Like many Black people, I’ve learned to turn off my Black brain when I watch white shows. I usually fail, but I’ve trained myself to try. Like when I watch Ozark, I know not to expect any Black people whatsoever. And in the past month when I chose to binge watch Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects—two tales about the plight of white women—I turned my brain off from expecting any inclusion of Black women anywhere in the series. At the very least, I expected the Black women to essentially be extensions of white women without any real reflection of their own Blackness (think: the Black characters in the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale).
What I saw in those shows, instead, was an attempt at portraying Black women’s perspectives. However, the perspectives we got were of Black women who endure the pain and abuse laid upon them by white women, while silently keeping their heads held high or even offering up forgiveness for the salvation of the white psyche. These women are the “Go High” Black women, or “The Bonnie.”
Bonnie, played by Zoë Kravitz, is the lone major Black character in HBO’s Big Little Lies. She is the wife of Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) ex-husband. And she’s less a character and more just generally there to exist as a white woman fever dream; a sexy Frankenstein monster pieced together by white insecurities. Bonnie is a gorgeous, young un-aging Black woman who does yoga, aligns her chakras, works on crafts, and is the source of white angst. When she dances at a birthday party, all the husbands stare and the white women complain. Madeline spends much of the season fretting over Bonnie’s perfection while fantasizing in disgust about how she probably gives great blowjobs.
Of course Madeline takes her insecurities out on Bonnie, at one point chastising and berating her in public in front of their children’s school. Bonnie, in turn, takes the abuse, nods and takes the high road by not responding. Later in the series, Madeline has an allergic reaction and vomits on Bonnie, who still tries to console her through it while reassuring that it’s “alright.” Even though Bonnie played a major role in the ending of the first season and she’ll get a bigger part in the second season, her portrayal in the initial season of Big Little Lies is the culmination of a new iconography of the tag-along Black woman.
Black women also play auxiliary roles in Sharp Objects, a show set in a small Missouri town full of racism and violence. One such character is Becca, who, as a teenager, was part of the high school’s cheerleading team. In the present day, when facing an old high school classmate, Becca makes sure to let the white character know that her past meanness and racism wasn’t so bad. “You were better than most…you were going through a lot,” Becca assures, giving the white protagonist a forgiveness that coddles her whiteness. We never see Becca again in the show.
I assume these portrayals of Black women are supposed to offer some sort of reverence to the strength Black women possess. And I also imagine these Hollywood tropes at least partially come from who white women perceive as the most successful representations of what Black women should be. Of course, there’s Michelle Obama who gave the infamous “whey they go low, we go high” speech in 2016, accompanied by her history of never giving attention to the racist avalanche she faced since she landed on the national political scene. There’s even Serena Williams or Beyonce who have endured racism while keeping their heads held high and never lashing out at the society that tries its hardest to marginalize them.
Reading these women as silent, though, is inaccurate and shortchanges them. They’ve each disrupted, fought back, persevered and faced their oppressors head-on. Even if these women were passive in their resistance, expecting that to be an example for Black women to follow or an expectation for Black women to carry out en masse in perpetuity is regressive as hell. Hollywood’s persistence in presenting that trope is only doing white women favors.
The “Go High” Black woman is, in many ways, an extension of the Black best friend trope we’ve seen for decades in Hollywood. The Black friend whose sole purpose is to look in disbelief or awe at the beauty, strength or general awesomeness of white women. These Black best friends don’t exist for any other reason but to add some comic relief and sass to accentuate the white woman’s great white whiteness. Think Kerry Washington in Save the Last Dance.
In March, Slate wrote an article highlighting the trend of TV shows having Black women play the role of therapist for white protagonists. In this instance, the Black characters are “Go High” Black women because their job requires them to take on those roles. Their jobs as therapists require them to bear the brunt of the white women’s problems without judgment. The Black women here take on the white women issues, process them and offer measured feedback required of therapists—and “Go High” Black women.
Compare the “Go High” Black woman to the way Black female characters written by Black women are portrayed. Olivia Pope or Queen Sugar’s Charlie Bordelon claw back at white opponents with strength but a realistic vulnerability. We see the impacts white antagonism has on them. When Issa on “Insecure” is confronted with microaggressions at the non-profit organization We Got Y’all, we see her working through how to defend herself while trying to keep her job. These are three-dimensional depictions of Black women dealing with white spaces in realistic and effective ways. So maybe it’s a good idea to have Black women in these writing rooms to flesh out the characters so they can be more than canvases for white women to paintbrush their problems upon.
Bonnie looks to have a judgment role in the second season of Big Little Lies that should result in a more fleshed out character that has to reckon with trauma more directly and realistically. And while the show is revered for its tremendous writing, it’s going to do her—and Black people in general—a disservice unless they employ some Black women to help tell these stories. In the meantime, Hollywood could learn from abandoning Bonnies across the board.