3 reasons why Girlfriends was way ahead of its time


Girlfriends came to Netflix last month, along with several other classic Black sitcoms. And although the show originally aired 20 years ago, it truly is timeless.

The sitcom Girlfriends, created by Mara Brock Akil, originally premiered back in September 2000, and it ended in 2008 after eight seasons. Last month, the sitcom was brought to Netflix alongside other classic Black sitcoms as part of the streaming platform’s “Strong Black Lead” marketing initiative.

And if the show’s arrival on Netflix proves one thing, it’s this: Even after 20 years, Girlfriends remains relevant as ever. In fact, there are some clear instances throughout the series that prove it was ahead of its time — and that it paved the way for current Black content on television. The comedy brought up topics we’re still grappling with today and represented a fresh perspective that still lands.

There is so much that I could dive into, but here are three reasons Girlfriends was ahead of its time.

Joan’s Natural Hair

Watching Girlfriends on Netflix was the first time I had really seen the show as an adult, and the moment I saw Joan Clayton’s hair, I was reminded of my preteen excitement over it. For young me, that was the first time I saw a Black woman wear her natural hair on television, and it was a texture that was similar to mine. Seeing this helped me see the beauty in my own hair and the possibilities I could achieve by just being myself.

And I’m not the only one who felt this way. Tracee Ellis Ross has been credited for being a natural hair inspiration during a time in the early 2000s when bone -straight, “well-kept” hair was the popular trend. Other Black sitcoms, from the ’80s to the early 2000s, did have characters who wore their hair naturally, or in iconic protective styling — for example, Brandy’s braids in Moesha,  Maxine’s braided bob in Living Single, Tia and Tamera’s natural curls in Sister, Sister, and the natural styles of the Huxtable sisters from The Cosby Show. (Also, let us not forget Whoopi Goldberg paving the way for dreadlocks in Hollywood.) But Joan was among the few Black sitcom characters who consistently wore their hair naturally, and that’s important.

If you’re not familiar with Girlfriends, then you probably know about Ross from her role on Black-ish and from her hair being so iconic in the mainstream and the natural hair community. (Also, she is Diana Ross’ daughter.) When Ross was on Girlfriends, she wasn’t receiving that level of praise for her hair. Often, she was doing her own hair because people didn’t know what to do with it. In an interview, she talked about going to the Essence Music Festival 10 years ago, and a woman telling her, “Girl, you’re on TV. You need to get your hair done. Put some heat on your hair! What are you doing?”

Ross never backing down from wearing her hair naturally has definitely made a positive impact, but now Ross’ hair is the mainstream, acceptable version of natural hair. She even inspired the “That moment you realize you don’t have Tracee Ellis Ross hair” meme. Although this meme is relatable, it points to a huge problem in the natural hair community: texture discrimination. So much has changed, but so much is still the same. Although natural hair is more acceptable to wear, 4C, tightly coiled, kinky hair is often seen as less desirable than the Tracee Ellis Ross 3A-3C texture styled hair. For natural hair ads or ads that have Black women in them, the women featured mostly like have looser curls and are mixed or light-skinned.

Many natural hair YouTube creators have pointed to the issue of texture discrimination in the natural hair community. Ross said she doesn’t like the meme:

"“There is nothing in me that wanted anything about my hair or who I am to make someone feel bad about themselves. If anything, I would want my hair to inspire someone to figure out what their hair could do because that was the journey I had been on.”"

Ross started her own coil, curly, and tight-textured hair care line in 2019, called Pattern. Her love for natural hair came from her own journey of learning how to love her hair and understanding the best way to take care of it. The website shows a diverse array of hair textures and skin tones. As CEO of Pattern, Ross is continuing her mission of helping Black people love and nurture their hair.

Black Women Friendships Make TV Great

Girlfriends told the story of four friends in their 20s and 30s: Maya Wilkes (Golden Brooks), Toni Childs (Jill Marie Jones), Joan Clayton (Tracee Ellis Ross), and Lynn Searcy (Persia White ), along with their male addition to the group, William Dent (Reggie Hayes). It looks at their individual experiences and struggles relating to career, love, family, being a modern Black woman, and, the main focus: their friendship.

