When Donald Glover kicked off a great year for television at the Golden Globes this January, the soundtrack to his success was obvious: “I really want to thank the Migos,” he said as he accepted Atlanta’s award for best TV series – musical or comedy. “Not for being on the show, but for making Bad and Boujee. Like, that’s the best song ever.” The next day, as if to prove the deeply felt sincerity of these comments, footage of Glover getting down to the track at an afterparty turned up on Instagram.
For US audiences, Migos likely needed no introduction. The Atlanta-based trio had been in the charts with Bad and Boujee (featuring Lil Uzi Vert) since the track’s release in October 2016 (eventually reaching No 1 following that plug from Glover) and the lyric “rain drop, drop top” had spawned numerous Twitter memes. The video, featuring beautiful women draped in pearls while riding dirt bikes, and eating fast food from Chanel logo-emblazoned takeout boxes, now has more than 500 million YouTube views. In the UK, where the track only reached No 30 in February, audiences may be less familiar with Migos, but they’ll still understand the reference; the black, bougie princess has been a mainstay on TV for decades.
The word “bougie”, derived from the French word bourgeoisie, will also be familiar to English-speaking TV viewers the world over. However, as the Migos song suggests, the word’s spelling variants are beginning to take on subtly different meanings. There’s “bougie”, denoting a membership of a wealthy social class and the manners that go with it; “bougee”, which more often carries the pejorative sense of acting above one’s true social status. Then there’s Migos’s “boujee”, a word that is still mapping out a new, more positive definition.
The mother of all TV’s bougie princesses is Dynasty’s Dominique Deveraux, a character initially dreamed up by the actor who played her, Diahann Carroll. After Carroll was cast in the nighttime soap in 1984, she spelled out her intentions for the character in an interview with People magazine: “[TV has] done everything. They’ve done incest, homosexuality, murder. I think they’re slowly inching their way toward interracial. I want to be wealthy and ruthless … I want to be the first black bitch on television.”
As the years progressed, so did the TV trope. There was A Different World’s southern belle Whitley Gilbert (played by Jasmine Guy from 1987 to 1993), finickity fashion plate Lisa Turtle on Saved By the Bell (1989 to 1993), self-centred valley girl Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from 1990 to 1996 and Dionne Davenport in Clueless, both the original 1995 film and the 1996-99 spin-off TV series. Stacey Dash, the actor who played Dionne, later had a return to the limelight when she became a Republican party-supporting Fox News pundit, which, in this context at least, isn’t an entirely surprising career move.
For both white and black audiences, these early TV representations of wealthy, educated black womanhood were also something of a novelty. “For most of film and television history, the images of black women have been disparaging,” says Mia Mask, professor of film at New York’s Vassar College and author of Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film. “It was not until the 1980s that the bougie caricature emerged and reappeared with regularity.” Yes, it was still a caricature, but unlike the mammy or the jezebel it was a glamorous one. Mask credits the late-60s sitcom Julia with putting the very first black middle-class woman on US TV, played by Diahann Carroll again, “but she was not what we’d call a bougie princess. She was a single mother who worked as a nurse but had middle-class values.”
Today, the bougie princess lives on, not just as the heroines of the Migos video but as multi-dimensional, modern women such as Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Insecure’s Molly and Dear White People’s Colandrea “Coco” Conners. The characters on this continuum vary in some important ways but they’re united by their love of expensive clothes, snobby social attitudes and high standards in romance. They’ve also tended to have one other thing in common, as Mask details: “Men can be ‘bougie’, so it’s not necessarily specific to women. But ‘bougie’ is usually an accusation thrown at women, a gendered put-down. It’s a way of saying women are putting on airs.”
Like her forebear Dominique Deveraux, Whitley Gilbert in A Different World was partly created to fulfil the dramatic function of the antagonist. “A new head writer was brought in who said, ‘We need a bitch. What’s a black bitch?’” remembers Susan Fales-Hill, lead writer and producer on the show for its entire run. “Whitley has her spoiled, over-accessorised counterparts in every culture, but her history is thoroughly rooted in the tortured history of American race relations. It was always important to show Whitley was not aspiring to be white. She was fiercely proud of her heritage. She wanted to be excellent. And yes, even though awkwardly, she knew how to code switch.” Fales-Hill, herself the daughter of a Haitian-American and a Wasp whose line goes back to the Mayflower, has written about her family in memoir Always Wear Joy, and an upcoming history of her ancestors, both enslaved and slave-owning. “One of the greatest triumphs of racism has been to convince America and black people in particular that being wealthy, educated or ‘posh’ involves forfeiting your blackness,” she says.
The existence of a US “afrostocracy” stretching back to emancipation has also been chronicled by other writers, notably Gail Lumet Buckley in The Black Calhouns and Lawrence Otis Graham, whose Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class will soon to be turned into a TV series by Empire co-executive producer Wendy Calhoun. These characters are fascinating to TV writers, because they exist at a dramatic intersection of class, gender and race, but, as Fales-Hill points out, they’re also real: “Whitley’s ethos of ‘blackness oblige’, that sense of having to be impeccable and represent, ie be an ambassador in every circumstance, came from me.”