The rise of the black female leading lady remains a consistent topic of discussion in the contemporary world. Once solely assigned supporting roles, black female portrayal has seemingly shifted. Or has it?
Girls Trip depicts four black female stars: Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish. To the casual gaze, the black female stars in her own narrative. However, considering there is only one black female writer credited for this project, it seems the black female collective is still a product of those lacking complete knowledge of the black female experience.
Perhaps this is the reason for the one-dimensional portrayal of these black women. Yes, viewers gain a peek into the protagonist’s past as college friends and adult woes but little information is given to understand why the characters are they way they are. This may seem extensive, but for a demographic demonized globally context is a necessity. These omissions seemingly reflect the restrictions of time, but paint the four protagonists as blacks in the wake of their global perception—beings born into conflict, their narrative abridged in the expediency of racist caricaturing.
The four protagonists are however heavily doused in sex— aligning the black female body with the same sexual appraisal established in slavery and still ever-present in global black female identity.
Dina (Tiffany Haddish): The Jezabel Sapphire Medley
Dina, perhaps the most memorable of the protagonists for not-so-positive reasons, embodies what the contemporary world offers the now central black female presence—an image that encompasses a medley of past controlling images. Her conspicuous love for sex paints her a jezebel type figure, and her quick, chastising wit depicts Dina as a sapphire as well.
Dina appears created in the image of “Terry,” played by actress Eve in the Barbershop, mainly in her petty anger. For Terry it was apple juice and for Dina it was her lunch. This scene made the audience chuckle, but I cringed in my chair at yet another depiction of the black woman as an uncivil beast. In addition to her careless rage, Dina is also sexually careless. In fact, one of the first images audiences are given of the young woman is her coming out of a clinic, where she has just been diagnosed with Chlamydia—to her excitement. This depiction, while intended to be funny, finds its humor in villanizing the black female body, depicting the black female body as unclean, unchaste and without the modesty of shame.
Sasha (Queen Latifah): The Asexual Mammy
Despite being a physically gorgeous woman, Sasha is placed in the backdrop of the film. This is seemingly a purposeful effort to depict her as on the sidelines of Ryan who is the group leader, admired by Lisa and Dina. This depiction, aligned with Sasha’s aesthetics, depicts the plus-sized woman as alienated and underestimated. She is the sole character not given a love interest, aside from the man her mind conjures in a hallucination episode. Thus, she is depicted asexually like the mammy of our past who is confined to romance only in her dreams. Moreover, in a film that should underscore black female intersectionality, not only is the fullness of our identity neglected, but the film plays into the racist perceptions of black female identity.
Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith): The Asexual Mother Figure
Recently, divorced, Lisa is now married to motherhood and conservative clothing. Once a hyper sexual black female youth, Smith is most aligned with the traditional standards of womanhood— submissiveness, chastity, piety, and purity. These attributes quickly dissolve, when Lisa meets a younger black man who reverts her back to what the white gaze perpetuates as her innate hyper sexual state.
Ryan (Regina Hall): The black female “over achiever” who emasculates her man
Ryan, the film’s central character seemingly has it all. She is gorgeous, smart, educated, and conventionally successful. Ryan appears in the image of popular prime time protagonists, Olivia Pope, Mary Jane Paul, and Annalise Keating, successful black women, who are all north of thirty, fashionable and admired by all whom they cross paths. Also, much like these women, Ryan bears an incongruence to motherhood. While Pope aborts her child, Mary Jane and Keating have fertility struggles, as does Ryan. Fertility struggles acts as an achilles heel to the prodigious black woman who despite her exceptionalism does not have the opportunity to pass on her excellence biologically. Beneath the surface, this appears to suggest that conventional success is incongruent to the black female body. Thus, the hyper fertile black female body is compromised in acquiring what was traditionally reserved for white men. Thus, the transition of the black female to assume a pseudo whiteness, paints her the barren state afforded to those not aligned with the presumed hyper fertility of the African woman.
