Locating black queer TV: Fans, producers, and networked publics on YouTube

Faithe Day

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States

Aymar Jean Christian

Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—For black creators, television remains an elusive yet illustrious art form. Corporate television networks have restricted access to black writers, limiting black representations. However, through a more open distribution system on the Internet, black writers have expanded the art of television, producing stories in a wider range of genres through a variety of intersectional identities and intersecting art forms. Here we interrogate indie black cultural production to first locate how writers queer traditional television production. We then examine how audiences form counterpublics to read and respond to these works in comments and on blogs. We engage a broad array of popular indie series whose creators span identities and whose narratives span genres, including the black queer and lesbian dramas Between Women (2011–present) and No Shade (2013–2015) as well as the comedic black gay pilots Twenties (2013) and Words with Girls (2012–2014). We explore how and why producers conceived of these series alongside how viewing publics interpreted and consumed them. To varying degrees, these series queer not only the norms of television production and form but also of viewership and audience response.

[0.2] Keywords—Audience; Digital media; Fandom; Intersectionality; Television

Day, Faithe, and Aymar Jean Christian. 2017. "Locating Black Queer TV: Fans, Producers, and Networked Publics on YouTube." In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Visibility and invisibility shape why black producers create, and how their fans respond to, queer representations on YouTube. We theorize this unique fan-producer relationship as "quare-shared recognition," combining intersectional performance theory and fan studies. Examining popular black queer Web series No Shade and If I Was Your Girl as well as pilots Twenties and Words with Girls, we find a heightened visibility of queer women of color, as producers serialize performances for and by black queer women. Indie producers and fans collectively create new performances of blackness and queerness via open networks online, in response to legacy broadcast and cable television networks that ignore and normalize intersectional black identities through closed development processes. The work of producers and fans reveals how networked (digital, peer-to-peer) distribution reconfigures the (in)visibility of black production, performance, and fan reception in legacy network (linear, one-to-many) development.

[1.2] Black queer indie series are largely unrecognized by legacy networks so circulate in the decentralized networks of those in the community who recommend series to friends and family. Fans of queer black Web series include both individuals who explicitly identify as queer and those who do not. Aware of the diversity among fans, producers explicitly work toward visibility for black queer people and must negotiate with fans the networked visibility of black queer performance without legacy network intermediaries on open-access platforms. We argue this unique producer-fan relationship quares scholarly understandings of television development by fostering a more complex, interdependent vision of series distribution, particularly of indie, community-focused series.

[1.3] Our essay locates black queer TV production and reception through analysis of comments from fans and interviews with producers in Hollywood and outside in Chicago and New York. We analyze how producers respond to their communities, locally and nationally, and how fans reconstruct and negotiate communities online. As Rebecca Wanzo (2015) writes, our position as black acafans, an underexplored area in media studies scholarship, compels us to center intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in our study as a form of both scholarly and industrial critique. Like fans of legacy TV series, fans of indie series are network-savvy and understand the mechanisms by which the mainstream channels under– and misrepresent them. Therefore, they envision queer black indie productions as one of the only ways through which they can gain visibility in the public media sphere.

[1.4] At the same time, fan affective connections with black queer performance create a representational burden that producers must carry. Black indie TV writers are constantly held accountable for the representations that they utilize, and they face pressure to meet the expectations of the queer black community. In interviews, producers of No Shade, If I Was Your Girl, Twenties, and Words with Girls directly engage with and struggle over the invisibility and visibility of black queer persons, before and after production. They cite a range of impetuses for releasing series online, including representing community expressions and concerns, personal struggles, interpersonal or social dynamics, artistic allegiances in film and TV, and economic or market incentives. In analyzing these series, we can see production impetuses falling into two categories that are specific to location and series type. Many producers of indie series outside of Hollywood express their primary motivation as socially and community-driven. These producers tend to welcome more feedback and engagement from fans and take more pleasure in or issue with the visibility of the performances represented. In slight contrast, producers working within or near Hollywood stress market incentives to a greater degree than those producing in cities outside of Hollywood. These producers work to use pilot series as a means for breaking into the television industry and/or producing their own identity-based artistic vision. Yet, in both cases, these productions quare legacy forms of television production by exhibiting both transparency and the importance of audience reception in their creation, as well as a commitment to producing more complex and diverse portrayals of black queer performance by black queer producers.

