Living Candidly #2: Is Mainstream Media Whitewashing the Black-Lesbian Love Story?

Living Candidly #2: Is Mainstream Media Whitewashing the Black-Lesbian Love Story?

DISCLAIMER: I am, in complete honesty, a heterosexual white woman. I did, however, complete my undergraduate thesis in the oppression of the black female body in Afro-American diasporic literature and I received top marks. I am not an authority, but I am a passionate ally. Let’s begin.


Last night, after binging the new Zac Efron/Ted Bundy Bio-Pic, two friends and I turned on Netflix’s new — for lack of a better word — chick-flick Someone Great starring Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, and DeWanda Wise. On the surface, the core cast was diverse and riveting. Rodriguez played a broken-hearted Latina who had recently landed her dream job at Rolling Stone in San Francisco, ultimately driving her away from New York and her boyfriend of the past nine years. Snow was the uptight WASP who learns to let loose through the course of the film, finding out that not everything has to go according to plan. And finally, Wise is the Black-Lesbian.

I leave that sentence at seven words because there is so much more to unpack there than to sum up in one singular sentence. Through the course of the film, her character Erin has to learn that it’s okay to fall in capital-L Love, even if that means opening herself up to vulnerability of rejection. In a poignant moment with her lover, she reveals that she was in one semi-relationship in college only to be left for a man, leaving her to feel like “an experiment.” But prior to this reveal, Erin is cold romantically, withdrawn when it comes to her romantic partner’s pushes for more intimacy. When pressed by Snow’s character Blair for why she won’t just date someone, Erin tells her to keep her “heteronormative labels in a motherf**king box to the motherf**king left.”

And while it was a laughable line in the way that Wise delivered it, was she right in the fact that Blair was whitewashing the situation? Or was the situation already whitewashed in its very essence?

I couldn’t help but reflect upon the character of Kat Edison on The Bold Type, played by Aisha Dee. While the show actually chronicles her coming out story, it also features her own reluctance to commit to a relationship of any formulation even when heavy romantic feelings are involved. In one altercation between Kat and her love interest Adena, Kat says that she doesn’t “do” relationships — an exact sentiment that could have fallen from the lips of Wise’s character in Someone Great.

And while both romantic scenarios resolve in the happily-ever-after plot, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something incredibly whitewashed and gentrified about the black-lesbian experience in this film and televison show? Are we sterilizing it to make it safe for general audiences? Are we generalizing it to a point that it covers all the bases in order to make it so larger than life that it is no longer gritty and real? What are we supposed to be gaining from these portrayals? One is relatable, and two is celebratory, but if the trend continues in the cookie-cutter format, what cost will it have for our open-heartedness when we face their real-life counterparts, particularly those who don’t fit the mold?

In response to International Women’s Day: On nurturing female sexuality

Years later, after I began The Last Romantic blog, I would remember those magazine covers. They suggested something so alluring, so corrupting that they were safe only on the highest shelf, where children and women could not reach. Female sex appeal was dangerous. Sexual desire something expressible exclusively by men. My friends’ fathers, male teachers, older brothers. All of them, reaching for that high shelf. Where, I asked myself then, was my high shelf? And what wonders would I find there?

The Last Romantics, Tara Conklin

On an ordinary weekday in 2002, my mother was hurriedly cleaning out her minivan in the parking lot of the auto-dealer’s mechanic shop with my four year old brother standing watch. As she emptied the various remnants of our everyday life out of the cluttered vehicle, my brother came upon a Victoria’s Secret magazine. My mom was so preoccupied with transferring everything to the interim rental car that she wasn’t aware of Joe flipping through the pages of bras and panties until his small voice pipped up with a confident, “Hey, Mom, can I take this to Doug’s house?”

It has been a solid 17 years since this has occurred and yet this story is told time and time again in my family, always with with my Dad’s final bravado of a fist pump and a proud, “That’s my boy!” My younger brother’s straightforward and non-dubious heterosexuality has been a point of family lore for almost two decades. Now, he has a steady girlfriend of three years and their intimacy is completely understood as par for the course, nothing that needs further inspection or parental involvement although he is twenty years old.

