Review: ‘Iyanla’ interrogates the wrong end of the Angry Black Woman trope
The “Angry Black Woman” trope is nothing new, but it’s been under increased scrutiny since its derided inclusion in a 2014 New York Times profile of Viola Davis. It’s even more dangerous than the “Magical Negro” and “Sassy Black Best Friend,” which also see black personhood as parts of a story centered on white experiences, because it casts black women in the role of villain. Not just furniture in the story, but an active and menacing presence.
I was older than I care to admit when I realized that the bizarrely contentious interactions I had with strangers were not just amusing anecdotes for my (mostly) white friends: As my circle expanded to include more black women, and each of them shared their similar experiences, it became unavoidably clear that the commonality was our presenting race and gender. Our mere presence can read as antagonistic to strangers, who feel no hesitation reacting by instigating conflict — and none of us is born wondering, in those situations, whether we’ve even cast the first stone.
Pushing back against this trope is the stated purpose of the four-part season premiere of “Iyanla, Fix My Life: The Myth of the Angry Black Woman,” which rolled out this weekend, but the bizarre way it approaches the phenomenon is something past viewers of the program may have already anticipated.
To erase the trope of the Angry Black Woman, ultimately, it’s necessary to reach those who do not fall into that intersection — who are non-black or do not have the experience of womanhood, who have no reason to consider it a lived experience with its own context and qualities — and demonstrate to them that black women are first individuals, whose emotions and presence in the world proceed from that first context.
It would be great, for example, to see Iyanla invite eight white women (or men) to her “House of Healing” and challenge them on their negative stereotypes of black women.
But Iyanla is a self-help guru, and that’s an industry that relies heavily on criticizing the people seeking help: Those who don’t think they need help — those generally in the wrong — are not the ones out buying e-books about improving their lives.
Self-help is always more about differential branding than assistance, and Iyanla’s brand is emotional labor. She labels herself “her sister’s keeper,” and exhorts others to do the same. This puts Iyanla herself directly in the territory of another trope: The stalwart, silently suffering Strong Black Woman.
The first sign that this story will not include a solution is the opening aerial shot of the “House of Healing” itself: A cavernous, isolated Mediterranean mansion built on the side of a hill, a real estate listing only Batman could love. An environment where you could get lost and eaten by a coyote on your way back from the pool does not feel conducive to healing. At least, not so much as mindful consideration of the self, and all one’s flaws.
Iyanla then gathers these women into the HoH’s sitting room and asked to introduce themselves and their anger, which seems righteous and justified when we finally get the details (“Jaimeka, 31: Mom of 3, Dating a Cheater”, “Chrystale, 45: Divorced, Actress”, etc.). I am not a person who believes anger is an emotion to be discarded at all costs — it’s just the unconstructive ways we display our anger that need to be modulated at times. But with a group of women who are legitimately angry, right now in this moment, what exploration of, or challenge to, the “myth” is even possible?
In another discouraging turn, Iyanla voice-overs that these women are “damaged, but have been labeled as angry” (as if damage can’t result in anger; that it is not the women themselves labeling, and claiming, their anger).
Only six minutes in, we’re clear on Iyanla’s intent: Not to address the myth of the Angry Black Woman at all, so much as to subsume the righteous anger of these women into the more conventionally acceptable emotions — and narratives — of vulnerability, victimization, and sadness.
Iyanla ends the introductions with a list of house rules, including “no sex, with each other or yourself or anyone else” to prevent the women from acting out their feelings sexually — which I can buy for the other two, but is a very weird take on masturbation. The women look sad and tired as they receive this information, and on leaving the House of Healing, Iyanla declares, “There’s nothing you can do about it! You can’t even leave!” Which made me, watching, suddenly sad and tired as well.
The show itself is edited strangely, with little time shown or spent (it’s impossible to tell which) on Iyanla actually talking to the women about their problems. This is unfortunate, because one-on-one interaction is where Iyanla really does offer value: Sometimes all we can do is control how we respond to other people, and when that’s the case, Iyanla offers good, personalized coping strategies.
Unfortunately for these particular residents, she just kind of pops in every now and then to poke someone’s sore spot in a group setting, offer an aphorism, laugh loudly at her own jokes, and then leave to let these women “work on healing” by themselves — a process she never seems to have defined (beyond the fact that it definitely does not involve masturbation).
Left to their own devices, some of these eight strangers head to bed and some head for the liquor cabinet. (Which is very much allowed!) Alana (38, “Mom of 1, Former Plus-Size Model”) and Gloria (46, “Divorced, Attorney”) get into an argument (captured on Jaimeka’s phone) that immediately recapitulates a Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired Top Ten hit: Reality staple “No, You Are Being Too Loud.”
In the morning, we get confessionals (filmed in a tiny terra-cotta wine closet, which is so “Cask of Amontillado” I did get a little of my life) where Gloria and Jaimeka seem to regret the conflict — but Alana does not. (Is this because she is Angry?)
Iyanla shows up to the house for a strange exercise where the women stand in a line, reveal a negative emotion (“I’m Bitter!” “I’m Pissed!”) printed on their t-shirt, and then declare how, via their emotions, are each contributing to the Angry Black Woman stereotype!
“Women: You are holding back progress by having uncomfortable emotions.” Fresh ground to be sure, and not at all damaging or hateful. By lunchtime on day one, we’re officially turning into the skids. (Who is this show for? Reading this, do you feel your Life being Fixed?)
To wrap up, Iyanla tells the women about her half-Native American, half-black grandmother, who cleaned houses for racists who would call her all manner of slurs — and, of course, how Grandma Iyanla had to swallow all that bigotry without rebuttal because America Was Slightly Farther From Great Than It Is Today (Which Is Still Quite Far).
To me, this nasty story is a great illustration of the utility of anger — the value of having some small freedom to express it.
To Iyanla, the moral of the tale is this: “if you knew what your grandmothers went through, you wouldn’t call another woman out of her name.” (Emphasis all mine.) So, to sum up:
- Black women should be more sensitive (?) about name-calling (?) because of racism (???).
- If you think you are Angry, first check and make sure that you are not the problem. Nope, check again.
- Remember how lucky you are to live in a world where you are merely Angry, rather than in the distant past when you might have been even Angrier.
- Suck it up, because this is absolutely your own fault — unless it is the fault of the women of color all around you, or those who came before. Probably both.
- Wear a t-shirt about it, in case you forget to feel ashamed.
Not bad for a day’s work, Iyanla. You have Fixed it — and with three more episodes in this hard-hitting series to go! Like next week, when she invites a man to explain to the black women why they are so angry… And more importantly, how that perceived anger threatens their sexual value… To him.
It is most likely I will not be seeing you there.
“Iyanla: Fix My Life” airs Saturdays at 9/8c on OWN.
Originally published at screenertv.com on September 13, 2016.