From The World Of Bel-Air To Girlfriends, The Analysis Of The Bougie Black Woman On Screen

Throughout the history of film and television, the portrayal of the Black woman on-screen has been a reflection of the societal opinions at the time. For the majority of this history, these opinions have been ugly; wildly racist stereotypes that effectively reduced the Black women on-screen to either a domesticated mute (the Mammy), a hyper-sexualised being (the Jezebel) or a loud-mouthed, emasculating bully (the Sapphire), to name a few.

More recently within the current television landscape, new representations of Black women on-screen have changed to... Cue… the Bougie Black Woman.

Think Toni Childs from Girlfriends, Whitley Gilbert from A Different World and, most prominently, Hilary Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The Bougie Black Woman has become a beloved part of Black television — she’s wealthy, beautiful and completely self-centred in a way that you somehow learn to love. I’d like to think that the Bougie Black Woman is a step forward in having a more inclusive representation of the Black female on-screen. The idea of affluent Black female characters living in luxury was barely on Hollywood’s radar until the emergence of Diahann Carroll in the 1980’s soap opera hit Dynasty, where Carroll played the illustrious Dominique Deveraux. The introduction of Deveraux, a Black woman who equalled her white counterparts with regards to social and economic status, was revolutionary in creating what we now know as the Bougie Black Woman.

 

Fast forward to the late '80s/early '90s, shows that were centred around Black people, Black families and Black neighbourhoods were increasingly popular both in the States and worldwide. Contextually, Black culture itself was creeping to the forefront of popular culture with the large influence it had on music and fashion. To reflect this cultural shift, Hollywood began to push out the Bougie Black Woman as a modern, staple figure on sitcoms. Thus, the creation of two notable characters; Whitley Gilbert, the spoiled, stuck-up Southern Belle on A Different World (1987–1993), and Hilary Banks, the ultimate daddy’s girl and Bel-Air brat on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–96). These two characters fulfilled the Bougie Black Woman archetype; both born into wealth, held little regard for anyone except themselves and seemed to swan through life in a constant state of ditzy oblivion. Often, for comedic purposes, these women would be juxtaposed with another character of a different economic background to them (e.g. Whitley and Dwayne, Hilary and Will) to further highlight how out-of-touch they were and also present them as characters that viewers were not meant to take seriously. 

I get it — on paper this sounds no better than the antiquated archetypes of the Sapphire or Jezebel. However, the saving grace of these early Bougie Black Women on-screen was that we could witness their evolution into more down-to-earth, socially-aware characters. By the third season of A Different World, Whitley had completely stolen our hearts with her efforts to see her peers as equals and treat them as such. And Hilary’s journey from her iconic first line: “Daddy, can I have $300?” to an independent, wildly successful talk-show host is certainly one for the books. This opportunity for character development is something that was never afforded to earlier portrayals of the Black woman on-screen and, is instrumental in allowing the Bougie Black Woman to become more than a monolithic representation.

Now, of course, when you think of the Bougie Black Woman, who else but the legendary Toni Childs from the 2000 TV sitcom Girlfriends comes to mind? Toni was unapologetically bougie from the very beginning and whether you loved her or hated her, what she brought to television was an aspirational figure that Black women could be entertained and inspired by. Unlike our beloved heiresses on the '90s sitcoms, Toni was not born into wealth, instead she worked her way up into a high-end lifestyle and was fiercely determined to not return to the poverty she climbed out of. She was confident, straight-forward and incredibly selfish. She only dated wealthy men (bar that one ex) and was primarily interested in the establishment of herself as a *rich bitch*. We can see this portrayal echoed in Molly Carter, best-friend to Issa, on the 2016 dramedy Insecure. As a thriving lawyer, Molly also enjoys a comfortable lifestyle and, just like Toni, is a cut-throat, no-BS person.

This new Bougie Black Woman is typically cold and not to be messed with. Arguably, this trait can be a result of the resilience and toughness needed to ascend into the socio-economic positions they currently hold. Or simply that these characters are designed to be blunt in order to offer a contrast to their cluelessly optimistic counterparts/best-friends (sorry Joan and Issa!). However, ultimately, we have to question: why does bougie and bitchy go hand-in-hand when it comes to these character portrayals?

 

 

Despite their iron-clad characterisation, there is room for sympathy to be felt towards Toni and Molly, respectively. Here are two women who have worked tirelessly to create a picture-perfect life, so far removed from the life that they were born into, yet they face obstacles that threaten the perfection they strive to maintain. One of the turning moments for Toni was her entrance into motherhood whilst dealing with a bitter separation. In this storyline, she was no longer just the affluent and pretentious one anymore  -  she was a single mother fighting for her marriage and her child. Or with Molly, and her string of failed relationships; both romantic and otherwise. Although her character is reserved and self-reliant, there is a part of her that so desperately craves companionship, and yet she is repeatedly denied it.

These portrayals show that, once again the Bougie Black Woman refuses to offer a one-dimensional take on what society deems upper-class Black women to be. These ‘cracks’ in the depiction of the Bougie Black Woman allow the characters that fall under this category to transcend the archetypal limitations placed upon them and present varied and extended versions of themselves.

All in all, I’m here for the Bougie Black Woman  - she’s a boss, living in luxury and owning herself completely. And, on top of that, she serves looks every single episode! Due to her wealth, she’s often underestimated but is actually a badass in whatever field she dominates. She isn’t hyper-sexualised yet is still a sexual being, and although she can tend to make sharp comments, she is far from a loud-mouthed, finger-snapping caricature. In my opinion, we need to see more Bougie Black Women on television. I want to see Black women like me enjoying the finer things in life  - because we deserve the Birkins too!

 

Written by Joanna Sofowora

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