Race and Raunchiness
The film functions as the black female version of the Hangover, where friends who could not be more different unite for a memorable vacation. The difference is both race and gender, thus the film’s raunchiness functions to substantiate societal claims of a caricatured black female identity.
So when Lisa accidentally pees on Bourbon Street onlookers in a zip line pursuit gone wrong, most viewers find humor in its accidental nature. But when Dina comes to “rescue” Lisa from her short stop, she intentionally showers onlookers with the golden trinkets of her bladder.
This scene prompted hysterical laughter from the audience in its vulgar and goofy humor. Beneath the surface, this is funny because it is this vulgarity that most instantly align with black female identity that makes the scene funny to most. This is because humor functions on the presence of a subtle truth. This would not be generally funny is most people did not perceive the illustrated action as in tune with the nature of black female identity.
This scene also offers a unique way to hyper sexualize the black female body. Although urine expels from the bladder out of the genitalia, the scene highlights the release of fluid from the black female sexual organ. Lisa, the asexual black woman, expels these fluids involuntarily whereas the Dina, hyper sexual black woman, expels these fluids voluntarily and without shame. This resumes the narrative of the black female body as oozing a sexuality that renders her immune from sexual violation or rape.
The fact that this happens in New Orleans, a setting linked to superstition and black magic, portrays the black woman in the image of her voodoo past. Namely, it depicts black girl magic as a black girl sexual magic.
Marketing Black Love
The film succeeds in steering away from the contemporary obsession with black women in interracial relationships. Implementing black love does not function as a conscious effort. After all, the target demographic of the film is not only black women, but all women. The comedic structure of the film allows both the black and non-black viewer to view the black woman in a way that does not challenge how the global perception conceives the black woman–frivolous, gauche, and masculine. The exception in part would be the film’s protagonist, Ryan who as a superwoman, encompasses the ambitions of countless women throughout the glove. In rooting for Ryan the superwoman, the white or non-black viewer is able to find inspiration and feel less racist in seemingly rooting for a black woman to win. Ryan of course symbolizes the superwoman–a colorless figure, who is tanned solely to solicit black female consumers. As the superwoman, or women freed from the conventionality of a caricatured black female identity, Ryan becomes a gateway for the film’s central means to unite women through gender.
To unite the female demographic, Girls Trip depicts the black man as a sexual object.
Hyper-sexualizing the Black Man: The Over-sized Phallus v. The Over-Used Phallus
Stewart, Ryan’s former NFL player husband is tall, dark and handsome. On a surface level, he is also a devoted husband. Beneath the surface, he seeks a younger woman, whose sole ambition is to become pregnant by a baller. In juggling (at least) two women, the film depicts Stewart as bearing an overused phallus, unable to handle the prodigious black woman—so he finds a less “intimidating” black female model. It is also worth mentioning that Stewart’s mistress is also visibly more sun-kissed than Ryan and more voluptuous. This illustrates “the blacker the berry the sweeter the fruit,” but perhaps more disturbingly, that the blacker the berry and the rounder the derriere, the more primal the sexual appetite.
Displacing the physically dark man, or magical negro as bearing an hyper active libido is an image commonly perpetuated throughout the media. We’ve seen this with Kobe Bryant, OJ Simpson, and most recently with Carmelo Anthony. As a physically dark man, Stewart portrays African blood as not only birthing his NFL worthy talent, but his overactive phallus. Thus, Stewart is symbolic of black men, depicting them as possessing a wandering gaze and a narcissistic and animalistic desire to plant their seed in any empty womb.
Lisa (Jada Pinkett), a divorced mother of two, who has not been intimate since splitting from her husband two years prior— has relations with a man twenty years her junior while away at the Essence Festival. This man is also a very sun-kissed man, whose phallus is not over-used but oversized. It’s prodigious state initially intimidates Lisa, but she eventually succumbs to its allure—illustrating the sexual magic of the black man as seductive but bound to operate in excess. It is this excess, whether in urine, sexual partners, or size of the sexual organ, that functions to caricature the black body as closer to an animal than a human.
