripped trans women of their womanhood. By not being able to simply say, ‘Trans women are women,’ Adichie is categorizing trans women as an ‘other’ from womanhood.

Trans women are a type of woman, just as women of color, disabled women and Christian women are types of women. Just as you would be bigoted to deny these women their womanhood, so would you be to deny trans women of theirs.

Then Adichie invalidates trans women for not having a certain set of experiences. When cisgender women do this, it reminds me of how white women in the United States were initially viewed as a more valid type of woman than black women. In her iconic 1851 ‘Ain’t I aWoman’ speech, Sojourner Truth spelled out how inaccurate and privileged it is for us to use these limitations in public discourse.

…Just as it was wrong for womanhood to be narrowly defined within the hegemonic white woman’s experience, so, too, is it wrong for womanhood to be defined as the hegemonic cisgender woman’s experience. Cis women may be the majority, but that hardly means their experience the only valid one.”

In short, to quote Willis’ article, trans women are women; this isn’t up for debate. Also, if you are in the public eye like Adichie, make sure to talk about stuff you know; don’t make assumptions about stuff you have no clue about.

Another point: Inclusion is key if we’re all going to get somewhere, and that means including and recognizing the humanity of all womanhood, which includes trans women. I’ll let Willis’ speech from the Women’s March be the last word.

What do you think of Adichie’s comments and Willis’ rebuttal? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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.

“Sleepy Hollow” Post-Mortem: The Death of Abbie and the Painful Erasure of Black Women

The formulation of this post started at some point between this tweet:

And this tweet:

with some final conclusions coming in at around these tweets:

Indeed, several TV critics on Twitter were aghast at what happened:

And several online recaps had the same theme throughout the post: If Abbie and Nicole Beharie are gone, then what’s the point of even watching the show? Just as important: Why on God’s green earth would the writing team as a whole (including the showrunner) go out of their way to lead the fanbase on and act like they were going to give the fanbase what they wanted (which is a final say-so on #Ichabbie) just to turn around and destroy the only thing that made the show worth watching? To quote Vulture’s Rose Maura Lorre, “The latter statements [of Pandora stating in her dying breaths that Ichabod loves Abbie] lead me to believe that, intentional or not, this show’s careless disregaard of its Ichabbie ‘shippers has been fucked up. Make them just-friends or make them more-than-friends, but have a conversation about it and stick to your decision. Don’t keep stringing the ‘shippers along with your hand-kissing and your ‘be still my beating heart’ (which no person has ever said platonically) while you know Abbie’s imminent fate full well.” And as The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen wrote, “I’m not sure if there were behind-the-scenes issues we are privy to, but Beharie’s a crucial element of the series. Tom Mison is a fine actor, but without the two of them together, what’s the damn point?”

The chemistry between the two leads, Tom Mison and Beharie, was the only thing that kept mostly everyone tuned in. (I say most, because somehow, there are folks out there who think Sleepy Hollow is just Ichabod’s story of time travel. When was he the only lead on this show? I have a lot more to say about this later on in this post.) Sure, the creative elements that made up the show, like the lighting, the set design, the creature makeup and stuntwork, and the time travel/Christian apocalypse madness were amazing and really gave the show its creepy edge. But the glue that stuck all of those disparate parts together were the grounding forces provided by Ichabod and Abbie. Without one or both of them, the show’s just a bunch of junk, to be quite honest about it. So I ask again: Without Abbie, what the f*ck is the point of watching a fourth season?! 

I don’t even like using coarse language, but how else am I supposed to get this point across? How much more plainly can I say it? Abbie was the show. Even Mison would agree to that, I’m sure, since he was never without a kind word to say about working with Beharie and being able to share the same breathing air as her. Mison has always stuck up for Beharie and looking back on it, it makes a lot of sense as to why neither Mison nor Beharie have done a lot of press for this season. It’s slowly come out that Beharie was deeply unhappy during S2 and wanted out of her contract, and I don’t blame her for wanting to leave, because as I’ve written before, Abbie was made to be a house slave for Witchy White Feminist Katrina.  As far as Mison is concerned, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Mison eventually leaves as well. If someone decides to interview Mison about his thoughts on everything, I betcha he’ll reveal his true emotions over this, just like how he did with Ichabod fawning over Katrina in S2. (To paraphrase him from an earlier interview, he had a serious disagreement with the writers about how Ichabod was acting out of character. We already know how he felt about Katrina from some of his DVD commentary, in which he shades Katrina for only being able to lift a stick even though she was supposed to be a powerful witch.)

I could just go on rambling, but I’m going to use my favorite writing tools—bullets—to boil down my points into easy-to-follow chunks.

Why You Are Seeing Lots of WOC/White Men Pairings On TV

The past three fall TV seasons have been amazing in terms of Stage 1 in Addressing Diversity in Entertainment. We’ve seen breakout shows like Sleepy Hollow (in it’s first season; for coverage on last season and the present one, click here), How to Get Away with Murder, Jane the VirginElementary, the continuation of Scandal‘s dominance, etc., etc. But there something these shows, and other shows this season including Minority Report and Quantico have in common; they all include women of color with white men. What’s with that?

Rachel Dolezal: Three Reasons Dolezal's Story is the Biggest Mental Puzzle Ever

I’ve thought for about a week now on this Rachel Dolezal mess. I’ve read a hellacious amount of articles, looked at videos, and did all types of research without coming to a conclusion. This story has dominated the discussions within my family, meaning I’ve been surrounded by it at every possible level. I’ve wanted to find an answer to this, something that satisfies my curiosity about Dolezal, my need to understand this woman, and just to make sense of it all.