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.
Lovers in Their Right Mind is a film looking to change the conversation about interracial and interfaith relationships. Much of the interracial conversation revolves around the black-white dynamic, even though there are tons of other types of interracial, intercultural, and interfaith relationships out there. Lovers in Their Right Mind, written by journalist-author Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn and screenwriter Barrington Smith-Seetachitt, focuses on the love between a black woman and an Iranian immigrant and the learning curves both go through in the relationship.
I’ve already covered Lovers in Their Right Mind on JUST ADD COLOR, so I was excited to speak with Littlejohn about the film and how her experiences influenced the film. Lovers in Their Right Mind is still in pre-production. A crowdfunding campaign will be announced later this summer. Keep up with Lovers in Their Right Mind on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
How did you come up with the story for Lovers in their Right Mind?
I had co-authored a book [with Christelyn Karazin] called Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, which was on interracial, intercultural and interfaith dating and relationships. It had been optioned by a company and they offered me an opportunity to write my vision. As I was trying to come up with the character that spoke to both the three factors of race, culture, and religion, I was looking for a singular couple that would inhabit that. While [with] that particular [book] option, they decided to go in a different direction with everybody swirling, I felt like what I had created spoke to what I wanted to see on screen, which was a different kind of conversation about black women and who they have opportunities to date. I felt like we had seen so much of black women and white men in television and film that we never get sense of black women outside of the black and white coupling. The options for black women are so much more vast…and from my own experience, that was true.
I began to look at my own dating habits…I had been dating a Persian man and the conversation of meeting families had come up. The thing he said was, they wouldn’t have a problem with you because you’re black, but because you’re American, you don’t speak Farsi, and various other things. So that’s where the idea for the outline came from, and when it was turned down, there was an actor who I knew and had interviewed, and I was talking to him about it because he was asking me what was swirling (because it was in my signature in my email account). I told him I was trying to explore this idea of an African American woman with a Persian man, and his comment was, “Well, I am Persian!” So we had a really good conversation.
I had dated some Persian men before, and…when I began to look back on my own dating [experiences], it became a really great source of narrative tension and drama, comedy and romance. As I continued to research, there are a lot of wonderful similarities between the two cultures and, at least here in southern California, Iranian Americans tend to be more insular, black people live in their communities and never the ‘twain meet, it became a really great story to talk about my city that I grew up in and people in my city that never get seen on screen.
You mentioned Swirling; since the book discusses interracial relationships, what do you think America needs to know to become more educated about interracial relationships?
I think that swirling has become a hot topic because we are seeing the demographic shifts of our people. We are more a multicultural, multiracial America and globally, people are intermixing and intermarrying. You look at films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and how that was really popular; it’s not lost on pop culture that these things are happening in our own world. I think the thing I wanted to bring to the table was a different dynamic that you haven’t seen. I think with Swirling as a book, it became interesting in that it invited black women to open up their options. Many times, the books we had read previously and that I had seen were very regal-focused or focused on biology or the dearth of black men.
What I wanted to bring was a different discussion…what are some of the reasons black women don’t [date outside of their race] because black women are still the least likely to date outside of their race or culture out of any other ethnic group. What were some of the factors that were keeping black women from reaching outside of their comfort zone? I think those discussions are important to have, particularly when we look at issues like black love and black lives matter. All these things are interconnected with us socially, but what does it mean when we are looking for a mate, for someone who speaks to our heart’s desire?
Oftentimes, that social construct of race doesn’t hold up when you’re looking for someone to partner with. It’s important to look at factors beyond race when considering a mate, and I wanted to present a non-apologetic narrative that it’s okay for black women to date [outside of their race], because of the hundreds of women I spoke with, it was always [discussed] with shame, or controversy, or “My momma won’t jive with this,” or “My daddy won’t think this is great” or “My cousins will think I’m crazy.” It’s very rooted in fear. So the thing that is important to me about the book and about this movie is to see how we can reach beyond the lines of fear, beyond even the rhetoric of our own cultures and explore who we are as people and what we want; what fulfills us as people instead of subscribing to a group-think mentality.