2. Black queer indie series: Quare-shared recognition among fans and producers

[2.1] Web series represent a form of independent television or indie TV: television production independent of legacy (traditional broadcast and cable) television distribution (Christian 2014). Legacy television distribution develops series by culling from thousands of pitches and producing one or two dozen pilots, presented to advertisers who buy the audience's time up front, before viewers ever see the narrative. Stories and performances produced by those black and brown producers are marginalized in this process for a variety of reasons, including closed professional networks and discrimination in writers' rooms (Bielby and Bielby 2002; Henderson 2011). In this sense, television productions within legacy networks exist in a black box where fans tend to have little knowledge of or involvement in the production process but instead are positioned as passive consumers whose main role is to garner ratings, views, and therefore profit for the network.

[2.2] Yet Web distribution allows producers to connect with viewers directly, without network distributors who shape and select narratives to appeal to broader audiences, conform to established formulas, and satisfy advertisers (Gitlin 1983; Lotz 2007). Most black Web series are about straight people, but the specificity of intersectional Web series by queer and femme people of color has made them popular online (Christian 2016). View count on If I Was Your Girl rivals that of Issa Rae's The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, by all accounts the most successful black series online. Anacostia, a DC-based series starring and created by gay producer Anthony Anderson, amassed enough of an audience to run for at least four seasons, giving it time to garner a Daytime Emmy for guest star Martha Byrne. Dramas and dramedies about queer people of color are popular on YouTube, beginning with Chump ChangeS, the first black drama on the site, and continuing with The Lovers and Friends Show, Between Women, and Drama Queenz. C. Riley Snorton (2014) reminds us of New York Times critic Kelefa Sennah's (2007) acknowledgment of R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet, an R&B opera, as integral to YouTube's rise as a platform for viral videos. Black queer producers also bring to YouTube the art of black performance and drama, best exemplified by Kalup Linzy's four-season soap opera with original music, Melody Set Me Free (2007–), about a matriarchal family trying to achieve power in the music industry, and by artists and personalities like Tay Zonday, Jayson Musson (aka Hennessy Youngman), Todrick Hall, B. Scott, Kid Fury, and Crissle.

[2.3] Black queer and intersectional Web series advance innovation in series development and set the stage for creating queer community online through identification with content creators, the characters, and issues in the series. Corporate networks address communities as market niches and employ post identity (postracial, postgay) politics, erasing differences within communities and promoting disidentification between racialized subjects and the text even on niche channels like LOGO (Dávila 2012; Muñoz 1999; Ng 2013; Sender 2004; Smith-Shomade 2008; Warner 2015). In response, we find that queer of color Web series promote quare-shared recognition. This theory integrates queer and black theory into the breadth of scholarship on how fans, particularly women, appropriate, shape, and challenge media texts within affective communities (Bury 2005; Christian 2011; Jenkins 2006; Morimoto 2013; Ng 2008; Russo 2009). By combining E. Patrick Johnson's conception of Quaring and Patricia Hill Collins's use of shared recognition, we see black queer series development as constructed in relation to shared recognition of performances of intersectional identity. For Johnson (2005), Quaring (taken from black vernacular) references the ways in which sexual and gendered identities "always already intersect with racial subjectivity" while also showing how these identities resist oppression and containment (125). Collins (2000) defines "shared recognition" as the process by which black women form a community in order to recognize "the need to value Black womanhood" (97). While Collins references black women's identity, the indie productions that we analyze expose how we must value queer identity within the black community and the ways in which Web producers value the identities and opinions of their viewers/fans. As Kara Keeling (2007) shows in cinema, the visibility and invisibility of black queer femme representations perform an essential function in how audiences assess cinematic reality; meanwhile C. Riley Snorton (2014) theorizes black sexuality as marked by hypervisibility and invisibility in the public sphere, forming what he calls a "glass closet" around black subjectivity. Quaring and shared recognition undergird the reading practices that viewers bring to performances of black queer and femme identities in indie TV, framing the discourse through which they negotiate the paradoxical invisibility and hypervisibility of blackness and queerness—the glass closet frames the reality of black queer productions and publics. In their use of quare-shared recognition, black queer Web producers quare legacy television production by demonstrating the value of black queer identity. This is accomplished through producing series and pilots that expand the diversity of black queer performances, as well as bringing viewers into the production process by encouraging recognition and interaction with the media text.

