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How Lisa Turtle Was ‘Slighted’ As a Black Teen Girl TV Character

Seven years after People reported she had bipolar disorder, Saved by the Bell star Lark Voorhies revealed this week on The Dr. Oz Show that indeed the diagnosis is somewhat true—and that she felt “slighted and hurt” over being left out of reunions and the upcoming reboot. As a 90s kid who paid attention to any black girl who came across the TV screen, I noticed how Lark’s character Lisa Turtle as the lone black girl character in the high school sitcom ensemble was also slighted on screen.

In the Dr. Oz interview, Lark clarified she has schizoaffective disorder, which the National Institutes of Health defines as “a mental health condition that includes features of both schizophrenia and a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder or depression.” She noted it may be the reason why she’s not included in the Saved by the Bell casual and formal reunions and the reboot expected on the NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock launching in April. The original show ran on NBC as a part of its TNBC teen-friendly Saturday morning programming from 1989 to 1993.

When Dr. Oz asked Lark about her feelings on the offscreen and onscreen cast reunions, Lark said, “They have the right to do that, and they’re happy in their element. They can have it.”

Treating her with kid gloves, Dr. Oz then asked if Lark would like to be a part of those reunions. She answered, “Oh yes, what family isn’t kept complete without its lead.”

Lark was the only girl brought onto the new reincarnation of Good Morning, Miss Bliss, a 1987-1989 sitcom also starring her Saved by the Bell castmates Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack Morris and Dustin Diamond as Samuel “Screech” Powers about middle schoolers in Indianapolis. The show reformatted with moving the setting to the fictional Bayside High School in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades and adding three new kids: Tiffani-Amber Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski, Mario Lopez as AC Slater and Elizabeth Berkley as Jessie Spano. This rounded out the most well-known Saved by the Bell cast.

But Lisa became overshadowed by Kelly and Jessie, who were presented to the audience as the hotties. Lisa became the fashionista, though the other female characters had more crises, e.g. Jessie’s drug addiction and Kelly’s college boy tryst, on top of steady boyfriends. The lack of love interests for Lisa solidified she wasn’t considered a hottie and that as a black girl she didn’t deserve love, which mirrors the alleged reactions from her former castmates now.

While the two white girls had boyfriends, Lisa never had one—and only nerdy Screech was interested in her.

Lisa and Screech

Why did Kelly have popular blond guy Zack as her boyfriend? Why did Jessie get muscly football player AC? Because they’re white. Lisa Turtle weirdly could only attract Screech, the annoying nerd who eventually attracted a girlfriend, Violet, played by pre-Beverly Hills 90210 Tori Spelling.

Lisa received a bit of attention, most memorably a black guy who magically turned up at their high school (Pacific Palisades’ black population is 0.4%) who turned out to be a freshman. She was a senior. Or the other black guy who was very studious that Lisa tried to impress him, but he didn’t like her brainless friends, so he was dropped.

Lisa kissed Zack in “The Bayside Triangle” episode before her fashion show in season five, but only because Tiffani-Amber and Elizabeth had left the show. Kelly was out of the picture. The episode poised to make Lisa the star girl where she had the star guy, but that turned to mud soon when producers introduced us to biker chick Tori, played by Leanna Creel. More on that in the next point, but the show couldn’t let Lisa get any love as if because she’s a black girl at a white school she getting it wouldn’t be believable.

Zack and Lisa

Seeing how Lisa wasn’t able to get a guy with her beauty and fashion didn’t add up correctly for a black girl viewer. It was offensive, knowing in real life she could have any boy she wanted at the average Los Angeles area high school.

This contrast was to let viewers know Lisa is not ideal girl-next-door material because she’s black. Comparing Lisa to another iconic black girl TV character of the era, Laura Winslow of Family Matters. Played by Kellie Shanygne Williams, Laura had the undying devotion of another infamous nerd, Steve Urkel, but she still had her share of romantic interests. It was a black show with a more interracial production team that understood the popular girl regardless of race can get a boyfriend if she wants.

The only original girl from the show’s previous incarnation, Lisa was pushed to the side to make room for Kelly then Tori.

Back to forgettable Tori. Again, a stereotypical biker chick that Zack suddenly falls for, obviously due to her whiteness. Knowing the character arc of Zack and the type of females he prefers, Tori was not it.

The show evolved into another incarnation with Saved By the Bell: The College Years. Lisa went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, so Lark wasn’t a series regular. The show moved to prime time, but when Tiffani-Amber returned, the producers kept the two new white girls and kicked off the black girl named Danielle Marks, played by Essence Atkins, to make room for Kelly. The removal of the black girl probably led to the show’s demise after one season since they not only killed the successful recipe but told us a black girl can’t be a part of the ensemble.

Lisa was an independent single girl but was that due to the strong black woman stereotype?

The superwoman complex many black women in the U.S. experience is associated with the shield we wear to present ourselves as strong and stoic. From Lisa’s demeanor, she is the fun-loving girl who also seems boy crazy yet can’t have a boyfriend while her white friends can.

Lark and Mark-Paul dated in real life for three years, but the romance was only placed in the storyline after the other actresses left the show. At the time, interracial teen relationships weren’t there yet. For example, heartthrob white actor Jonathan Brandis and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air black actress Tatyana Ali dated for three years, but we didn’t hear much about that relationship until years later.

And producers allegedly created Lisa as a rich Jewish girl from New York before Lark aced her audition. Slater was supposed to be Italian until Mario, who’s Latino, stepped into the role (Pacific Palisades’ Latinx population is 3.2%). These characters, originally white, had to be altered to fit their race and culture, but it seems this led to watered-down storylines for Lisa.

In real life, Lark was a part of a TV family, but as a black woman with a mental illness, she’s out.

Kelly, Lisa, and Jessie

Would the white actresses be treated the same if they had a health condition? Along with Lark, Dustin Diamond has been missing from reunions, possibly due to his sex tape in 2006, subsequent legal trouble, and unauthorized tell-all about the years on the sitcom.

Most of the YouTube commenters on the Dr. Oz videos of Lark’s interview support Lark but also question why her cast family hadn’t reached out to her. One commenter mentioned how the cast supported Elizabeth after her adult role attempt in the 1994 cult classic Showgirls.

In the interview, Dr. Oz mentioned how Lark had been MIA in Hollywood almost immediately after Saved By the Bell. She interrupted him and said she went to college. She also had two soap opera roles in The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of Our Lives. After growing up on a white teen sitcom, she actually transitioned into Black Hollywood.

In the mid-90s, she was engaged to Martin Lawrence at the height of Martin fame and even appeared on an episode. She starred on movies that went into rotation on BET such as Civil Brand and straight-to-DVD films such as Fire and Ice. She had roles in How To Be A Player and How High. She also appeared in several music videos, such as Kenny Lattimore’s “Never Too Busy,” Dru Hill’s “These are The Times,” and Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee.”

Lark has said no to reunions in the past like in 2015 when her rep told The Hollywood Reporter her work schedule didn’t permit her to participate in a Jimmy Fallon sketch tribute to the sitcom. She told Dr. Oz this week that it was a triumph for her to leave the house.

The alleged estrangement Lark feels from her ex-castmates shows mental illness can mean unintentional isolation. Friends, even longtime ones, may not know how to cope with the effects and don’t want to add the burden of knowing how to cope, especially when juggling their own families and other friendships. To witness Lark speaking her truth on being left out of the Saved By the Bell‘s ongoing get-togethers, it strikes a chord on how she feels left out and how in reality her character should’ve felt the same way, too.

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