One thing you said reminded me of Jungle Fever; in one part of the movie; you have Wesley Snipes’ character’s girlfriend hanging out with her friends, and they’re talking amongst themselves about whether they would date outside of their race. Wesley Snipes’ girlfriend says that she wouldn’t because she’s a strong black woman and feels that she should only date strong black men. It seems like she puts a very racially-charged focus on why she only dates black men, as if to prove her blackness, not whoever I might like if they aren’t black. With that said, how do you feel about some black women who feel like they need to date inside the race to prove their blackness to themselves and to the world?
Well, we [Littlejohn and Smith-Seetachitt] address this in the book and in the film. I do think that there is an identity concern among black women, that if they’re dating someone that’s not black that it somehow negates or dilutes their blackness, but that’s overwhelmingly not true. The black women that we spoke to for the book and interviewed for the film are, very definitely, black women, and own their blackness and blackness is not given or taken based on who you’re partnered with. Blackness is who you are, and they bring that sense of who they are into their relationships and give that sense of themselves into their children, they pass along that history to their children.
Rarely have I encountered women who completely buy into or absorb into another cultural…or racial construct because they have now partnered with a man who is non-black. You are who you are, and you bring that into your relationship. That’s an important thing with a relationship with anybody, whether they’re black, Latino, Persian, what have you. When you’re in a relationship, it’s not that you’re negating who you are racially. It’s that you’re sharing a part of yourself with someone. The thing that I find really exciting about interracial and intercultural dating, both personally and writing, about it is that people learn to appreciate people as people. They learn to understand different cultural traditions and understanding. There was a woman I was interviewing for the book, and she was dating a Swedish man. They eventually married and she learned how to speak Swedish and they now live in Sweden. She learned a lot about another culture that has broadened her, both in her life and work experiences.
I think there’s value in that. If we’re going to be this global community we keep saying we are, if we’re going to be this post-racial community we say we want to be, then we need to learn how to talk to people, and address people and learn about people who are different than us, in ways that allow us to appreciate people as people instead of under this blanket of colorblindness. You see my color when you see me; it’s not about being colorblind. I’m quoting Mellody Hobson here–it’s really about being color brave. It’s about looking at my color, my experiences, my heritage, my people, and getting to know that as a part of who I am. This black construct isn’t all of who I am; there are so many other things about me that are worth getting to know and that’s an important part of loosening the shackles of fear and being able to open yourself and your mind to something different. It doesn’t change who you are; it just gives you an opportunity to know who somebody else is.
Now I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate—
Sure, go ahead!
What about fetish? Because I’ve been several online forums and Facebook groups about interracial dating and experiences with interracial dating, and a topic that always comes up is when some fetishize another race. For some, it seems like the line between fetish and a regular relationship is muddied. What do you make of this issue and how it comes into the discussion?
Well, if you find that your partner is fetishizing you, then that’s a relationship you don’t want. Then to say, I’ve dated a white man, an Italian man, a Mexican man, and they fetishized me, therefore I’m not going to date any more white or Italian or Mexican men, is pretty sad! You may be missing out on some white or Italian or Mexican man somewhere down the line that adores you for who you are.
I think any kind of new experience, if there is something you’re concerned about—be it a same-race relationship or an interracial relationship—you need to talk about it. If you don’t get the answers you need or deserve, then that’s not the type of relationship you should be in with that person instead of [labeling] that race of people. I was married to a black man, but that wasn’t my cue to then say, “I will no longer date any black men.” I date men of all races and of all cultures. I date people who I find appealing and attractive, interesting, invigorating, and worthwhile. A lot of the relationships I’ve had have led me to this particular moment and to this particular story. Had I not had those experiences and turned them down, not only would I have not had those experiences, but I’d also be sitting around saying, “I don’t have any love in my life.”
Men have fetishes, women have fetishes, that’s not cool; if you feel like that’s what’s happening to you in your relationship, then move on from that relationship; don’t label the whole race of people, the whole culture of people as such and such because you’ve had one bad experience. You never know what wonderful experiences you could have with someone who appreciates you for you.
Since Lovers in their Right Mind also includes the interfaith element, how would you suggest people approach tackling interfaith issues in relationships?
I think for all of these questions, it can be summed up to talk about it [with your partner]. My religious needs and wants may be different from someone else’s, and it’s a part of being upfront in that relationships. I know a lot of Jewish-Christian relationships, a lot of Muslim-Christian relationships. It’s about what you want and need from your religion, your faith, your relationship, and what you want for your children.
