Recently, the media seems as fascinated by black women not finding husbands as it is the horrific Gulf Coast oil spill. Interestingly enough, both issues have socioeconomic ramifications, and both dilemmas seem to be mishandled and misunderstood.
As in the case of the spill, these media pundits (and so called "relationship experts") are using the wrong tactics to address the dynamics of marriage within African-American communities. To advise women to, "act like a lady and think like a man," as Steve Harvey does in his book by the same name, is like using a meager conical dome to contain a 3,500 square mile oil slick. It's ignorant, inappropriate and dead wrong. You can't out-slick slick, and you can't make single black women's achievement a problem. The news is dismal enough without having Harvey and Nightline pimp African-American women as pathology.
Research from Yale University suggests that highly educated black women are twice as likely to have never been married by the age of 45 as white women with similar education. Last month, The Economist dropped a bomb in its article, "Sex and the Single Black Woman," when it reported that U.S.-born black women ages 30-44 who were married plunged from 62 percent to 33 percent due to the "explosive" incarceration rates of black men between 1970 and 2007. These stats are enough to clear any dance floor of women waving their left hands in their air singing, "If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it!" So what's a single, successful black woman to do besides watch reruns of Carrie Bradshaw living it up on Sex and the City?
As Queen Latifah sees it, every woman (and man) needs to see her new romantic comedy Just Wright. (Well, she does have a movie to promote.) "I definitely think it can be empowering for women to watch this movie, because the average, everyday woman who works really hard and is successful will see herself in these characters," Latifah says. "But I also think guys will be inspired, too. Men with one idea of what beauty is, this will open their minds to different ideas of beauty. (Just Wright) is about having a relationship with someone that's not based on just looks."
Long story short: Just Wright is a Cinderella story set against the backdrop of the NBA, a grown-folk version of Love & Basketball. NBA all-star Scott McKnight, played by Common, falls in love with Morgan, a superficial, gold-digging glamazon looking for fame and status.
After being sidelined by a knee injury, Scott is consumed by his desire to make the playoffs and spends his days and nights rehabilitating his knee under the care of Leslie Wright, his straightforward, thick-hipped physical therapist, played by Queen Latifah. Morgan loses interest and leaves Scott, who realizes he's attracted to the keep-it-real persona of Leslie. They hook up over chocolate-chip-cookie-and-marshmallow sandwiches and, eventually, after one hiccup, live happily ever after. The good girl, the big girl, the smart, hardworking girl finally gets the man.
The thing is, at times, this Cinderella story plays right into the same assumptions made by Harvey and his cohorts on Nightline. When Scott asks Leslie, "Why are you still single?" many of the women at a recent press screening in New York City let out a huff. "Oh boy. Here we go again," sighed the caramel-skinned beauty next to me.
Disappointed, I wondered why single men never get asked this question. I leaned forward in my seat, hoping Leslie would twirl around and reply, "Because I want to be!" Instead, she looks intently at Scott and says, "I just haven't found what I'm looking for." This idea of not being able to find Mr. Right feeds into the implied notion that African-American women's expectations are too high—that wanting someone who matches our level of education and earning power is unrealistic and self-isolating. It's a trope that we've seen one too many times.
Advance reviews on Just Wright haven't been glowing. But Queen Latifah portrays Les with such zeal, spirit and passion that she transcends the film's limitations. We don't take pity on her character's ring-free status; if anything, we take pity on Scott. Maybe, as Latifah (nee Dana Owens) suggested to me, the man is the Cinderfella of this movie. "I think it was him who found himself not her," the Jersey native says. "I think Leslie was okay with her life. She was going to move on and do whatever she had to do for her. It wasn't really about her realizing how she felt about him. It was him who had to come to terms with his feelings in his heart and soul."
It's interesting to note that the fictional Leslie seems to have a better grasp on life and love than the women currently starring in VH1's reality show, Basketball Wives, where the real wives, fianceés and girlfriends of players like Shaquille O'Neal and Matt Jones regularly catfight, cry and shop ‘til they drop. These women are more in line with the character Morgan, played by Paula Patton, whose life goal is to become the trophy wife of a famous athlete by any means necessary. The fact that she is light-skinned and Halle-Berry-gorgeous was part of director Sanaa Hamri's vision, as the Wannabee/Jiggaboo politics of beauty inevitably factor in to who is considered attractive in black communities.
"You know the fascination with light-skinned girls that have that look is not a problem exclusive to NBA players," says Hamri, who is fair-skinned and mixed herself. "It's a shame because all of our bodies and skin tones are beautiful and should be appreciated."
Speaking of bodies, Leslie (like Latifah) is no size 4 Wannabee. She delights in eating ("I'm not one of those salad-eating chicks") and is clearly familiar with Dark-n-Lovely hair straightener. She challenges the one-sided representations of black women seen in music videos and on the very real-life arms of ball players and rappers like Kobe Bryant and Kanye West. Very seldom do we see women that look like Leslie in romantic comedies, or, if we do, she's the single sidekick, not the one happily getting her freak on with the very attractive lead. "Hollywood is not going to put a regular-looking black woman in a love scene, which is funny because they have no problems seeing a size 0 white model with the big fake boobs in lingerie on TV at 2 in the afternoon," says Hamri. "But when I show a (black) woman in her realness, it all of a sudden is perceived as strange."
A downside to any Cinderella story—besides turning back to a handmaiden at the stroke of midnight—is the assumption that marriage is the ultimate desire and goal. If our man does not put a ring on it, then should we forgo our Jimmy Choos for glass-slipper fairy tales?
Pam Grier, who plays Janice, Leslie's mother who herself has never been married, is emphatic: "Marriage is not the answer. It's not like it was 50 years ago when being married validated a woman's place in society." Grier, who famously played superstrong women like Foxy Brown and Coffy in the '70s, is clearly over Disney-inspired themes of love. "I think partnership is much more appealing. Marriage is in a way almost archaic. In today's world it's not even relevant in defining most relationships. The key today is to start with equanimity and partnership."
Although they are 20 years apart, Latifah, 40, echoes Grier's sentiments: "Sometimes we want a man to warm our beds or on our arm, and we get lonely," says Latifah, whose parents divorced when she was 10. "But I think women are often pushed into having to be married. We're told we have to have a man, and I think that idea is not the best thing for all women. It makes us desperate. Sometimes we feel like we have to have a man in our lives no matter what, and because of this, we often do not choose the right man. That's why the Cinderella concept doesn't work entirely in this case. Just Wright showed that the process for finding love is not that easy, that there's a process and these characters just don't jump ship to get married. There was a level of confidence and self-love with Leslie that allowed herself to fantasize, but she was by no means delusional about her relationships."
No surprise coming from the woman whose biggest hit to date is "Ladies First."
Nicole Moore is founder and editor of theHotness.com and can be found on Twitter @thehotnessgrrrl.