In comparison, when I was six years old and caught imitating dance moves of popular icons of the time Britney Spears or Christina
Aguilera (we’re talking “Oops…I Did It Again!” and “What A Girl Wants” era, nothing extreme) I was hurriedly urged to stop. My youthful and harmless exploration of female allure and sexual freedom did not receive the same laughter as my brother just two years later.

When in high school I started to develop adolescent crushes on my peers, my parents would pry and tease. While this was meant harmlessly, it made me feel as if what I was feeling was wrongful and a point of fault. My involvement in drama productions with romantic plots elicited unwanted investigations into my own romantic exploits — of which, there were honestly none. I was subjected to talks at my Catholic high school that separated the male and female populations only to urge the girls that intercourse would only encourage the man to leave while committing you emotionally further, a terrifying thought for someone who had never been even asked on a date. I became shy, romantically introverted, afraid to talk to men in the instance of inciting rumors. This ultimately led to underdevelopment, my first romantic kiss not occurring until age 21 — a point at which many of my friends were losing their virginity and telling me that I simply “didn’t understand.” At a crucial point when I should have been claiming my sexual identity — in whatever form that was — I found myself apologizing for it time and time again in conversations between my family, my Church, and my friends, all of whom saw my status as some form of potentially problematic or downright reprehensible.

When I finally did become sexually active, I was seen as “changed.” While I expected to be welcomed into the club of non-virgins, there was no banner awaiting me on the other side. And it seemed I had spurned those I left on the abstinence track; one close friend even went so far as to say that our friendship would suffer because I wouldn’t understand her struggles anymore. The relationship that led me to that point ran its course, and I was left with the knowledge that I now had the freedom to choose where I went from here, but also the overwhelming and imminent judgement on my actions if I chose to share them with anyone.


Today, I still hold remnants of these beginnings in my bones when it comes to claiming my sexuality. I do not have a right to the grandiose and more moving stories, I do not think, like those of the LGBTQ+ community. But perhaps there is something quietly relatable in the fact that female sexual freedom is still so underwhelmingly represented and passively repressed. When I do start the conversation, I try to keep it light. Severity is threatening to the house of cards we as a global society have so carefully constructed when it comes to sexual liberation and who can have it.

So today, I’m grateful for the women who challenge me and the world to step outside our comfort zones. I’m grateful for Virginia Johnson of Masters & Johnson. I’m grateful for the sex-positive feminists. I’m grateful for those out there who tell women they don’t have to be sexually active to be worthwhile too. I’m grateful for the female (and male) friendships that pushed me to open up and the friendships that celebrated my milestones.

Thank you, women. And thank you, men, for listening to us. May this world be kinder tomorrow because of your bravery today.

On being happily lonesome

She did a lot of things, but most importantly she continued to choose what was best for her each day. She stopped worrying about those who never returned the calls or messages. She stopped stressing over the small stuff and learned how to grow into her full potential. She finally gave her heart away to herself.

Zachry K. Douglas, Pinterest.com

It’s been one month since I moved to New York and, admittedly, I am on a train back to Annapolis right now for a brief weekend visit. New York has thrown me curveballs, one after another, and — and I am well aware I am mixing my sports metaphors here — I have been bowling what feels like straight gutterballs in response.

If I’m being honest with you, dear reader, and being honest with myself, it has gone something like this: I’ve been ghosted by two guys, several girls (BumbleBFF…I have no shame), and even some potential employers. Four, if we’re really pressing me to count.

I spend most of my days with my headphones locked in. The voices that pour from them are more familiar than my own — and more used. I eagerly wait for my roommates to get home from their lives, but I know that I cannot rely on them for entertainment. They, of course, have their own lives. So I find ways to make a life of my own.

