Portrait by Ashley Nguyen of Lena Waithe

CULTURE | Queerness & Visibility

A Conversation with Lena Waithe

Dorothy Santos Arts Editor

by Dorothy Santos | Portrait by Ashley Nguyen
Published September 2014 | The Appearance Issue

A beautiful queer black woman sits in front of her laptop screen and confesses her dissatisfaction with The Voice, a singing contest on prime time television, and being “whelmed, but not overly.” Suddenly, the face onscreen softens and discloses her inability to pretend. She tell us, with genuine vulnerability and heartfelt intention, of her struggles living at her best friend’s place after a recent eviction. Perhaps most heart wrenching of all, our heroine’s admission that she is in love with someone she cannot have—an emotionally damaged straight woman. That she now confronts these patterns and seeks to share them with the world—well, to whoever will listen—shows her desire to understand and change.

The aforementioned scene was the last of four pilot presentation installments for Lena Waithe’s project Twenties, where the central character creates an online vlog entitled, Hattie’s Humble Opinions. Not only does Waithe provide visibility for queer women of color, she does so with precision and authenticity. Her professional career and projects also prove her expertise and deftness with words. While writing Twenties and producing upcoming film Dear White People, her day job as a writer for Fox television show Bones only further anchors her place as both a cultural producer and creative powerhouse. It almost doesn’t seem fair to call Waithe a phenom because she has far surpassed the definition of an up-and-comer. She aims to not only to challenge existing stereotypes, but also to illuminate our intrinsic connections to each other by examining love, heartbreak, relationships, friendship, and being-in-the-world through a queer black woman’s perspective. Waithe graciously joined me for an early morning conversation about her work, queerness, visibility, and how media depictions have changed over the past four decades.

Dorothy Santos (DS): Based on the research I’ve done, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and A Different World were inspirations for your work. They’re really different, which you obviously know. But I’m curious, how do you feel American media depictions of race, gender, and sex have changed over time, more specifically since the 1970s?

Lena Waithe (LW): Interestingly enough, we’ve become more politically correct and a little bit more nervous about hot button issues. If you look at old shows like Maude, we haven’t seen or heard the word abortion discussed on television since that show. Now, I think it’s all because of the backlash people think they will get. Another example, something like Roots, may be shown in a theater today. But Roots was a groundbreaking mini-series on television! A TV mini-series about slavery? I don’t see that anymore! If it does happen, it’s white-washed, not made from an authentic perspective, and created for a broader audience. I think we need to get back to that space we were in during the ‘70s. Some of the most groundbreaking television was happening. Norman Lear was writing and doing a lot. People were taking risks and chances. She wasn’t looking for a husband, and she was single, by choice. She was following a very specific career path. Most TV shows now, if a woman is single, it’s like the end of the world and she needs to find a husband. Many shows also center around dating and coupling up.

DS: What about in terms of sexuality and identity? How have things changed in the media?

LW: I think strides have definitely been made. But there is so much more that can be done. And again, as a reminder, BET has agreed to do the pilot for Twenties. We haven’t been picked up as a series...yet. So, I’m still fighting the good fight. I know the show will change the game. I’m pushing to make it happen.

As for Dear White People, it deals with race and identity, but also sexuality. There’s a lot more visibility. If we look at Orange is the New Black, they definitely have a diverse cast. They have a lot of queer-adjacent black women on the show. But I don’t know if they have a black lesbian writer working on it. I’m not saying this needs to be a requirement, but I think the biggest change will come when we see more people of color and different orientations become the writers, directors, and people behind the scene.

DS: This leads to specific questions I had when you were writing Twenties. The media has described the main character Hattie as a thinly veiled autobiographical depiction of yourself. You do a seamless job of tying together universal threads of the human condition specific to that age bracket: awkwardness, having a horrible job, looking for love. What was your specific process for writing Hattie’s character?

LW: Well, when I’m writing something, characters are often first. My process is character driven. It’s what pushes me and pulls the story forward. Hattie’s definitely not exactly like me. I mean, I’m honest. But not like Hattie in that she says everything that’s on her brain. Hattie is like me in terms of fashion, for instance. She enjoys clothes. She enjoys bending the lines of what she can do and what she can wear as a woman and how she is going to walk the world. She’s opinionated.