Girlfriends was significant at the time because it was the one of the only shows depicting a group of loving, supportive Black girlfriends during the genesis of reality TV, where Black women were fighting each other, most of the time over men and achieving fame. In an interview with Charlamange tha God, the actresses emphasized how sensitive they were to how they represented their characters because they were one of the few shows representing Black women at the time. Brooks mentioned that they were all equally serious about the representation of Black women on TV. “They had woke actors,” said Jill, referring to the fact that the girls were also collaborators with the producers and writers, and were making sure their characters were positive examples of Black women.

These four talk a lot about their relationships with men, but there were moments in the show that proved that female friendship is an equally important love story in a woman’s life. These friendships on the show weren’t perfect and might have even had some toxic moments, but seeing the women’s commitment to each other was refreshing.

The first episode of the show was about Toni dating Joan’s ex-boyfriend and Joan having an issue with it, although she didn’t originally express it to Toni. The episode concluded with Joan and Toni choosing each other over the man, standing him up at a restaurant, and having Italian with Lynn instead.  In season two, Toni and Joan worked on their friendship by going to therapy, which was rocky after Joan accidentally revealed to Toni’s ex that Toni was cheating on him, and Toni retaliated by trying to sleep with Joan’s boyfriend. We only hear about married couples going to therapy. It was exciting to see women take their friendships as seriously as a marriage.

Ross pointed out in The Breakfast Club interview that Joan’s greatest love story was her friendship with Toni.  Unfortunately, the friendship eventually ended and the conflict never got resolved. Their relationship is often compared to Molly and Issa’s friendship on Insecure, where the main storyline and as challenging as the girls’ individual dating lives. We have to wait until season five to see if Molly and Issa’s friendship will survive. Insecure couldn’t have existed without Girlfriends proving there is an audience that wants to see Black girl friendships on TV.

Marriage Isn’t Everything

A frequent joke that was made about Joan on the show was that she couldn’t keep a man. Joan had an obsession with getting married. Most of her relationships ended because Joan was frustrated by her partners’ unwillingness to commit. Once Joan felt like it was time for her boyfriend at the time to propose, she would get frustrated and run the man away.

In the seventh episode of season seven, Joan revealed her very sad marriage collection: two chests filled with wedding dresses and other wedding day accessories. Maya finally kept it real with Joan and told her that “she was wearing the hope chests around her neck,” that everyone could see her desperation to get married in her actions and the way she approached men. The episode ends with Joan enjoying her wine and dinner with “Girl Put Your Records On” playing in the background. A voicemail plays from a man she last went on a date with, asking her if she wanted to meet up with him again. She decided not to call him back and enjoyed her dinner. Her last line was, “Just Joan,” the title of the episode.

Ross can relate to this feeling. In her live interview with Oprah on Oprah’s 2020 Visionaries Tour, she said:

"“I, like many [women], was taught to grow up dreaming of my wedding, not of my life… and also waiting to be chosen. But here’s the thing, I’m the chooser, and I can choose to get married if I want to, but in the meantime, I’m by choice fully single. Happy, joyfully single.”"

She even mentioned that her younger self would’ve never imagined that she would be so happy and confident being single at 47.

Girlfriends started the conversation we are still having today about marriage.  Is marriage necessary? Is being married later on in life a failure? The show teaches us that marriage can be wonderful, and it’s a lovely thing to want for yourself, but attaching your worth to whether you are married or not can be damaging. Joan couldn’t be happy with herself or any partner she was with because marriage was her goal. Once Joan enjoyed her other sources of happiness in her life — her career, her friends, and her own company — she was a lot happier and was even ready to take on a new relationship.

Related Story. Netflix acquires classic Black comedies including Moesha, Girlfriends. light

Are you a fan of Girlfriends? What’s something you noticed about the show you didn’t notice when it was on the air? Comment below!