[2.4] As Nancy Baym states, "most good qualitative work uses multiple strategies to get at the phenomena that interest them. Researchers may look at multiple forms of online discourse, they may conduct interviews, and they may complement online data collection with offline encounters" (2006, 84). Therefore, in order to understand how recognition shapes reception, we performed a content analysis of the YouTube comments for both the series and pilots in conjunction with the collection of interview data from series creators. In order to gain the most variability in responses to the series, we only examined the comments for the first episode of every series. While No Shade and Words with Girls have only one video as the first episode, If I Was Your Girl is available on YouTube as a compilation of three episodes, and Twenties is presented as an episode in four parts, so the number of comments and videos analyzed varies across the group: No Shade: 418 comments; Words with Girls: 128; If I Was Your Girl: 1,768; and Twenties: 787. We conducted open coding to categorize comments from the start of the series to the most current postings. The analysis foregrounds similarities between the comments across content as well as what is unique to each series and pilot. Drawing on the work of Norman Fairclough (2013) and critical discourse analysis, we also analyzed the discourse between viewers of the show. This discourse unites meanings both inside and outside of pilots, as viewers draw on their own experiences in life, with the show, and with other media texts to formulate responses to the representation of a queer black identity. Given the small sample size of interviews (three), interview transcripts were not coded; instead, the researcher focused interviews on how and why producers develop their stories and compared what discourses—for example, community versus market value, explicit versus implicit citation of black queer identities—were emphasized by each producer in their responses.

[2.5] The rest of this paper focuses on an analysis of the community-driven queer Web series produced outside of Hollywood (No Shade and If I was Your Girl) and the market-driven pilots produced in Hollywood (Twenties and Words with Girls), in order to examine how the direct and discursive comments on these series reflect the construction of a queer black audience unique in their interest and investment in the production of black Web series and nuanced representations of a queer black identity. Each case study integrates interviews with series producers in which producers express similar investments in the production and representation of black queer performances. Our analysis suggests location as a key variable in how producers negotiate their investments. Hollywood-based producers are more attuned to creating marketable representations while those outside the TV industry's center express in greater depth and detail how their personal investments connect to community and social concerns in their respective cities. Both of our analyses suggest how networked distribution privileges community-based modes of production and engagement focused on creating publics, shifting television development online from niche/market-driven to social/community-driven.

3. No Shade and If I Was Your Girl: Speaking to black queer communities

[3.1] Premiering in February 2013, black queer drama No Shade (2013–2015) centers on the life of Noel Baptiste, a Haitian-American artist struggling in New York living with his religious and homophobic mother. Creator Sean Anthony portrays Noel as naïve and in search of his place within the LGBTQ community. His three best friends—bar manager Eric D. Stone, choreographer Kori Jacobs, and transgender makeup artist Danielle Williams—assist him in this journey while also grappling with their identities as artists and queer and transgender people. In focusing the narrative around Noel, Anthony attracts an audience who does not just identify as queer but also as Haitian or Haitian-American, raising issues around being gay in Haiti or within the Haitian community. Comments such as "Haitian? Wow. Never knew someone Haitian and gay. I'm Haitian and other Haitians can't even imagine homosexuality in Haiti" reflect the lack of visibility within mainstream media and society for this particular identity. For viewers who relate to Noel, there is a shared recognition around the unique oppression that he deals with because of the intersecting identities of a Haitian Gay man. Yet in the first episode, Noel is not explicitly described as Haitian. Many viewers see Noel's black diasporic identity signaled through other factors, such as the last name Baptiste and his mother's use of Haitian Creole (not translated in the series).

[3.2] We see the use of language and naming to signal communal affiliation in viewers' comments, defining No Shade as a queer space. Stating their appreciation for the series and its message, viewers of No Shade continuously reiterate slang terms requiring prior knowledge or familiarity with the queer community to be understood, for example: "The life I was given within the first 30 seconds is what made me stay. Killin it!" Much of this language comes out of the ballroom culture in New York City, with which some characters in the series, such as Kori and Danielle, are heavily affiliated. Ballroom culture is especially depicted through the intertextuality of the series, which blends genres from various film and television texts. Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary film by Jennie Livingston on the ballroom culture in New York, is satirized in the first episode of the series through the character House Mother Patty Alchemy, to mostly positive (but some negative) comments from viewers. As Marlon Bailey (2013) states in his ethnography of ballroom culture, Paris is Burning is one of the most prominent films depicting the lived realities and unique forms of self-fashioning, familial support, and identity construction within queer of color communities (4–5).