I definitely want her to be someone that puts people in pop culture to task. Those are the things that people don’t do enough of. I particularly wanted her to take people of color in pop culture to task because that’s what I tend to do on my social media network. I’m always throwin’ shade about some black celebrity or mediocre black movie that I saw because I know we can do better! I wanted Hattie to take that on and be that person as well. That’s where it began. I knew I wanted her to be irreverent and opinionated about things.

DS: What nuances of her personality and her gender expression did you want to keep in mind and convey to your viewer?

LW: When I started to write, her voice began to speak to me in clearer ways. It was a joke among friends that became a cool crutch. She’s a lesbian that doesn’t hang out with lesbians. She doesn’t really understand lesbians. She keeps dating these semi-straight or straight girls that are experimenting because she doesn’t feel comfortable among her own people. Before Twenties, gay men and straight women were my demographic. They were my fans and they followed me. They were the ones that thought I was cute. They were the ones that held me up. It wasn’t until Twenties came out that lesbians started to pay attention to who I was. I’m usually the one gay person because two my best friends are straight girls and my other best friends are gay black men.

Regarding Hattie, she’s a lesbian that doesn’t hang out with other lesbians! What does that look like? What does that mean? I started to think about what her dating life, her outlook, and her being opinionated about a bunch of things and her natural dysfunction would look like. I wanted her to be the Fresh Prince of lesbians. Like every week, a hot new girl would come through the revolving door. I wanted to show a fly version of what a lesbian looks like post-Pariah. I was tired of the coming of age, coming out stories. I wanted to write about a girl who graduated from college, has some fly friends, found her swag, and happens to like the company of women. I wanted to write about that black, cool girl. This is what Hattie became. That is how her character was born.

DS: Could you speak to how Courtney Sauls was cast as Hattie?

LW: When Justin and I shot the concept trailer for Dear White People and Twenties, we acted as our own casting directors. Courtney was in my first short film, Body of a Barbie. She is awesome and fantastic. I’m really proud of her. Again, it’s much like a renaissance. It’s a resurgence because we’re all actors, writers, producers, and many of our projects tend to overlap and we continue working together.

DS: How do you envision Twenties and Dear White People affecting the overall dialogue of race and how you want people to engage with the work?

LW: I hope to do what The Cosby Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show did during their time. They never stood on a soapbox. They never said I am woman, hear me roar. Or I am black, beautiful, sophisticated, upwardly mobile, and look at me. Acknowledge me. Or respect me. They never said those things. They just existed. Their sheer presence, being on television, and every episode being about mundane things was enough. If you look at an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, very little happens. Or The Cosby Show, again, very little happens. One story on The Cosby Show was when Rudy wanted to wear a summer dress in the winter. That’s a very small thing. When you watch TV shows now, there’s a big story. One character crashes a car or someone falls in love with the next door neighbor. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she tries to get a story about kittens and Ted won’t do it! It’s these very small things. But they are still entertaining and still permeate through the culture. It’s almost like jazz music.

DS: Hmmm, like jazz music? How so?

LW: Like jazz music because they are always embedded in the culture and seep into your pores because they’re are not trying to yell. They’re not trying to shout. They are sort of the Bayard Rustin of the Civil Rights Movement in that they’re sort of in the background and you don’t see their influence until all is said and done. That’s what I want these projects to be.

DS: Oh, I definitely see the metaphor now. As for Hattie, how do you want people to react or understand her and how Twenties can increase visibility for queer women of color?

LW: I want people to look at Hattie and think, “Oh wow, she’s a lesbian? That’s interesting. She’s not what I thought of when I thought of a lesbian.” Hattie is not going to be all padded up, with a beer in her hand, have a buzz cut, or baggy clothes. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that particular representation because that is one way to express yourself. But the problem is that this imagery is an over saturated visual of what a lesbian is. If you only watch Boyz n the Hood and think that’s what all black people are, that would be wrong. That’s only a portion of culture. I want to show a queer black woman that looks like me. I have a certain way I walk through the world. I want people to be a little nervous and the lines of sexuality to be blurred. We all need to be open to those things. I want Twenties to turn stereotypes around. People rarely see the millennial perspective through a black lens. If it wasn’t for Dr. Huxtable, we wouldn’t have President Obama. You can’t tell me that those two things aren’t related. I’m hoping Hattie’s character leads to something beautiful and amazing. I don’t know what the impact is or will be. But I know that I want to educate and entertain at the same time.

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