BBFs 4-Ever?

The Los Angeles Times had a piece yesterday about the television and movie trend of the BBF–the Black Best Friend:

Julia Louis-Dreyfus has one. Sandra Bullock had one. So did Jennifer Garner and Katie Holmes. Jennifer Love Hewitt has had two. Calista Flockhart took hers dancing. Kate Walsh had one, lost her, and got another one with a different face but the same name. And Scarlett Johansson got her first one last weekend.
They’re stars who have all played lead characters who experience adventure with the help of their BFF (Best Friend Forever). But in many cases, these BFFs might more accurately be characterized as BBFs — Black Best Friend — played by an African American actress whose character’s principal function is to support the heroine, often with sass, attitude and a keen insight into relationships and life.

Rose Catherine Pinkney, executive vice president of programming and production for TV One and a former Paramount Studios executive, says “…[I]t’s a shame that studios also don’t have the courage to put these actresses in leads…Historically, people of color have had to play nurturing, rational caretakers of the white lead characters. And studios are just not willing to reverse that role.”
Sounds like the “magical black man” syndrome. Charming.
But the article is quick to point out that unlike movies or shows where black and white men are shown to be buddies, the relationship between women on screen follows a rather predictable formula:

BBFs vary in personality and looks, but many share the same qualities: They are gorgeous, independent, loyal and successful. They live or work with their friend but are not really around all that much except for well-timed moments when the heroine needs an eating companion or is in crisis. BBFs basically have very little going on, so they are largely available for such moments. And even though they are single or lack consistent solid relationships, BBFs are experts in the ways of the world, using that knowledge to comfort, warn or scold their BFF.

Oh yeah, and they’re usually the only person of color around. Way to go, Hollywood.

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    Even in the films where Black men and White men are “buddies” it’s always an unequal relationship.
    This is not to deny the whole racist dynamic of the Black woman best friend character, who’s basically a sounding board/amateur therapist for the White woman character’s personal problems.
    And of course, there’s another type of Black woman character – the ovesexed Black woman who comes on to the White man in a hypersexual way (and, of course, he rejects her “exotic” sexuality for the more traditional, “ladylike” non sexual White woman love interest)
    An indie film from 2004 called “The Breakup Artist” illustrates this very well (and it has plenty of sexism left over for the White women characters too!!)
    In the film, TV producer Jim Verdi (Joseph Lyle Taylor) is a commitment-phobe who’s broken off yet another relationship.
    His best friend/co worker Teresa (Paula Devicq) is a stereotypical marrage crazed woman trying to arm twist her reluctant fiance to marry her.
    Of course, the screenwriter feels that Jim and Teresa are destined to get together – but, along the way, we go through the typical boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl hollywood film stuff.
    Among the complications is Jim’s sexy new neighbor Mona (Sarita Choudhury).
    [Yes, technically she's not Black - the actor who plays the part is Indian and her character is an ill defined "exotic" - when Jim asks her ethnicity she says "I'm from all over" - but she is very dark skinned and is one of only two women of color in the entire film]
    Jim meets Mona when she’s moving in (and we know the screenwriter wants us to think she’s a slut because she has this giant 20 foot by 20 foot naked portrait of herself – the movers are bringing it in the building when we and Jim first meet Mona).
    Mona falls for Jim (despite the fact that she catches him stealing a pair of her panties – presumably to masturbate with – within 5 minutes of meeting her!) but she soon realizes that his true love lies with Teresa and she tells him to go and profess his true love for his chaste non sexual best friend Teresa.
    Incidentally, despite being very pretty and oversexualized, as well as a supposedly world famous photographer, Mona does not have a boyfriend, or any kind of independent social life of her own!
    Teresa has a Black Best Friend in her life, Frankie (Michole White).
    Frankie is a very sexualized woman – when we first meet her, she’s talking in detail about her plans to have sex with her personal trainer, and in literally every scene she’s in, Frankie talks incessently about her sexual fantasies about White and/or light skinned Latino men.
    But, the main purpose of Frankie’s character is to be a sounding board for Teresa and her problems, and to urge her to go with Jim.
    Incidentally, just like Mona, despite the fact that Frankie is an attractive hypersexual woman, she does not have a boyfriend, or any kind of independent social life.
    This is all too typical of how Hollywood portrays women of color!