Most days I rise when I want. This can be 9 am or noon. On the rare occasion, I’ll have an interview I need to be ready for, and those are always exciting, tantalizing a future worth dreaming after. But those are not most days. Most days I rise and begin to work on applications with a bowl of Captain Crunch to my left and my liter of LaCroix not far behind it. Then, when my brain doesn’t want to work any more, I make it to the gym. And once I’m sweaty, breathless, invigorated, and feeling steadier than an hour earlier, I go to the grocery to pick up whatever I can afford for dinner. I shower, cook, and call my best friend in the world for a few laughs even though she is 5 hours different and 4,000 miles away.

It isn’t a glamorous life. But there are perks. I’ve reached out to temporary agencies in the hopes that they’ll be able to find me something to tide me over until the real job, the career, starts. I’ve started to plan solo dates — time away from the apartment that engages me creatively. I’m going to my postgraduate university’s alumni association event at the end of the month at an art gallery. I’m going to two concerts alone — possibly three if I can’t figure out who to give my extra ticket to Gavin James to. I’m embracing the solitude.

If I didn’t know what it feels like to be broken, then how would I know what it feels like to be whole?

“Maybe it’s Okay,” We Are Messengers

I’ve been alone before. When I was in Dublin, I felt untethered for much of it. While I loved the city, and while I loved the experiences I had both domestic and abroad, I was incredibly solitary.

I see the mirror image of it forming in New York. And surprisingly, I’m not scared.

Because this time, this is an opportunity. An opportunity to love myself in ways that I neglected for fear of becoming to insular in London. For fear of shrinking away again, I gave away myself too freely when I first arrived in New York. This, though, this newfound solitude — however involuntary it may be (I prefer to think fated) — is offering me the chance to place myself first once more as I near my 25th birthday. A chance to reassess my goals, my promises to myself, my fears and my rationalizations that stop me from facing them.

And when life offers you a chance for growth, you have to take it — don’t you?

You are no longer insulated; but I suppose you must touch life in order to spring from it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

On my new “vivarium”

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Stuff your eyes with wonder…live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

In order to take AP Human Geography my Sophomore year of high school, I had to make the concession of starting Honors Latin instead of French. Little did I know that would take me on the journey through Honors Latin V to President of the Latin Honor Society — I know, I was a nerd — and eventually able to translate fairly well even into my mid-twenties.

So imagine my pleasure at discovering the word vivarium during the final quarter of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. Vivarium means “place of life,” and while it is frequently used in laboratory environments constructing homes for plants and animals, it carries a beautiful weight to it as well. To me, it echoes with the simple question — where do you create your own vivarium?

For the greater part of the last four years, I have not had a central place of life. I have been transient, nomadic at best. I was spreading my time during the end of my Senior year of Villanova between Annapolis, Maryland and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Upon completion of my degree and finding a harsh job market, I boarded a plane and literally jetted across the Atlantic to Dublin, Ireland to establish a Gap Year (really, 8 months) where I temped and traveled. From there I moved across the channel to London for my Master’s in Publishing at London College of Communication.

And now — as of 54 hours ago — I am a certified New Yorker.

This time with no end in sight.

Unless I reach a point of complete and utter failure, I risk nothing but permanence in this new move — a concept completely foreign to me. I’ve had somewhere new on the horizon for as long as my short-term and not-so-short-but-not-so-long-term memory can recall. But for the first time in my adulthood, my only option is to put down roots in this new city and begin constructing something of more concrete substance.

I find myself building my own vivarium. The weekend was spent decorating my shoebox room in my apartment I can barely afford on the Upper West Side. I invested myself in decor that meant something to me, brought me “joy” to quote Marie Kondo. I’m finally investing myself in a career path rather than diverting to “fun side-hustles” or working to make ends meet only. Hell, for the first time in three years, I’m buying cookware so I actually make myself meals rather than eat microwavable ones, sandwiches, or resort to ordering in.

