How Joan Clayton On 'Girlfriends' Helped Me Embrace My Quirkiness

tracee ellis ross
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Growing up in a military family, I was fortunate enough to meet and befriend people of all races and cultures, which led to me cultivating a wide variety of interests. Although, I never thought it was odd for a Black girl to love listening to Dream as much as TLC until my father retired from the Marine Corps and my family relocated further south to Louisiana.

Soon I became what some referred to as an “Oreo” and constantly told I sounded “white." Having few friends right after the move, I’d found solace in books, but was called nerdy for loving to read. Other times, I was even written off as "weird" for my unique interests, my flair for spirited clothing (that may or may not have included pop-tart earrings), and my awkward (but charming) laugh.

And don’t even get me started on my love of Halloween. Other than the fact that some Southern Black people don’t take too kindly to the holiday for religious reasons, my love of wacky costumes raised a ton of eyebrows.

In a nutshell, I was definitely not what you’d describe as “cool,” though I did eventually come to hang around the popular kids. I was kind of like cool-adjacent. I didn’t sit alone at lunch and wasn’t picked last for dodgeball, but my position as the oddball of my friend group, who “acted white,” was solidified.  

But, I didn’t see any Black women on TV that were like me — offbeat and fun, but still incredibly smart and well-liked. The ones that were #woke, but still wanted to do pop karaoke. Well, that is until the 2000s when I discovered Mara Brock Akil’s cult comedy series Girlfriends. Watching the show, I finally realized what my random personality traits and I actually could be described as; not weird or white, but quirky — and it was all thanks to Joan Clayton.

Even today, Black women are often relegated to side and secondary characters on shows as some sort of comic relief or boxed into a stereotypical caricature of what others think Black women are like — loud, obnoxious, and overly sexual. Or worse; they’re portrayed as the “strong friends” who don’t like to show emotion and don’t know how to have fun. In the most refreshing way, though, Joan was different.

Before playing our favorite sitcom mom, Dr. Rainbow Johnson on ABC’s Black-ish, Tracee Ellis Ross was widely known for her role as the hilariously awkward Joan on Girlfriends.

Joan was a high-powered attorney with a deep-seated love for zany holidays — particularly Christmas — and had the quirky anxiety to match. She was constantly the voice of reason in her friend group and was often the one they turned to for support, help, and if you were her mooching friend Lynn, money. Additionally, Joan gave her all to plan memorable gatherings, never failing to have a corny icebreaker or fancy finger foods on deck.

She wasn’t afraid to break out in song and dance (no matter how awkward it might have made the people around her), and she was proud of her decision to have a three-month-no-sex rule in place for new partners. Most importantly, like me, she also had a neurotic, but lovable laugh. And despite all of her quirky attributes and the occasional teasing she received from her friends, Joan was entirely secure in who she was.

Seeing her quirky confidence, in turn, inspired me to embrace my own unique interests. Joan allowed me and everyone to see that it was indeed possible for a Black woman to be smart, successful and quirky and that loving things that weren’t always “Black” or cool wasn’t a bad thing. After watching (and re-watching) all eight seasons of the show over the years, I grew into a young adult who was no longer oncerned with what other people thought about me, my cheesy smile, or my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bags.

And I’m not the only person Joan Clayton inspired. A minor ode to her zaniness can also be seen also be seen on HBO’s Insecure.  

On the show, the awkward antics of Issa Rae’s character Issa Dee typically land her in hot water. Her friends crack jokes at her expense, she raps to herself in her bathroom mirror and has terrible luck in the love department. But much like Joan, no matter how many times she comes up short on her quest to live her best life, Issa always dusts herself off and keeps it moving.

Rae’s character even paid homage to Girlfriends, which Rae has said was a big inspiration for the show, in Season 1. After a fight with her friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) in the first episode, Issa pays a visit to her house with Cheetos and ranch dip in hand. After the two trade brief apologies at the door, the friends embrace and Issa enters Molly’s apartment singing the Girlfriends signature theme song.

Being that so many TV shows today are on a mission to give viewers diverse and relatable representation, I’m happy to see that both the spirit of Joan and the plight of quirky Black girls are alive and well.

It’s been 10 years since Girlfriends was last on air and I still find myself referencing it any chance I get. It might not always be the most popular way to be, but I’m forever grateful to Joan Clayton and lessons she taught me about being 100% authentically quirky. 

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