[3.3] Following S. Craig Watkins's work in music and Aymar Jean Christian's work in TV, we see the work of community-driven indie series as producing not only visibility but also innovation. From reconfiguring corporate practices designed to exclude to producing series on new technologies, community-driven Web producers quare legacy forms of television production by facilitating new networks of association for black queer viewers. Viewers actively acknowledge this innovation and the connections that black queer productions foster. Discussions most often refer to other Web series, such as Between Women, when discussing representations of black queer community (for example: "I stumbled across this after looking at Between women and I fell in love with the show…please keep them coming"). At the same time, viewers also reference series such as Noah's Arc (2005–2006), which appeared on the LOGO channel and also represented a black gay man who deals with many of the same struggles as No Shade's protagonist Noel.

[3.4] The breadth and depth of the performances of black queer identity that Anthony crafts also suggest why viewers engage with and debate the representations in a variety of ways. With no marketing or plan and only a small crew, and performing many of the roles himself, Anthony nonetheless creates a series that promotes shared recognition for a diverse black queer community. The pilot has been played almost 90,000 times as of this writing (Anthony 2013). To be sure, Anthony was also motivated by personal and social concerns; the characters were modeled after friends in New York along with his own experiences: "I implement a lot of things with me and my friends…I've been every one of those characters." (Anthony, pers. comm.) Danielle, a transwoman in the ball scene, reflects transwomen he knew in the ball scene, even as he acknowledges "there's different types of transgender women…there's some that don't associate with that world," Anthony said in the interview; Anthony combined personal motivations with a sincere desire to address his community's invisibility in the mainstream media, or "put comedic humor behind a filter that reflects the community." Anthony and No Shade reveal the complex politics of recognition in the production and reception of black queer indie TV. They show how community-driven productions provide fruitful platforms for engaging viewers around cultural and place-based differences within and between black queer identities and performances.

[3.5] Charting the rocky relationships and ups and downs of four queer women (Toi, Stacia, Lynn, and Rhonda) in Chicago, If I Was Your Girl (2012–2013) is a thriller that goes back and forward in time to construct a narrative about serious issues in the queer of color community including incarceration, domestic violence, and suicide. As the second series invested in the black queer community, If I Was Your Girl shares its fan base with another Web series about queer women of color in an urban space, Between Women, set in Atlanta. As seen in the comments for No Shade, which reference Between Women as the series that led them to the show, for many viewers of If I Was Your Girl, Between Women is their first lesbian series. Many viewers see Between Women as a starting point for their investment in queer Web series and take sides proclaiming whether or not Between Women is better or worse than If I Was Your Girl using standards that include the quality of the acting, characterization, entertainment value, and representation of queer women.

[3.6] If I Was Your Girl is different from Between Women and No Shade in content and comments because of its sexually explicit portrayal of black queer women, which has resulted in an inordinate number of comments from nonqueer, religious, and/or homophobic viewers. This pushback seems to be indicative of the fact that If I Was Your Girl veers away from the safe and sanitized portrayals of lesbian couples that viewers are used to seeing in other Web series and network TV in order to visibly represent the fullness of lesbian sexuality. Embracing these representations, there are also many viewers of the series who truly enjoy the series because of the overt representation of lesbian sexuality. In the comments section, there are multiple examples of the parasocial relationships that fans developed with the queer characters and couples as a result of this attraction (note 1). As one commenter states, "You never see lesbian shows on the tv so thats y theres youtube:)…smh [shaking my head] u people are mad because [you] disapprove of homosexuals lol [laugh out loud] o wel." Hypersexualized queer individuals do not operate within respectability politics, but viewers see Web series as a unique space where producers should push the boundaries of what is acceptable in the mainstream. If viewers do not approve of these representations, then the content is probably not for them.

[3.7] In keeping with the goals of community-driven productions, creator Coquie Hughes (2013) explicitly cites her motivation—particularly domestic and state violence— to create works for the urban black lesbian community as inspired by her personal and social experiences. During our interview she states, "I wanted to use the film to let people to know that I was a lesbian…It kind of gave me that bravery I needed" (Hughes, pers. comm.). While Hughes's personal work is rooted in propagating representations of urban queer women of color, her roots are in community theater for city publics, and conversations around If I Was Your Girl started locally in Chicago at the Portage Theater in Portage Park, an ethnically diverse community with a growing black population. Hughes premiered the series in April 2012 to an almost sold-out audience of 1,100 people, not all of them queer, and premiered it again to a sold-out audience later that year. "The local people they liked it…The bootleg man really played a role in getting the word out," Hughes said in the interview. When she sold the version online after the premiere, she grossed $12,000.