I find myself reflecting on this quote from Fahrenheit 451 because it is one that has driven me for the past few years. It took me from country to country. It took me away from all I had ever known three times and then back again. It made me thirst for a world I had never seen — and yet, now it’s the very thing that’s making me hunger for a world of my own just four hours north of Annapolis.

It may not be the most thrilling adventure on paper that I’ve ever begun, but I think it has the potential to be the most rewarding one yet.

On the pervasiveness of the male voice

This morning I rose at 3:30 am, turning my groggy body over and beginning to down the Red Bull that sat preparedly on my bedside table. My family had planned — and eventually executed — to leave the house at 5:30 am for the airport to make the trek to Tucson, Arizona via Phoenix Airport in order to celebrate the marriage of family friends.

Since I had my sugar free Red Bull coursing through my veins, I was wide awake. I did my hair, put on my makeup, packed up what I had neglected to the night before. I steeled myself for the questions that I would receive at the wedding about my plans for the future (ultimately, none) and about my time abroad (no way to put into words) while still withholding the content that would put me at odds with the conservative, actively Catholic, militaristic community (or, succinctly, everything I am not) I would be joining for the brief period of the wedding.

My family bid adieu to the dog, petting his moping head at the front door, and then loaded up into the car. My thought processes continued to prepare myself over and over — I may have had some unpleasant conversations in the past — when I had the most startling realization. As I sat there with my family in the wee hours of the morning approaching BWI airport and mentally acknowledging that we had been sitting in relative silence for thirty minutes, I had the striking revelation that the narrative voice in my head was not female à la Mindy Kaling as I would like but rather male à la Ted Moseby, Bob Saget or the narrator from A Christmas Story.

This was distinctly new and yet all too familiar. I think in what I imagine is my own voice, perhaps a little higher pitched because I’ve always found my voice a bit too low for my liking, but all the same my voice is my voice. Yet in this moment of narrative “retrospection” I was taken into a space of male authority on a female inhabited experience.

In complete honesty, I’m a bit disgusted with myself, and yet I can’t help but laugh that of course I felt male. Female experiences are dealt with in the present. Besides the old 100 year old Rose from the Titanic it’s hard to name another cinematic or pop culture phenomenon that features the authoritative retrospection of a woman. Men can grow to be wise. Women do not reach this pinnacle. And so our voices do not narrate. Our experiences do not feature.

I hope for a day where this changes. I’ve made conscious effort in writing this brief essay in using my actual voice in internal soliloquy as I pen/type each word. I know several intelligent, beautiful souled women who actively fight this male voice as one of ultimate authority. Whether that is enough, I’m not so sure.

On empowerment

You can’t fight fire with air. But equally you can’t fight for a freedom you’ve forgotten how to identify.

– Feel Free: Essays, Zadie Smith

Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal.

– Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Be a little kinder than you have to. 

– We Were Liars, E. Lockhart

There was once a time in which these quotes would have been both doomsday in delivery and as weightless as a feather, for they meant everything and nothing. Everything because for women there was nothing.

Thankfully, most of that has changed.

I say most of that because we as women still face constant opposition from men, from ourselves, from society at large when it comes to how we look, how we dress, how we talk, what sort of jobs we have, what we eat, where we go, who we go with…you get the picture. When I first started this blog, my inaugural post was a rather aggressive feminist rant about how the wage gap isn’t actually a gender gap but a motherhood penalty, something which seems far more unjust than anything based upon genitalia.

My favorite saying to have emerged from the celebrity driven — let’s not deny it, okay? — feminist movement has been the phrase “Empowered Women Empower Women.” Because, in all honesty, there is no reason for one woman to cut down another unless the original is in a bad place herself. Remember Sam from On mattering? She confessed she was in a poor mental state and her external manifestations of that were moments of neglect and harm towards our friendship. Case and point. 

Me though? I’m in a good place. And being in a good place makes me capable of putting others in a good place too. 

