With old favorites coming back to Netflix, we look at how Black girl leads ruled the ’90s and influenced the culture of a generation.
In the late ’90s, I was a precocious elementary school student with box braids bopping along to Brandy’s Never Say Never album in my mom’s Kia Sportage. I didn’t know I was in the middle of a cultural revolution built on the strength of Black comedies that had fought for landmark space on television screens across America from The Jeffersons to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
What I did know was that Brandy had the range to be a cool, fun, fashionable high school student and a Disney princess in a beautiful blue dress. I was being raised to believe that I could be and do anything, but hearing the words of my parents and seeing Black lives centered on TV were two different experiences.
It wasn’t until Black family shows began to go off air in the mid to late 2000s that I realized the importance of these early childhood figures in my life. The Black teen girl character didn’t disappear, but she was diminished and returned to the role of best friend to the white lead or was a recurring character.
As the TV landscape marketed toward teens and young adults began to shift from sitcoms to dramas, the series that were growing to cult followings were predominately white shows like The O.C., One Tree Hill, and Gossip Girl. If there were any Black teen equivalences, I wasn’t aware of them and they aren’t still a part of the pop culture lexicon like their ’90s and early aughts counterparts.
The Black girl lead faded into obscurity and with her went the needed representation on television for girls coming of age like myself. Yes, marginalized groups can cobble together a summation of their home lives, personality traits, and preferences from characters that don’t look like or speak like them, but we shouldn’t have to, to the extent that we have every time the mainstream moves on.
The ’90s represented a cultural explosion that seemed to set the course for an unprecedented increase in diversity in media that promised much-needed progress as we moved into the next millennium and began a new century.
Moesha charted the way for The Parkers. Sister, Sister launched the careers of Tia and Tamera Mowry. Kyla Pratt went from the success of The Proud Family to the success of One on One. Countess Vaughn as Kim Parker was as fly as she was funny. She got to be an outlandish and fully realized character with plots that centered her story.
These were the girls that influenced culture. Their shows–centered on Black families and the Black teen and young adult experience–welcomed Americans into the homes and lives of everyday Black people. Their backgrounds varied from suburban to city girls. They had their own senses of style, listened to pop, R&B, rap, and hip-hop, spoke their own slang, and expressed their dreams openly and with the hope that they could achieve them.
They were mirrors to the girls whose lives they reflected, windows into other life experiences for those of other backgrounds, and sliding doors to anyone who saw the possibilities their own lives could have thanks to the representation they were watching.
There’s a reason an outpouring of love descended on Strong Black Lead’s Twitter when it was announced that Netflix had acquired the rights to:
The Game S1-3 (Aug. 15)
Sister, Sister (Sept. 1)
The Parkers (Oct. 1)
Half & Half (Oct. 15)
One on One (Oct. 15)
It wasn’t simply nostalgia for a bygone era. Black viewers have been clamoring for representation across genres for decades. The ’90s and early aughts were a period in television history where that was being realized in sitcoms and, for teen leads, some progress was being made in other genres like the animated superhero show Static Shock, action-comedy The Famous Jett Jackson, and musical The Cheetah Girls.
Now, with a return to television thanks to Netflix, the seven shows listed have the opportunity to once again influence a generation. Gen Z has a new generation of shows like All American, Black-ish, Grown-ish, and Black Lightning to look to for representation of Black families and Black teen leads but fair and equal representation means having more than a handful of shows and characters to look to in order to see one’s self.
Maybe the cult followings of these shows will push the conversation on Black teen leads and their necessity further into the mainstream. The rumored Clueless reboot with Dionne Davenport as lead could inspire a new generation if it makes it on air but the buck should not stop with that series or the ones listed. True progress is made when we keep pushing forward. Sometimes that takes looking back at what was done to imagine where we need to go.
What show are you bingeing once it drops on Netflix? Serve up your thoughts in the comments below!