“Run the World” is essential television by and for black women
I remember the first time I saw a white woman in a bodega above 125th Street. It happened in the summer of 2013, when I was sleeping in the apartment of a sister of a sorority. The meeting, although memorable, did not end with the recitation of Maya Angelou’s poetry, as Run the worldRenee (Bresha Webb) in the series premiere.
Frustrated by a stranger’s contempt for her personal space while waiting for her bacon egg and cheese, Renee complains to her friend, Ella (Andrea Bordeaux), that she is “invisible as a woman.” The phrase is a play on a legendary text concept, Invisible Man, written by African-American novelist Ralph Ellison. Renee understands that being invisible is more than a white customer’s inattention to their surroundings on a rushed Monday morning. Like the protagonist of Ellison, she identifies the experience as demonstrative of the racial politics that makes marginalized people meaningless in the presence of those who refuse to see them. In other words, Renee isn’t important enough for the other shopper to acknowledge or offer the courtesy of an apology after she bumps into Renee on her snack hunt.
Ella, to whom Renee recounts the incident over the phone, is not there to witness the bodega incident in person, but no doubt knows the kind of friction that can arise when newcomers adorned with messy updos. migrate to predominantly black neighborhoods. “This woman colonizer here was literally standing on top of me,” says Renee, to which Ella replies, “You know white people can’t see us.”
I was there, I felt that.
It is the simultaneous recognition and resistance to invisibility that Run the world an important cultural text in the tradition of black portrayal and television’s attempts to make sense of and capitalize on feminism. Yes, this is a series about four girlfriends, all professional in their early 30s, with equal doses of humor, upscale lifestyles and messy. But skillfully manipulated satire, iconic YSL sandals, and sexually charged relationship antics combine to reveal a show that asks and answers what Fourth Wave feminism might look like if spoken in the language of urban black women, professionals and millennials?
While it will be difficult for some to resist grouping the new Starz series with Sex and the city or most recent Girls, such comparisons end up undermining Run the worldThe first proclamation of: that white femininity is not the axis on which the empowerment of contemporary women revolves. This new set is not a chocolate-coated replica of the HBO quartet that made cosmopolitan cocktails, Manolo Blahnik heels and orgasms accessible language for a generation of teenage girls who tiptoed into the kitchen. New York City by Carrie Bradshaw while our parents were not watching. Instead, the series projects a world that revolves around black women and their culture.
Leigh Davenport, series creator and executive producer, and Yvette Lee Bowser, showrunner and executive producer, have built a moment on television that is aware of what happened before without being beholden to it. In one episode, Ella refers to the ex-boyfriend that she can’t seem to tear away from her heart or from her bed like her big one. A more substantial nod is the casting of Erika Alexander as Barb, Ella’s boss on the fictional entertainment news site Hot Tea Digest. It’s impossible for me not to hear a more mature Maxine Shaw speak in each of Barb’s scenes; that same seductive cynicism and ironic spirit that made Alexander’s performance in the ’90s in Living Single remarkable is here in his portrayal of a middle-aged media executive in Run the world.
Despite these resonances, Ella, Renee, Sondi (Corbin Reid) and Whitney (Amber Stevens West) are more than derivatives who react or seek to emulate their predecessors. The characters criticize the exhausted feminine formulas of popular culture, such as overly cheerful mothers in antidepressant commercials and “the successful black woman who has a closet full of Louboutins and can’t have a man.” Run the world push these tropes but play well with others; we have a sort of accessible feminism that does not need to constantly advertise itself as feminism to have meaning. The show is like peeking into a Black Girl Magic-themed brunch, where women from all walks of life are sitting around the table.
What makes this series so refreshing, if not nourishing, is that it assumes that black women are complex, multifaceted, and diverse in the way we choose to navigate the world. That we do not see ourselves exclusively as soldiers in a liberation struggle, nor as choosing between racial or gender consciousness. Each episode features characters who are just as attentive to sexual agency, gender roles and consumption as they are to colorism, gentrification and micro-aggression. Ella is the ingenuous who quits her job to write her memoir and must turn to another black woman for a second chance when the book fills up; Renee is the Wharton-trained marketing professional who intentionally chooses not to be a mother after getting married; Whitney is the preferred lead of clients on his company’s large account; and Sondi is the confident parent figure who asks to be accommodated in her future daughter-in-law’s ballet school. It’s no surprise that Davenport drew on his experiences as a writer in his twenties in Harlem. His characters take on roles that feel grounded in a particular reality, without being obsessed with darkness as an original sin that must be overcome.
Since the 2010s we have Precarious, Around twenty, and Bigger–Run the worldare slightly older cousins of television – it’s easy to forget how Hollywood typically clings to white femininity, especially in the tales of unconventional young women. When black women appear on our screens, they often still exist in a narrow way: the sassy friend or assistant of the glamorous white woman; the forgettable sidekick who is only black in appearance; the secondary character victimized and yet invincible; the unnamed cashier # 1.
For many years popular and scholarly discourse on gender equity has turned to the most visible women to find role models of mistrust. As a result, popular feminism has become synonymous with the heroines of Wonder woman (1975-1979), Cagney & Lacey (1981-1988), and Buffy the vampire slayer (1997-2003), to name just a few legends. Each of them shows scripted characters who disrupted the status quo of their respective eras. Collectively, they asserted that women can be the center of their own entertaining narratives and that audiences want to see women as something other than young ladies, housewives and sex objects. And yet, these progressive series have left the color line intact.
Run the world understands a basic truth that these previous shows have chosen to ignore: Black women are not new to female empowerment. Although our contributions and stories have been largely overlooked, we’ve always been there, climbing and pushing each other. Much like Renee in this bodega scene, the series screams into the world of images: I am a woman, phenomenally. It is a common declaration that black women will neither be “invisible women” nor satisfied with scraps of visibility. We intend to be seen, for all that we are, on our own terms.
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