Over the past few weeks, I have been working to put together the MA Publishing exhibition at the Postgraduate Media Show at London College of Communication. While my peers thought this was a one-woman role, and that definitely was all they saw since I was the one liaising with them through spam-like frequency Facebook messages, this was not the case. So when the Show launched, I made sure everyone knew that it was not just me behind the curtain. I had been in a partnership with a Masters in Arts and Lifestyle Journalism student Aliaa who was sharing our exhibition space. In natural millennial style, I took to Instagram.

Aliaa deserved every bit of recognition. She kept me sane. We joked. We drank wine. We nailed signs to walls and created visual displays. We, by all means, bonded quickly over a short period of time. And I will always fondly remember our time together, regardless of whether we continue to keep in contact.

Empowering women, empowering your coworkers, empowering your friends, empowering your peers — it’s all important. Never for a second think that you are where you are because you alone were capable. There is always a team behind you, if you take a look around. Be humble and grateful and let them know that you see their efforts. Let them be heard too. It’s more rewarding than any praise you alone can get. 

 

Did I get subconsciously driven into publishing by RomComs?

 

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Trainwreck, Apatow Productions and Universal Pictures

There are two things in life guaranteed to give me a spiritual high: religious retreats and romcoms. Now, the feasibility — financially, socially — to attend retreats consistently is very, very small. Which is why I haven’t been to one since high school. But romcoms — man, those will get me every. damn. time.

I love most of them. There are some that actually make me want to vomit glitter and chocolate (I’m looking at you 13 Going On 30). But the good ones, the ones that fill your soul — those are the ones that will send me into a euphoric state. Stuck in Love. Letters to Juliet. Love, Rosie. Love Actually. The Holiday. The Big Sick. What If. Trainwreck. Set It Up. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. And those are just the ones on my laptop. Those are the back-up, bad-day-fixers. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve watched them. Ask my roommate.

But as I laid in bed last night I had a chilling realization: almost all of these movies that I love feature a leading lady in publishing. And the trend extends past those I listed and further into the genre: How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, The Devil Wears Prada, He’s Just Not That Into You, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Never Been Kissed, I could go on.

So the question stands: have I pursued publishing because, in this warped reality I’ve invested myself in, publishing is the most “attractive” industry to belong to? Because I’d be lying if I said I didn’t model part of my behavior in my youth on these women who graced my television screen (remember the days of actual tv’s, not laptops?). I could recite to you some of Reese Witherspoon’s best lines from Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama when I was ten. Ten!

And, if I’m being honest, I can’t say whether or not this career I’ve chosen for myself is a result of socialized expectations. I do remember the first time I chose to pursue being a book editor. My peers and even some close friends had made abundantly clear I would never be CEO of Disney Enterprises. I was sitting in World Religions senior year with Mrs. Forst when we were all told to go around the room and say what we wanted to be “when we grew up,” an almost redundant question at that point due to repetition. Before I knew it, the words “book editor” had tumbled out of my mouth. Instead of getting the jibes that had accompanied every other job aspiration I had previously clung to, people around the room nodded in agreement and one classmate even said “You’d be great at that.” In that moment, I was set. (Since then I’ve changed my aspirations to something a bit more “me” — literary agent. More social, just as literary, maybe even a bit more independent depending on the status of your agency. I could still be a CEO if I wanted to.)

Here’s what gets me about it all though: what about a woman in the publishing industry is less intimidating and perhaps emasculating to peers than a woman who wants to be a CEO? What about my shift that day in class — a pure whim likely brought on from watching a romcom the night before — coincided perfectly with what society views a smart (but not too smart) woman should be? Why did I get accolades for this momentary change? Why did it stick?

I don’t have the answer.

Of course, there were several more factors that played into my choice. I could have changed tracks at any time in university. No one forced me to pursue my Master’s. applied for all my internships. But there is something terribly cliché, thanks to the movie industry, about a young white woman pursuing a career in publishing from the ground up.

But I’ll be damned if I let that stop me now.

Thoughts? I’m a bit confused myself, if you haven’t noticed.