Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Popular Culture by Carefree Black Girls Zeba Blay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Popular Culture by Zeba Blay examines how a viral hashtag focused on Black females living their truths forces the author to revisit periods of pop culture history where the notion of being a carefree Black girl actually comes with some hard truths.

Yet the culture that Black women pour talents and their creativity into, the culture that emulates Black women, steals from Black women, needs Black women, is the same culture that belittles Black women, excludes Black women, ignores Black women.

Culture critic Zeba Blay coined the phrase #carefreeblackgirl in 2013 as “a way to carve out a space of celebration and freedom for Black women online.” She studies how the hashtag evolved in the chapter “Free of Cares,” starting with a phrase of the early twentieth century: “I’m free, white, and 21!” This phrase became a Hollywood catchphrase between the 1920s and 1940s with Black journalists at the time criticizing the phrase as perpetuating White supremacy since being White equates freedom, which is the untrue experience to groups who are not considered White. Though the term falls out of vernacular, the author sees the phrase still play out today from Sex and the City to the modern-day Karens quick to call the police on anyone who’s Black. And even the phrase “carefree Black girl” takes a life of its own where it seems to easily be bestowed upon lighter-skinned, thin Black actresses such as Zendaya and Yara Shahidi while Black critics argue Black females will never have the comfort to be carefree in a Eurocentric society. The phrase even derives from fellow Black writer Collier Meyerson’s Tumblr blog called “Carefree White Girls” that featured White female celebrities from Taylor Swift to Zooey Deschanel who epitomize the “deification of white womanhood.”

The first chapter “Bodies” explores how the Black female body is berated constantly from the Middle Passage to the present. Lizzo and her body is the highlight of the chapter, particularly a moment in April 2020 when the pop star was twerking for a charity “dance-a-thon” hosted via social media by Diddy to raise money for people affected by COVID-19. Once Lizzo begins twerking, Diddy tells her to stop because the watchers need family-friendly entertainment, especially on Easter Sunday. Later in the Instagram live special, reality TV star Draya Michele, who’s thinner and lighter-skinned, begins twerking without any protest. Many think it’s fatphobic for Lizzo to be told to not twerk in public. Others berate Lizzo all the time for revealing her body on social media every chance she gets. The author also shows how Lizzo announced she would be participating in a smoothie detox and points out how White female fat-positive bloggers accused Lizzo of being fatphobic.

The conversation on Lizzo turns to the 1990s portrayal of Countess Vaughn on the hit show Moesha about a Black girl growing up in South Los Angeles. Countess played opposite pop star Brandy’s Moesha as best friend Kim Parker. Her weight becomes a constant punchline, many realize after reliving the show twenty years later when its August 2020 debut on Netflix alarms Black Twitter as tweeters share the collective disgust. The author even calls out the desexualization of fat Black women in entertainment. She points to the portrayal of Kelli, played by Natasha Rothwell, on HBO’s Insecure, where explicit sex scenes are a constant but never feature Kelli. The character talks about her sexual romps, but we never see them or meet her lovers. In the recent series finale, Kelli announces she’s having a baby with a character the audience barely knows because her romantic love growth is never shown on screen compared to the other three main female leads.

The author puts a recent moment like Lizzo’s twerking for COVID-19 relief under a microscope and another moment from a generation ago about Kim Parker’s treatment from her so-called friends on her weight. Then there’s self-reflection as the author views how hard it is to accept her own body thanks to the Eurocentric beauty standard where her body, Lizzo’s body, Countess’ body are unacceptable, and the fact that they are living in their body is too much for many people to accept.

In “Strong Black Lead” playing on Netflix’s name for Black programming, the author details her mental health struggles including suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts. (The book comes with a trigger warning in the beginning.) What she was going through materialized in her writings at the time as she pondered how she was really helping readers then with sharing her draining experiences. It makes her think of other Black women in her life who have struggled but are determined to “stay strong.” The strong Black female trope is examined with calling out somewhat beloved characters such as Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope on the Shonda Rhimes-helmed political TV drama Scandal to Viola Davis’ Aibileen Clark in the film The Help that many view as problematic with the White savior theme.

Overall, the book is like reading viral pop culture tweets coming from Black Twitter and getting the context that you may never think to reference as the reason why you would like such tweets. The content dives deeper with making comparisons between famous Black women living the height of celebrity now to those who lived at the height in yesteryears. The author shows how the battle is the same, rooted in underappreciation for the Black female’s talent whereas a non-Black female’s talent may receive better treatment over her weight, her age, her appearance. It’s amazing to see the author tie in so many current events with past events and pick them apart to study the relevance and the definition of being a carefree Black girl.

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