Sexualizing the black man, works to reverse objectification from female to male, but due to the prime characters of this film being black people—both the black man and black woman function to display a caricatured hyper sexuality that shows their Hollywood setting as not far away from the plantations of their past were the black man and woman were perceived in a similar manner.
The hyper sexual relations between black men and women, do not present black love as powerful, but limited to a lustful pleasure. This portrayal illustrates black love in the same manner in which it is perceived by western society—animalistic, aimless, and shallow.
It is also problematic that Ryan and Stewart, who at the start are a black power couple, spend the majority of the movie seeking validation, or endorsement from white women. In seeking this validation, Ryan even overlooks her white female publicists’ tasteless and aggressive flirtation with her husband. Ryan and Stewart, the Ebony power couple eventually part ways in the aftermath of Stewart’s infidelity, depicting black love as temperate and bound to dissolve in the hyper sexuality of one of its parties. After leaving Stewart, Ryan is still granted a generous salary for her “brand” as a single black woman. This is an obviously a plug for feminism, depicting black love as incongruent to feminism, but the black female as a worthy recruit. So when Ryan brings Sasha along for the deal, this seemingly a sisterly moment depicts two beautiful and skilled black women as taking their talents to work for a white woman.
Sisterhood, The Sweetest Love
While the majority of the movie made me wince, the final scene of the movie was poignant and honestly brought tears to my eyes. In the final scene, Ryan delivers the Essence Keynote Speech that anchors the film. The speech deviates from its original intention to portray Ryan as the woman who “has it all.” Instead, Ryan spoke as a member of the black female collective. Her speech spoke to every black woman throughout the diaspora who has been haunted by a loneliness. The most resonant portion of the speech was
“So many of us believe that it is better to be disrespected than to be alone”
I’m sure that every black woman has been in a situation where she has “looked past” a misdeed, hoping that her good is better than any bad. So, while black love is a huge component of our advancement of a people, this love is not limited to romantic love. The love we have for each other as family, friends, colleagues, mentors, employers, caregivers, is enough to culminate a collective self-determination. .
Although touched by the movie’s final scene, this scene also betrayed the biggest conflict in its film. Despite casting a predominately black cast, the word “black” is thoroughly omitted from the film. Thus, blackness becomes a backdrop that comforts the “women of color” in the audience, but is not too present to ward off the white female gaze. Thus, my interpretation is what I was supposed to see as a black woman, but is not actually what the film depicts. The film depicts a woman speaking to a group of women who happened to be black, about the woes of womanhood. Thus, it only makes sense that the film ends with an Essence Performance by Mariah Carey, a racially ambiguous woman whose cross-over appeal afforded her a career spanning nearly three decades. Carey symbolically represents goal of feminism, to convince women that gender is their most prevalent attribute, and race is only a problem if they make it so.
In short, the purpose of this movie is not to speak to the specific conflicts that await the black woman throughout the global epidemic of racism, but to all women struggling to “have it all.” To address the privileged woman as one does the woman who will never have said privilege is detrimental, because it is the woman lacking privilege who is lost in this process.
The premise of having it all also speaks to privilege, as the plight to having it all is a vast expansion from the struggles faced by black women who often struggle to have something— that something being respect, dignity, equity, or simply peace.
Girls Trip illustrates that black women are indeed still on a trip. This journey is not simply culminated by finding strength in one another, but in realizing that the trip to womanhood is still very much a work in progress. The road to womanhood is not paved in stepping on our men, but in acknowledging our blackness, and not limiting our most primary attribute to a mere subtly.
In closing, our trip as black women is not to exist in two places at one time, but to find a means to simply be black in a three-dimensional manner that encompasses the multitudes of our beings.
Films like Girls Trip function to remind the black woman that she is indeed under attack by the smiling white female feminist, seeking to drive us from our men, and even our black female friends into a systemized sisterhood. It is also films like these that remind me that I personally have no desire to be a woman in the global sense. I much prefer the diversity of blackness. For black is not only beautiful, it’s enough.
Black Power ❤