Do you crave dynamic, complex, and entertaining characters and stories focused on women of color? “Harlem,” “P-Valley,” and “Rap Sh!t” are three robust TV shows that will hit the spot.
Black audiences know how badly mass media and pop culture have failed to portray Black, brown, and Indigenous, LGBTQIA, disabled, and neurodiverse people. When representation does exist, it often perpetuates harmful stereotypes and reduces Black characters to sidekicks or comic relief.
“Harlem,” “P-Valley,” and “Rap Sh!t” are (mostly) getting it right by creating worlds by, for, and about us. They highlight multifaceted Black female friendship, explore sexuality and gender on a spectrum, and celebrate Black beauty and body-inclusivity. They also take on real-world social issues.
It would be easy to describe Amazon Prime’s "Harlem" as a Black, millennial version of HBO’s "Sex and the City." While it does fall within the similar genre of post-college female friendships set against the backdrop of modern city life (such as "Insecure" and "Girls"), "Harlem" offers a relatability and authenticity that “Sex and the City” lacked.
The Tracy Oliver series—writer for the acclaimed “Mis-Adventures of an Awkward Black Girl” and ABC’s “The Neighbors”—revolves around four professional Harlem-based women in their 30s as they navigate careers and relationships.
The show highlights the complexities of genuine friendships, complete with conflicts and disagreements, and communities of color struggling with anti-Black microaggressions in the workplace and healthcare system, mental health challenges, strained mother-daughter relationships, and the impact of gentrification.
“Harlem” is refreshing because it embraces Black LGBTQ+ relationships and showcases inclusive beauty standards. Characters like Angie, a plus-sized, vivacious, dark-skinned beauty who proudly wears her natural hair, add vibrancy to the screen and celebrate the diversity of Black beauty.
"P-Valley" captivated viewers with its exceptional writing and ensemble cast. Based on Katori Hall's play, "Pu--y Valley," the show offers a nuanced exploration of Black female sexuality and its commodification.
Initially, I had reservations about watching the series. I feared the show would only hypersexualize the bodies of Black women, but Hall defied my expectations by celebrating the inner and outer strength and beauty of Black women who work as exotic dancers. The women and femmes of “P-Valley” exhibit profound power, resilience, intelligence, love, and beauty.
“P-Valley” lures us in with sex, but keeps viewers hooked with humor and charismatic characters. The audience quickly becomes invested in their dreams, hoping they navigate their challenges unscathed.
The series addresses themes of class, racism, colorism, queerness, homophobia, and complex mother-daughter relationships. The plot delves into casino capitalism, corrupt politicians, and the involvement of rich and powerful elites in unscrupulous land grabs. It’s against this backdrop that characters form strong bonds despite limited life choices and opportunities.
In "Rap Sh!t," two former high school besties reunite to form a female hip-hop duo. Set in Miami, the series explores themes of friendship, motherhood, and the sexual objectification of Black women's bodies in the male-dominated music industry.
Mia (KaMillion), a single mother, makes ends meet by running an OnlyFans page, while Shawna (Aida Osman) works as a concierge after dropping out of college. Shawna's online videos, where she raps in sweats, an afro wig, and a mask, initially attract ridicule. However, Mia convinces Shawna of the importance of embracing sexiness to succeed in hip-hop culture.
"Rap Sh!t,” created by acclaimed writer/producer Issa Rae, also explores complex relationships, nonbinary gender diversity, and body and beauty inclusivity. Both main characters are magnetic, stunning, and unapologetically curvaceous. The upcoming second season of the show promises to deliver more compelling content.
What sets these three shows apart is the Black women who created them. All three artists offer an authentic and loving Black gaze on Black life. These new Black female perspectives are apparent in how each series celebrates the diversity and richness of Blackness and urban multiculturalism.
“Harlem,” “P-Valley,” and “Rap Sh!t” herald a belated new era of nuanced diversity and representation in pop culture and in mass media. We can only hope for their continued success because studios are decades late to this party.