[3.8] Hughes's impressions of local reception mirror online dynamics, revealing how the performances she captured—she cites the attractiveness of actors as key—produced complex sexual response from queer and nonqueer viewers alike: "I get more so straight people who relate to my projects…A lot of straight people come to my premieres. They say 'I'm not gay but…' so and so is gorgeous…People get all kinds of emotions" (Hughes, pers. comm.). Hughes cites the complex politics of recognition in black production and reception. The black community's invisibility creates excitement, drawing diverse crowds for queer content; yet media's hypervisibility and the independent-mindedness of creators intensifies conversations around representations of blackness. Series by producers like Hughes clarify and challenge the boundaries of black community. Black production and performance online is an innovation in television development with social but also economic value. As Hughes stated in the interview: "I didn't plan on making films for the urban lesbian community. I'm just taking advantage. Ain't nobody making content for this community because they don't care…They will pay to see themselves." For Hughes, modest financial gain is an unpredictable side effect of providing places online and off-line for a public eager to engage with the queerness of black social dynamics.

4. Twenties and Words with Girls: Marketing black queer publics

[4.1] In contrast to community-driven series productions, market-driven pilot productions are primarily focused on moving from the Web to television networks. The existence of underserved audiences encourages producers to make pilot episodes to show legacy networks that there's a market for their work. Yet, while Christian describes how all indie series are possible pilots to be picked up by major networks, producers working close to Hollywood are increasingly constructing more limited stories (pilots instead of full series) to introduce new characters and inspire fans to pressure legacy networks to invest in developing black queer series (2014). Commenters initially expressed confusion around the purpose of a pilot and whether or not it will actually become a series, either online or on cable. Yet, after producers allay these concerns, some viewers support the productions on the basis of quare identification. Openly distributing pilots online to black queer fans quares legacy network traditions of testing pilots with randomly filled (race– and sexuality-neutral) focus groups and public screenings in Los Angeles and elsewhere, where the results of these tests are hidden from the public and used only by (mostly white) network executives who decide whether or not the series get the green light (Gitlin 1983).

[4.2] Exploring the lives of six twentysomethings, Twenties (2013) is a pilot presentation in four parts centering on the protagonist, Hattie, who is seeking Internet fame through vlogging on YouTube. Produced by Queen Latifah's production company, Flavor Unit, Twenties received a pilot script deal with BET before the departure of Loretha Jones, head of original programming, after which the project stalled (Rafus 2014). While the show starts off as a heteronormative coming-of-age tale, as the series unfolds, the fiancée of one of Hattie's best friends is discovered having a gay affair, and Hattie comes out as a queer woman in love with a straight girl. Its installments explore the performance of blackness, interracial dating, the nature of queer sexuality, and financial hardship. Many audience members expressed how they related to these issues, particularly on the trials of falling in love with a straight girl, as Hattie expresses in the end of Part 4. Although Hattie does not explicitly come out in this video, with one viewer stating "so is Hattie gay? someone please answer," most viewers recognize Hattie's declaration of love for a straight girl as indicative of her queer sexuality. Similar to the comments on If I Was Your Girl, while some comments express disdain at what they call a "homosexual agenda," there are even more comments expressing joy at seeing queer women of color represented in the media (Waithe 2013).

[4.3] Yet, audiences heavily critique the show for being elitist or bougie, promoting consumeristic, narcissistic, self-indulgent, or strange characters. As one comment says:

[4.4] I love to see beautiful young black people on television but I wish that there was more substantive dialogue. Our twenties are marked by more than black-brand consumerism. We have more depth than this. How do you break tropes about black people (she prefers the original wiz of oz—really cool) but then reinforce them (black women have never had sex ed/don't know how to use tampons—read, we don't know our bodies and need a white woman to show us the way) The subsequent scene is problematic.