  • Unree

    “Not really around all that much” except when the male POV needs her to advance the puny story line also describes the female love interest in Hollywood flicks. Racism and sexism at the movies have a lot in common.

  • Jix

    The same is usually true for queer characters in entertainment, only they are usually (a relative term; queers are nearly nonexistent in this way) queer characters are male and white (the gay best friend).
    TPTB (sometimes) recognize the need for minorities (people of color, et al) to be represented in their television shows and movies, but are reluctant to place anyone but a straight white male in the lead role. Therefore, said minority characters are usually relegated to supporting roles.

  • Jix

    That should read “they are usually . . . male and white.”

  • UneFemmePlusCourageuse

    They forgot Anne Hathaway and her BBF Tracie Thoms in The Devil Wears Prada. An annoying thing? In the book, Thoms’ character Lily was supposed to be a white woman obsessed with Russian literature. In the movie, she’s an African-American artist–and of course, the only black character in it. Also–I don’t have problems with colourblind casting, but when the ‘casting’ takes a fairly major character in the original storyline and then removes all of her personality, storyline, and character development in order to make her nothing but the ‘sassy black best friend,’ it’s annoying.

  • Persephone

    One of my friends a couple of months ago talked me into watching “Not Another Teen Movie” (a movie making fun of the teen movies from the 90’s). When I read this, the first thing that came to mind was the part in the movie where all of the football players are standing around talking and their black friend approaches them. He tells them something to the extent of, “I’m the stereotypical black guy. My job is to stand around and say stuff like “DAMN!” or “THAT’S WHACK!” The movie was pretty stupid all around, but that part stood out to me because I’ve never seen a teen movie with a black lead, and whenever there is a black person (typically male), they pretty much have the job that the movie was poking fun of.

  • Jayble

    I have noticed the BBF phenomenon and been disturbed by it. Either give the character some more screen time and a personality that isn’t a stereotype, or even the lead, or find some other way form for exposition.

  • ekf

    The only show above where they did something cool with the BBF was “Alias,” where Jennifer Garner’s BBF, Francie, was killed by an evil double. While Francie had been nothing but a typical BBF (without the “sassy” attitude, thankfully), her double was promoted to a full-on villian, getting to kick ass, fuck the hottest guy in the show (Sark, a deliciously evil Briton), and make Garner’s character and her milquetoast boyfriend Vaughn look like fools.
    Plus, she wasn’t the only person of color on the show. Sydney’s partner, Dixon, was badass in his own right and did not fall prey to Magickal Negro caricatures (he wasn’t just sexual — after his wife was killed, he had secret sexcapades with Angela Bassett, living out a fantasy of most men and a huge number of women, too).
    Not that it wasn’t a show about white people and the black people who help them out — it had that aspect, to be sure. But of the shows up there, it did a much better job in a regrettable TV environment as compared with the others.
    The post above being reason #634 why the sublime Gina Torres needs to play “Wonder Woman” in the live action movie. Won’t happen, but would reflect a much better world than the one in which we live if it did.

  • JenLovesPonies

    I feel like this is true about all movie best friends, and it just so happens that lately all those best friends are black. Hmmm…. I think I have to rewatch some movies with a more critical eye

  • UltraMagnus

    SHHHHHHH, don’t complain or talk about it! Or else TPTB will take the BFF away from us and we’ll be back to being maids and prostitutes! Baby steps, people, ba-bee steps. [/sarcasm];)

  • UneFemmePlusCourageuse

    And actually, this is another reason for me to like Scrubs so much–Turk isn’t the stereotypical ‘black guy.’ There are a few things he does that fit that bill, but he has a definite personality of his own, he has his own storylines, his own romantic life, strengths and weaknesses. He’s a realistic character, which I think is awesome for a show like that.

  • aletheia_shortwave

    How about Sebastian, the miniature, emasculated Haitian helper crab for King Triton in Disney’s Little Mermaid? Or Eddie Murphy as the miniature black dragon in Mulan? Disney helps us out with the critical interpretations by literally making black people 1/8th the size of white people.
    Not to mention the way that in The Little Mermaid, they make a running gag out of the French colonization of Haiti by sending the French chef after Sebastian… it’s okay, apparently, if they turn the French guy into a racist stereotype, too.