The Importance of Lena Waithe

I first watched Lena Waithe in Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, an experimental, cinematic comedy centered on Ansari’s Dev and his life. Even amongst the diverse cast, set to reflect New York City and Ansari’s experiences, Lena Waithe’s Denise glimmered as a one-of-a-kind character on TV. Female, black, and openly lesbian. She had effortless cool, great style, and endless wisdom.

It wasn’t until Season 2 of Master of None that she became a national hero. She co-wrote the Thanskgiving episode, a look back on Denise’s Thanksgivings with her family from 1995 to 2017. Watching that episode was one of the most profound moments I experienced with television and film. There’s Denise, and her childhood — the Jennifer Aniston poster in her bedroom, her sneakers and hats, the moment she tells Dev that she is “Lebanese” (Note: I don’t know how well that translates to people who haven’t seen the show, so the alt is just “she tells Dev that she is gay”).*

*Not an actual note

There’s also her family — her mother, grandmother, and aunt, who all struggle with Denise’s identity. It is a story of coming out, and a reflection on truth.  It captured the painful realities and the reliefs that many people experience during their own way to their identity. What is amazing about all of this, and Lena’s work in this, is how she shows her character’s complete self, not just the gay or black elements. Her character is a rare vision of reality in television where stereotypes run amok. Denise is not reduced to the three words that might define her most easily. Instead, she is a female who is not the romantic interest of her male friends, she is a lesbian without being the few lesbian stereotypes the world stamps on people, and she is a black person without all the characteristics a predominantly white world stamps on black people.

Denise’s identity in the world clearly shines through in a scene where she tells her mother that she is gay.

Denise: Ma, why you crying?

Catherine: I don’t want life to be hard for you. It’s hard enough being a black woman in this world, now you want to add something else to that.

Denise: It’s not like this was my choice.

This scene is a heartbreaking moment when Denise’s mother sums up her daughters identity with a few words. It portrays the weight of being who she is in the world, and the struggles that come with it.   

All of this makes Denise one of the most satisfyingly realistic characters on television. She is a scintillating gem in the midst of boring, one-sided caricatures who have been solely reduced to the color of their skin or their preferences in life.
And while there are an increasing number of film and TV characters who have joined alongside Waithe’s, hers is the one I first saw and realized, that had an affect on me and so many others. Watching Denise was like breathing clean air for the first time.

Beyond her Master of None character, the world soon came to recognize Lena Waithe. She won an Emmy in 2017 for Thanksgiving—the first black woman to win for best comedy writing. She was April’s Vanity Fair cover star. She created and produced her own show, The Chi (returning for a second season on Showtime), starred in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and is constantly mentoring people through programs like the Macro and Black List Writing competition, and panels (Time’s Up, LGBTQ inclusiveness in Hollywood). Lena uses her platform and power to promote authenticity and justice in the world.

In her Emmy speech, she spoke directly to her LGBTQIA family, “I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers — every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.” That is the exact core of Lena’s work. She is an embodiment of those powerful, beautiful differences, on screen and off, in Hollywood and in this world. To embrace those differences is a long struggle, but to have someone like Lena lead the charge is reassuring. 

Her representation of a previously misunderstood, underrepresented group of people in television opened so many more doors for the future. Her work both comforts and emboldens. Lena Waithe’s Denise and Thanksgiving are examples of the beauty and power of being who we are and sharing that with the world. It is important that we see and create more work like hers: reflections of ourselves and the realities we live in. “The world should reflect the entertainment that we watch. I think it should feel like a mirror,” Lena said, “It’s really important for us as artists to not just write something that feels self-serving, but to write something that’s brutally honest.”.

New York City is not all white; Asians don’t have to speak in offending accents or be smart; black people don’t have to be body guards or criminals; Latinos don’t have to be drug dealers; Latinas don’t have to be sultry, spicy objects of desire or silent cleaning ladies; men don’t have to be the absent father, women don’t have to be men’s problem, boys don’t have to have short hair; girls don’t have to dress up and care about what they look like; gays don’t have to speak a certain way; lesbians don’t have to be masculine; and transgender people...have we even seen any on TV?!? (Yes, we have, but there’s still a long way to go for LGBT+ representation in TV and film.)

The only way to see what we want to see in the world is to create it ourselves. And the truest version of ourselves that we put out into the world is often what people want to see. Seeing someone like myself on screen is still a revolutionary experience for a minority—there is a feeling of finally being understood and a little less alone. It’s more than just seeing someone who looks like us or is labeled the same as us. Waithe says, "We have to be able to see ourselves, but not just see ourselves, because during the times of the minstrel shows, black people were seeing a version of themselves. We have to go beyond 'I want to see myself.'"

As the world becomes more diverse, accurate representation becomes even more relevant and crucial. No more crude caricatures, no more offending stereotypes. We want to see real, human characters, people like us, and we want to see the world around us. Let’s stop hiding. Let’s not bend to the will of others. Let’s join and step into the light together to represent our truths. 

By Hannah Yang

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