[4.5] Twenties seems to operate in the liminal space between stereotype and realism, making it difficult to find an audience who can relate to the show as it works to produce the knowing laughter endemic of the sartorial tone of 21st-century quality television. While this results in a very smart take on the black twentysomethings, the pilot splits the audience and opens itself up to critique on both sides from viewers concerned about the threat of stereotypes and the misrepresentation of black women as well as from those who are tired of the sarcastic tone of series such as Girls, a series created and partially written by Lena Dunham for HBO in 2012, which focuses on the lives and relationship(s) of four young white women living in New York City during their early twenties. The issues around stereotypes hinge on the particular scene, mentioned in the comment above, in which the pilot's only white character explains to the three black female characters how to use a tampon. While some viewers also relay their experiences of first learning how to apply a tampon that occurred through the help of friends in college or in their early twenties, many other viewers state that the series is reinforcing the idea that black women are ignorant about their own bodies and are sexually misinformed.

[4.6] Even with these viewer concerns, the pilot has garnered over 300,000 views for the four parts of Twenties, yet the series still has fewer than 1,000 comments. Mixed reviews could have limited audience response, but it could also be a result of confusion among viewers around what a pilot is and why the four videos did not constitute a Web series. The description of the show explicitly states "This is NOT a web series…This is a Flavor Unit Production." But the description did not explain that the four installments are one pilot made to generate an audience and to push back against legacy networks' pitch-to-pilot model of series development. Limiting the narrative scope allows the producers to utilize resources that increase production value—the industry's standard focuses on the quality of production, typically technical elements like lighting, sound, and design but also acting, directing, and writing. Twenties is shot by Justin Simien, director of Dear White People, winner of the Sundance and Independent Spirit Awards, which was eventually set up in development at Netflix. His presence lends a patina of credibility inaccessible to other indie Web series working for recognition by Hollywood. Twenties stands out in the Web series market and attracts viewers who want to see black queer people in shows of broadcast quality but find it more challenging to keep viewers.

[4.7] In Twenties, Waithe and Flavor Unit use decentralized networks to support their bid for legacy network recognition (a series development deal). In this they had some success. They encouraged viewers to share Twenties with twenty people if they liked it, underscoring how queer black Web series rarely gain visibility on YouTube, even with high production value, unless disseminated through social networks. Some commenters express excitement about the prospects of the pilot becoming a television show. Even more viewers express knowledge of the constraints of broadcast television, rooting for the show to get picked up by cable networks such as HBO or Showtime or by online subscription services such as Netflix or Hulu. Still, many viewers want the pilot to become a Web series, with some explaining a lack of access to cable television networks (premium channels requiring monthly payments) and others proposing that Web series keep the power of production in the hands of black content creators. In this sense, Twenties rallies more fans interested in developing niche markets for black content than those invested in community-building and authenticity.

[4.8] In interviews with the press, Lena Waithe cites both the representational inequality on television and her own life as inspirations for Twenties. To her, the show reflects a black experience not defined by stereotypical blackness, but one which is both specific and universal:

[4.9] I didn't write this pilot just because I wasn't seeing myself on television. I wrote it because it was a story I needed to tell…TWENTIES is the most personal script I've ever written and I don't think it's a surprise that it's also gotten me the most attention. People like it when you tell the truth. And this is mine. But I also think it's universal. Because who can't relate to being in your twenties and sucking at life? (quoted in Dowell 2013)

[4.10] Waithe's complex, at times contradictory, impulses manifest in the story and viewer response. She embraces the burden of representation in mainstream film and television, for instance naming Hattie after Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Academy Award, a message not lost on commenters. But crafting a unique but also relatable story about a black lesbian proved a difficult tension to resolve. Commenters' confusion over some of Waithe's storylines derive from experiences so personal—"these are pages from my diary," she told After Ellen—they appear to disrupt expectations of shared recognition (Rafus 2014). The tampon storyline comes from her childhood; her mother would not let her wear them whereas she noticed white girls did—Waithe compares this cultural difference to makeup and pierced ears. She notes how blackness can be expressed outside of dialogue, in clothes and music, a lesson she no doubt took from Shonda Rhimes (consider Scandal's soundtrack), Bill Cosby (note 2), and A Different World, all of which she cites in interviews for their ability to broaden or ignore race: "I'd love to tackle it (performing blackness), possibly, but I'm more interested in discovering what it's like for a Black person of her age, and in her group, living in Los Angeles" (quoted in Rafus 2014). We can see in Twenties the ways in which market-driven productions, while similarly invested in black queer audience opinion, are also inspired by the creator's singular conceptualization of black queer identity, hailing the auteuresque impulses of film and quality television. At the same time, market-driven productions also quare legacy television development with fans' involvement in the pilot process. Unlike corporate Web networks like Amazon that also pilot openly but rely on mostly white, credentialed Hollywood producers, these indie productions focus on keeping the means of production and reception in the hands of black queer producers and fans.

