Queenie Reigns Supreme on the Small Screen

A comprehensive examination of the Channel 4 and Hulu TV show's merits and limitations as a representation of contemporary Black womanhood on television.
Robby Klein / Getty Images Entertainment / via Getty Images / 2024 Winter TCA Portrait Studio / Queenie / Bellah, Dionne Brown, Candice Carty-Williams
Robby Klein / Getty Images Entertainment / via Getty Images / 2024 Winter TCA Portrait Studio / Queenie / Bellah, Dionne Brown, Candice Carty-Williams / Robby Klein/GettyImages

Being a self-declared TV-addict and an avid fan of the UK’s Channel 4, I have been inundated with trailers for Queenie for months. Suffice to say, I could not wait for its release at the beginning of June. An adaptation of the highly successful 2019 Candice Carty-Williams’ best-selling novel of the same name, she has been dubbed the ‘Black Bridget Jones’ but with Carty-Williams serving as showrunner on the series, it promised to be a closer adaptation than Bridget Jones ever was.

Queenie Jenkins is a twenty-five-year-old British Jamaican woman in the throes of a quarter-life crisis. This term, first coined by Robbins and Wilner in 2001, defines it as a “state of panic, sparked by a feeling of loss and uncertainty.” This is an understatement in Queenie’s case. We meet her in the gynecologist’s office where she finds out she has suffered a miscarriage, her long-term boyfriend then dumps her without her ever getting to tell him, and we watch her struggle to thrive at work as a social media assistant despite her obvious talents. She is played with maturity and depth by the beautiful Dionne Brown, who like Queenie is of London and Jamaican heritage. Over the eight-episode season, we watch her character go on a transcendent, but messy, journey. And not the traditional messy rom-com, where she breaks a heel, gets caught in the rain, and arrives late to work. No. More like self-sabotage, having unprotected sex with inappropriate men, and arriving at work still drunk from the night before kind of mess. The kind we can all relate to. Right?

I think even before its official labeling in 2001, people have always been going through a period of questioning and uncertainty in their mid-20s to early 30s, feeling increasingly uninspired and disillusioned, as the people around them seem to have everything together while their lives feel increasingly out of control. I know I felt like that. I still do sometimes, even as I venture further away from my early 30s. Without a doubt, a strong support network is what sees you through, and it was no different for Queenie. At times, the supporting cast almost stole the show. Queenie forms a group chat dubbed “The Corgis,” a sisterhood for advice on her wide array of problems. The big takeaway is that everyone needs a friend like Kyazike – Queenie’s bestie from school and her number-one hype woman. Played with aplomb by singer/songwriter Bellah in her acting debut, the role was so popular that she reprised it for a series of adverts for mobile phone network giffgaff, where she played agony aunt to callers, offering advice on relationships – the thing she did best for Queenie. Another highlight was Frank, played by Samuel Adewunmi, who previously starred in the BBC thriller, You Don’t Know Me. Could he be the one to change Queenie’s mind about dating Black men?

I won’t lie, Queenie was a slow burner for me. About three episodes in, I found myself thinking, “Is this it?” Maybe my expectations were too high. The trailer had made it look so funny, but I didn’t find myself laughing all that much. Maybe I was too old to relate to her, or too white. But then the flame caught fire, and by the season finale, it was ready to explode. I was Team Queenie all the way! So much so that when I saw how much hate, or perhaps ambivalence, it was getting online, I grew quite despondent, which is maybe why it’s taken me so long to write this review. I was ready to become a keyboard warrior – for Candice, and Dionne, and Bellah. But I know where that road leads. And they don’t need me to fight for them.

I have taken these last few weeks to really analyze why Queenie has been accused of ‘missing the mark’ and ‘not living up to the hype’ like the philosopher I am. The most significant reason I believe is that, at times, watching Queenie makes you feel deeply uncomfortable and if there’s one thing we human beings dislike, it’s feeling uncomfortable. Although it’s sold as a comedy, the story tackles intense themes such as self-worth, childhood trauma and its lasting effects, domestic abuse, estranged parental relationships, and the housing crisis. Queenie tries to resolve her issues through some very disturbing behavior, including binge drinking and casual hookups, that ultimately leave her feeling disempowered and in need of professional help. Although I personally could not relate to most of what her character was going through (thankfully) the superb storytelling and performances drew me in, to the point where I could sympathise with her and sit in my discomfort, rather than choose to withdraw and label her as not relatable or deep enough. I have to agree with the all-time great Brené Brown on this one, “the people who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses in this world.”

