Girlfriends made its UPN premiere in 2000 and two decades and a pandemic later, the comedy series from Mara Brock Akil still holds up. Akil, Tracee Ellis Ross, Golden Brooks, Persia White, Jill Marie Jones and Reginald C. Hayes came together at PaleyFest New York to celebrate Girlfriends’ 20th anniversary and reflect on how Hollywood still has work to do.
“We are celebrated and I am joyful about the celebration, but I am not remised about the continued fight and how hard it is to occupy these spaces at the levels in which we are and continue to be in,” Akil said during the virtual conversation.
During the conversation, the Girlfriends cast and creator marveled at how the show’s Netflix pickup in July has caused a renaissance of discourse about the series’ group of friends and their relationships. With the streaming giant, Girlfriends joined “the democracy of television” and reached new generations of Black women, Ross said.
Although premiering in the early aughts, Girlfriends touched on multiple topics that find relevance in today’s cultural conversations including feminism, race and identity — a reflection in some aspects of how little has changed. “There were so many pieces that are relevant now, which shows you that the needle in many ways has not moved and some ways in which the environment in which we live has changed immensely,” said Ross, who starred as the quirky but motherly Joan Clayton.
For Brooks, who played Maya Denise Wilkes, the show’s ability to connect with multiple generations of Black women is a testament to Akil’s mission for Girlfriends. She said that upon the show’s streaming on Netflix, she has received comments and feedback from fans about how they feel represented by the “timeless” and “beautiful stories.”
White, whose Lynn Ann Searcy challenged the notions of Black femininity, said she’s experienced a similar reaction and a “massive acceptance” of her character. She added that a new generation of fans related to Lynn’s overt sexuality and her “non-label-able” identity, having understood the fictional character to exist beyond the sexual and feminine “standards” for Black women.
Though the show seemed progressive in the kinds of featured topics and characters, it wasn’t without flaw, Akil admitted. The 20 year-old show wasn’t perfect, and may have some jokes that may not hold up in today’s cultural climate, but mistakes and adjustments are part of the bigger creative process, she said.
“Change sometime does start in the awkwardness and the mistakes you make in trying to communicate the bravery and pioneering of doing that,” she said. “Doing that in a half hour show in television was challenging.”
All of the PaleyFest panels will be available to view at 8 p.m. ET tonight here.