In a world where Black lesbian characters are both limited and limiting, Jerrie Johnson and her portrayal of tech–star Tye in Amazon Prime’s ‘Harlem’, is a welcome reset in how we categorize queerness through our television screens.
The ten episode series follows four Black women in the Black Mecca known as Harlem as they wade the waters of whitewashed professional settings, codependent friendships, and seemingly never ending bouts of singlehood. Tye, a tailored suit wearing tech savvy entrepreneur, strives to make dating a bit more tolerable, at least for New York’s queer communities. “Q”, the fictional dating app developed by the character aims to connect the market’s singles, which in the real world, is much more complex than “boy meets girl”, or in this case, “butch meets femme.”
In the pilot episode, we see Tye traverse territory she had yet to explore, sex with another masculine of center woman. In the scene prior where initial interest was sparked, both characters confess to never having dealt with another “masc woman”. And although Tye was left less than satisfied (for other reasons), the casual encounter shows how expansive love between Black women can be, regardless of outer representation.
When speaking to NBC News, Johnson said she also has a heavy hand in styling the character.
“For Tye, I had a lot of those conversations with the costume designer, Deidra [Elizabeth Govan], who is amazing, who didn’t want Tye to be any stereotypical butch lesbian that you see, because we want to push the conversation forward,” she explained. “Not only do we want to show real reflections of nuanced Black women, but also to elevate the conversation. There is no such thing as a Black queer woman who owns a tech company in America right now, so that is a new thing that we’re seeing,” she said about the show.
If gay is the new Black (and Hollywood’s newest cash cow), then showrunners have a social responsibility to depict queer characters with more complexity, in the same way we expect Blackness on film to offer more than the sassy receptionist in the hospital drama, or the promising athlete with a troubled home life. The spectrum is not only wide but deep, and viewers both in and outside of LGBTQIA+ identities deserve to witness and respond to that depth.
“I’m always speaking to those people who are from where I’m from, who want to see people like them, who want to hear people who sound like them, and that is so, so, so important to me — just so we can expand people’s visions of what’s possible,” she continued. “Tye is expanding people’s visions of what is possible for a Black queer woman, and that’s the kind of characters that I want to play.”
Yes, Johnson and her character Tye are pushing boundaries blindly drawn by traditionally straight white male writing rooms, but there is still space to critique the series at large, and Tye’s character in particular. To begin, ‘Harlem’ is sure to catch ‘Sex and The City’ and ‘Run The World’ comparisons with the extravagant and perhaps unrealistic expectations provided of what NY living looks like for the average 30 something. (Meagan Good’s character lives in a spacious and designer-curated brownstone as an adjunct professor for instance.) Meanwhile, in the first scene we see of the ensemble together, the four friends are gathered at a swanky Harlem restaurant. Tye pulls up tardy to the party on the heels of a big meeting. She kisses the other ladies at the table, and while still standing, proceeds to take a picture of her crotch to send to a new love interest “who’s into sexting”. Yes, the corporate tech exec dropped trou for a public pussy pic.
The character also hits us with a few split finger tongue flicks, another fuck boi moment Tracy Oliver and co. could have left on the cutting room floor.
Despite its few flaws, ‘Harlem’ and Jerrie Johnson are worth the watch. The show is Johnson’s first experience as a series regular, and expresses her excitement about the role.
“I think this will be a very liberating experience, and I’m so glad that it’s happening in Harlem, which is where I live now, because Harlem is so vibrant,” Johnson said. “It’s just thriving with Blackness, Black art — everything Black. I just think this show is definitely going to make a statement in more ways than one.”