[4.11] Avoiding prospective audience confusion over format, Words with Girls (2014), originally an eight-episode series produced independently by creator Brittani Nichols, explicitly signals itself as a pilot. Premiering in September 2014 along with two other comedy pilots, Nichols's pilot centers around Pacey, a lesbian and financially challenged slacker, who right at the moment she plans to propose to her longtime girlfriend is dumped and left with her friends to pick up the pieces of the emotional breakup. Nichols also stars in the series as a friend to Pacey, also involved in a complicated relationship with her girlfriend. The series is one of three pilots produced by Issa Rae through her Color Creative network, a kind of studio developing online pilots for networks or studio to pick up or develop.

[4.12] With this setup, viewers of Words with Girls are much more informed about the pilot process and discuss which of the other Color Creative pilots they watch, like, and/or dislike. Similar to the response to Twenties, viewers are excited to see faces they know from other series such as Awkward Black Girl as well as representations of queer women of color. However, the pilot did not seem to be as popular as the other pilots from Color Creative and, as of the most recent episode of the series/pilot analyzed, Words with Girls has the least comments and views of all of the series with a little over 30,000 views and slightly over 100 comments. Many of these comments critique the writing on the show, describing the pilot as boring and the characters and acting as inauthentic. These critiques also seem to correspond to the fact that unlike most Web series and the pilot for Twenties, Words with Girls is standard television episode length at almost 30 minutes long. While the video for If I Was Your Girl is approximately three times that length, we suggest that the racy subject matter and drama of the plot was able to hold viewers' attention in a way that the more mundane ups and downs in the lives of a group of friends does not. At the same time, many commenters disagreed with the negative critiques. One such comment states, "I think people are being a little too critical. I feel like I've got a great ideal of the girls' individual personalities. I love the ideal of the plane and the underlining message of each woman being in some form of transition. Always great to have an awkward character, a wild card, and a moody one! Great effort."

[4.13] From this comment and others like it, we see a divergence in how audiences read the series. Some were less critical and more generous, seeing potential in where the characters could go in the narrative. Yet for other audience members, the ready-made presentation of a pilot invites greater critique because it is supposed to hook them and make them want to watch more. As in the other pilots in this study, Words with Girls tends to receive more criticism and negative comments from viewers who were not a part of its ideal target audience.

[4.14] Despite noticeably lower production value, the original Words with Girls series, shot when Nichols was new to Hollywood, was just as popular. Similar to No Shade, Words with Girls draws on queer cultural expression and language, as every episode of the series is centered around a word presumed to be part of black lesbian vernacular: "The language that we use in different communities is always so different…There's not always the way the word is actually supposed to be used" (Nichols, pers. comm.). Trying to capitalize on the success of Broad City, Nichols read all of the comments and tried to become a YouTuber, by posting one-off shows—like vlogs—that were cheaper and more immediate. Nichols's original series focused on cultivating a community of black queer women. When Nichols was pitching Issa Rae on the pilot, however, she was working in the industry as a writer for the Web series Billy on the Street and as an associate producer on a pilot for a cable network. Writing, starring, and editing her own pilot was a new and affirming experience for her: "It's something I can take to going out to other jobs," she said in the interview; Words with Girls allows her to "trust my voice and whatever comes out of that is going to be different" from Hollywood's male-centered series.

[4.15] This raises the question of whether the Color Creative pilot is more auteur– and market-focused compared to its predecessor. Comparing the opening of the episodes and the words that telegraph its meaning and purpose suggests that it is. Each episode title of the original Words with Girls presents and defines a word that the characters grapple with in the episode, such as "Homophobic" and "Beard." For the Color Creative episode, the word is simply "Pilot," defined as "a person who operates the flying controls of an aircraft" and "a television program made to test audience reaction." In the episode, Nichols's character Aspen is writing a pilot and her friend Ari (comically named an "assistant to watch" by Hollywood trade magazine Variety) wants to see it and give feedback. The pilot engages directly with the writers' struggle in Los Angeles and explicitly places the audience in the role of a consumer whose reactions are being tested for market performance, as opposed to a community whose views are valuable as a social good. The longer pilot thus reframes the series from community vernacular to niche product, shaping how viewers perceive representations of blackness in the narrative and each other as a public (Nichols 2014). Nevertheless, by publishing Words with Girls on YouTube and explicitly asking Rae's predominantly black fan base for recognition, the pilot circumvents legacy TV's closed processes for testing pilots, quaring this process by centering a conversation between black queer producers and fans.