I’m not going to say that I’m a dating expert–I’m a filmmaker and a journalist who’s writing about a situation that I find intriguing, and after a ton of research and this is what I came up with–but the throughline in all of it is communication. Talk about it. I think we’re so fearful of having those conversations. The same conversation you need to have with your partner about STDs and how you want to have sexual practice are the same type of conversations you need to have with your partner about faith and what your faith means to you.
I go back to My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Ian wanted [Toula], and she wanted to be married in a Greek Orthodox Church and he got that done; they got married in a Greek Orthodox Church because he felt like it was worth it for him. For other couples, it goes further; will we celebrate Christmas or will we celebrate Jewish holidays and how do we do that with our children? I think those are very individual, personal discussions, and once the couple has had them and comes to terms with what they want in their marriage, that’s between them, their God, their marriage, and their children, and nobody else really has any say in that because that’s what they decided as a couple.
…This conversation comes up for same-race people as well because they may be from different cultures. When we talk about this issue of interracial, interfaith, and intercultural, you can have intercultural experiences with people who are racially the same with you. These are conversations are still things you’d have to have.
Lovers in their Right Mind was chosen to be part of the DreamAgo’s 2016 Plume & Pellicule screenwriting atelier. How does it feel to have been chosen for that?
I’m still happy dancing! It’s a wonderful validation of the work we wanted to do. It’s really gratifying that an international workshop believed there was something valid in the story we wanted to tell. Here’s the wonderful thing; as we’ve been going through the process and getting all of our updates on things we needed to do, one of the gentlemen we’d been corresponding with…said he was very intrigued to read our script because he’s a French man married to a Persian woman.
It said to me a couple of things; that this was not an isolated story or just a cute little love story. This was something that resonated not only in the bounds of where it’s set, in Los Angeles, but it reached someone in France and the folks of DreamAgo in Switzerland. It’s not just an LA story. It’s not just a U.S. story. It’s a global story. It goes back to what I was saying; if we’re going to be this global nation of people who understand one another and work together…it makes sense to know who we are. It’s a super special honor. Hopefully, it’ll take us far. ♦
The world is swirling. With sites like Interracial Dating Central, Interracial People Meet, Interracial Match, Interracial Cupid, and tons more (some of which you can compare and contrast at this Ask Men article), and tons of online interracial appreciation groups (like this one), it’s clear the interest in interracial dating and relationships is high. But movies aren’t really delving into that as much as they should. Something New is one of the most prominent films about an interracial relationship, but it’s already quite old and it only touches on the bare bones of just one type of interracial relationship. Lovers in Their Right Mind is a new film that’s hoping to help close Hollywood’s gap of interracial dating films.
Lovers in Their Right Mind is a film by Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, journalist and co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, and Barrington Smith-Seetachitt, screenwriter of Children of Others. The film is one of the 10 films chosen from the DreamAgo’s 2016 Plume & Pellicule screenwriting atelier held in Sierre, Switzerland. The film is also the only U.S. and English-language submission accepted into the program, joining the ranks of projects chosen from France, Cuba, Spain, Columbia, and the host country Switzerland. The screenplay was also a second round contender in the 2014 Sundance Screenwriters Lab as well as the 2015 Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition.
The film focuses on the relationship between a black woman and an Iranian man, and all the learning experiences that come with it.
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, “Lovers in Their Right Mind” follows the story of an African American woman as she weighs the consequences of pursuing an interracial, cross-cultural, mixed-faith romance with an Iranian immigrant. Its narrative aligns with DreamAgo’s goal to “choose scripts that transform, provoke and entertain while dealing with issues vital to us all.”
With increased media attention on diverse storytelling and inclusion in Hollywood, “Lovers in Their Right Mind” answers the call for characters not often featured in cinema. The film’s multicultural narrative is deliciously peppered with the savory delights of black Southern and Persian cuisines, and underscored by a jazz-Middle Eastern fusion soundtrack that evokes both the tradition and modernity of the protagonists’ two worlds as they come together.
Littlejohn and Smith-Seetachitt are spearheading development on the project and serving as producers with actor Navid Negahban (“American Sniper,” “Homeland”) who is also attached.
— LoversITRM (@LoversITRM) December 31, 2015