Back in the Day: “The Women of Brewster Place”

 
 

The Women of
Brewster Place
won its timeslot on both nights that it aired on ABC, defeating
significant competition in the form of The Wizard of Oz on CBS and
The Return of the Jedi on NBC. It was later nominated for two Emmy
Awards, and won a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding TV mini-series.

Although a spinoff
series, titled Brewster Place, aired briefly on ABC in 1990, it was
soon canceled due to poor ratings. The spinoff differed from the miniseries
by featuring positive male characters, and eliminating the lesbian couple.

The critical rejection
of Brewster Place as man-hating essentially replaced homophobia —
which had by then, in the age of AIDS, become un-PC — with feminist-bashing,
which has never gone out of style. Washington Post columnist Dorothy
Gilliam, an African American woman, argued that the miniseries perpetrated some
of the worst stereotypes of African American men ever seen — and trotted
out similar stereotypes of African American women. ‘Indeed,’ she continued,
"in the long, sensitive portrayal of the lesbian relationship, the message
seemed to be that the best women don't even deal with men."

Gilliam’s comments
indicate two significant things: first, Tee and Lorraine were indeed sensitively
portrayed in the miniseries. Their relationship, in fact, was the only harmonious
one at all. But Gilliam’s conclusion, that "the message seemed to be that
the best women don’t even deal with men," reflected a complicated intersection
of beliefs about the feminist movement, lesbian feminism, and lesbians in general.

That bundle of political nerves, when greatly simplified, boils down to the notion that lesbians (and feminists) hate all men. The critique of Brewster Place as misandrist, then, can also be read as a homophobic rejection of the lesbian couple, who represent the pinnacle of man-hating behavior: they don’t even need men to love them.

Critics who characterized The Women of Brewster Place as perpetrating negative stereotypes of African American men were not entirely mistaken. The miniseries did have more than its share of criminals and cheaters among the male characters, and when there are so few positive portraits of African American men in the media in general, adding a few negative ones can have serious repercussions.

But The Women of Brewster Place needs to be recognized as a revolutionary miniseries
for showing how strong the love between women can be. In addition to the loving
couple Tee and Lorraine, Brewster Place showed the bonds between women friends
and between mothers and daughters — something that is often relegated below
the importance of relationships with men.

The Women of Brewster Place‘s other obvious contribution is its positive portrait of an African American lesbian couple, despite the horrific rape and its aftermath. Before Brewster Place, the only instance of an African American lesbian character on TV was in the 1975 TV movie Cage Without a Key, when a black lesbian teenager in a juvenile detention facility died to save the life of a wrongly imprisoned white girl. After Brewster Place, the short-lived 1995 series Courthouse included African American judge Rosetta Reed (Jenifer Lewis) and her lover, Danny (Cree Summers).

In 2002, HBO’s
The Wire became the first
television series to feature an African/Korean American character in Detective
Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), as well as her African American girlfriend, Cheryl
(Melanie Nicholls-King). Finally, in 2004 Showtime’s The
L Word
premiered with biracial Jennifer Beals playing the part of museum
director Bette Porter, also biracial.

The L Word
has gone further than any other series in creating a three-dimensional African
American lesbian character; Bette has been forced to deal with her African American
father’s homophobia as well as the complicated terrain of giving birth to an
artificially inseminated biracial child with her partner, Tina.

When Oprah
Winfrey talked with the New York Times in March 1989, shortly
before The Women of Brewster Place was due to air, she said, "You
present the story and then you let people choose to change the way things are
or not. I want to make a difference. I want that on my tombstone."

It’s clear that
Oprah’s well on her way to achieving a monument in her honor for making a difference.

But Brewster Place also made a difference. It ignited a debate about the relationships between African American men and women, but it also showed that women can support and love each other — whether or not they’re lesbians.

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