5. Conclusions

[5.1] As Herman Gray (1995) writes in Watching Race, during the 1980?s "blackness emerged as a site of contested struggle over the very question of identity and difference within America in general and Black America in particular" (42). Broadcast television networks developed dozens of black series as white viewers started watching cable channels, using black audiences' affective desires to see themselves to smooth business operations in a moment of new media change (note 3). Yet broadcasters rarely acknowledged the queerness of blackness. Mostly confined to family sitcoms, black characters had little narrative space for nonnormative sexual expression, even though America's policing and regulation of black sexuality can be articulated in concert with blackness and queerness. The struggle for blackness rages on in both the linear sphere of television and the networked sphere of Web production. For black queer viewers in particular, the symbolic annihilation experienced through limited representations in not only mainstream broadcast networks but also more niche-driven cable networks has led them to alternate models of media representation. These alternate models are exemplified through the multitude of Web series and pilots released on YouTube, which, in seeking community, create representations more recognizable or sincere.

[5.2] From our study of a subsection of quare YouTube productions, Web series and pilots tend to fall into one of two location-based categories that both challenge conventional forms of television production. Community-driven productions are defined as the indie series created primarily with the black queer community in mind as seen with the analysis of No Shade and If I Was Your Girl. The creators of these series are invested in responding to what their audience would like to see instead of working to create a show that would be well received by a legacy network. In addition, these indie series tend to be lower in production value or less finished/complete than are other television series. By contrast, market-driven productions are defined as the pilots that are created with the purpose of gaining a production deal with a legacy network, for example, Twenties and Words with Girls. In contrast to the indie series, these pilots are not fully created series but are rather one complete episode or a pilot in parts created to garner market interest. They also tend to be higher in production value than are the community-driven productions in order to make it easier for the pilots to be accepted by legacy network executives.

[5.3] While some may view the market-driven pilots as simply replicating the traditional forms of television production that we are used to seeing, black queer pilot productions also quare television production by being created and financed by individuals who are working to see their communities represented, instead of a network supplying funds to create a pilot geared toward a particular niche market. In addition, both community-driven and market-driven productions utilize language and themes that reference a canon of queer production both within and outside of legacy networks. Therefore, referencing black queer language and culture demonstrates how all of the Web content producers profiled are invested in fostering a shared recognition between their content and black queer viewers. By representing black queer communities with performances and images that viewers recognize in themselves and/or their kin, black queer Web productions, producers, and viewers utilize a quare-shared recognition in order to fill in the blanks left by legacy productions.

[5.4] Although none of the series analyzed have amassed audience sizes attractive enough for series orders by potential legacy TV distributors, from the perspective of viewers, black queer indie TV is just as valuable as mainstream productions, if not moreso. Producers want to challenge the network system from the inside out, but many viewers are encouraging them to challenge the system from the outside in. As Kara Keeling (2014) writes in her essay "Queer OS," to queer an operating system is to be "at odds with the logics embedded in the operating systems" by seeking to change that system through "scholarly inquiry and social activism" (154). Creating quare Web series and choosing to watch them over solely consuming legacy network productions queers the operating system of the television industry—pilot and series development and financing. By not simply accepting what is given to them from the YouTube algorithm, legacy corporate networks, or even indie producers, online publics queer the norms of viewership by inciting representational change for their communities.

6. Notes

1. There is an extensive literature in media sociology and communication studies on how media texts—particularly dramas or soap operas—facilitate parasocial interaction. See Baym (1999), Horton and Wohl (1956), Liebes and Katz (1992), and Morley (2003).

2. See Christine Acham's (2013) short essay on representing race on Cosby where she notes the presence of black art in the home of the postracial sitcom.

3. We view this as akin to Keeling's discussion of the role of blaxploitation in the film industry during the 1970s before the rise of the blockbuster and after the breakup of the studio system; see Keeling (2007).

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