As Kathleen Newman-Bremang reminds us, “People want complicated Black female characters until they actually get them.” Candice Frederick of the Huffpost posted on X that her problem with Queenie was “[she] exists in a mostly white world – socially, professionally, and romantically – and never really challenges that.”

My question for Frederick is how she would want Queenie to challenge it while remaining authentic and relatable. Malaika Wa Azania, born Malaika Mahlatsi, is a multifaceted South African writer who published her first book “Memoirs of a Born Free” in 2014, which details her disillusionment with being “born free” in 1991 into an allegedly free South Africa.  She also reflects critically on the famed South African post-apartheid slogan “Rainbow Nation” intended to signify the country is happily multicultural. In her second book, Corridors of Death: The Struggle to Exist in Historically White Institutions, the social commentator explores the lived experiences of Black students in historically White universities in South Africa and how a complex interplay of factors including racism and cultural alienation are causing massive mental health challenges, requiring immediate institutional and structural interventions.

A quick Google search will tell you that South Africa has an 80.2% Black population. If Malaika Wa Azania feels like she is living in a mostly white world and is moved to write books about it, in a country where the White population is a mere 8.4%, imagine how Queenie would feel in the UK where those identifying as Black, Black British, Caribbean or African in the 2021 Census was just 4.2% or a slightly higher 13.5% for London. Yes, Queenie does exist in a mostly white world, a fact I felt made her so relatable. Because it’s a truth. A hard truth. Even in a majority Black country, with a Black government and policies in place to secure Black empowerment, a lot of Black people feel they are living in a White world. Queenie has a diverse social circle – she is in London after all. Furthermore, she has severe trauma involving Black men, no wonder she only wants to date White men. I watched as these issues were dealt with as Queenie soaked up family time, worked through her trauma, cancelled friendships that weren’t serving her, changed career paths, found a new home, and started a new, healthy relationship. Sounds like a lot of challenging behavior to me. In fact, I find myself wondering if Ms. Frederick watched to the end or did she check out due to feelings of discomfort?

Perhaps Ms. Frederick’s problem with Queenie could also be down to a culture clash. In a study reported by The Washington Post on the world’s most and least emotional countries, America and Canada were both in the top 15 most emotional countries. Brits like Queenie on the other hand, regardless of their historical background, are more renowned for their “stiff upper lip” approach to life. The Nation’s catchphrase, embroidered on cushions and plastered across Pinterest boards everywhere is literally “Keep Calm and Carry On.” If that’s not stoicism I don’t know what is. A 2002 study on the physiological aspects of emotional responses showed that in the United States, it is generally acceptable to express negative emotions like fear, anger, and disgust both when you are alone and while in the presence of others. In British society, as recently as the 2021 lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, they were calling in their World War II motivational message to encourage people to keep their heads down and muddle through in times of great distress and difficulty.

Peter Summers / Getty Images News / via Getty Images / Keep Calm and Carry On During Coronavirus Pandemic in UK
Peter Summers / Getty Images News / via Getty Images / Keep Calm and Carry On During Coronavirus Pandemic in UK / Peter Summers/GettyImages

Although times are changing, particularly among younger generations, with more Brits feeling encouraged to go to therapy and seek other mental health services, Queenie’s story shows us that there are still massive hurdles and a challenging stigma in British culture, as well as in Caribbean and Black households. There are also so many stereotypes and conflicting demands placed on immigrants and their descendants demanding they fit in and suppress their own culture, as well as a societal disconnect on how we label Black women as being loud and opinionated but not allowed to show their emotions, all brought to a boiling point in the pivotal season highlight when Queenie unleashes on her therapist, “I can’t not be a strong Black woman, Janet.” But as well as highlighting these issues, the show demonstrates growth as Queenie’s grandparents learn to accept that therapy is healing for her and they help her see that her strength is in her vulnerability. Brené Brown would be so proud!

In closing, if there is anything to complain about with Queenie, it’s that there wasn’t enough of it. The episodes are just over twenty minutes each, barely enough time for character development in a lot of cases. We never get to know Queenie’s ex, Tom. This makes it really hard to empathize with her when she goes into major breakdown mode over their split at the show’s beginning. It also makes it difficult to connect with her character and some of the horrific decisions she makes in the aftermath – because we were never invested in the first place. That’s why it was a slow burner for me. I was hooked once we delved into her childhood trauma and I could relate more than I’d like to admit. Queenie has been the TV highlight of the year for me so far. I would love it if they made a season two, but I seem to be in the minority. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a dance break.

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