In the first episode of Rap Sh!t, a new HBO Max comedy from Issa Rae, a bitter rapper announces her retirement. “Y’all’s favorites are out here doing the bare minimum, with no originality, while I’m living and breathing this rap sh-t,” Shawna (Aida Osman) chides her social media followers in a video. “Y’all say, ‘Ooh, I want a different type of female rapper.’ No, you f-ckin’ don’t.”
Shawna has hit a rough patch. A talented MC who enjoyed brief viral fame but now struggles to find an audience for her socially conscious raps, she works at a Miami Beach hotel. The producer she dropped out of college to collaborate with promotes a surgically enhanced white woman who raps in a bikini. A pal who works at Spotify isn’t helping. Meanwhile, Shawna’s long-distance boyfriend is too busy flirting with his NYU Law classmates to care.
What she doesn’t yet realize is that she has just reconnected with the person who will reignite her aspirations. Mia (Love & Hip Hop: Miami star KaMillion), a long-lost friend from high school, has a daughter in elementary school, a musician ex who’s turned out to be a disappointing co-parent, gigs doing makeup and teasing men on OnlyFans, and a robust social media following. Streaming live from a parked car after a night out, Shawna spins a fire freestyle around Mia’s catchphrase “seduce and scheme.” The song builds buzz, and they’re suddenly a duo.
Rap Sh!t, premiering July 21, is a show about two Black women believing in each other when no one else in their lives does. It’s also the latest in a string of recent series—including Girls5eva, We Are Lady Parts, and Queens—that revolve around all-female musical acts. Although TV’s preoccupation with women’s friendships predates Sex and the City, there is something new and, amid dark times for the feminist cause, energizing about this slant on the subject. Neither snarky frenemies nor lonely achievers, these characters can achieve their dreams only by building one another up. So that is what they do.
A compelling mystique saturated tales of female friendship in the pop-feminist 2010s, from Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan novels to Rae’s Insecure. But to extrapolate from these works the idea that women possess a greater innate capacity for intimate, complex friendship is lazy thinking. The intensity so many of these relationships share comes out of life in a sexist society; they’re the consolation prize for enduring gendered humiliations that would be inconceivable to any man. Ferrante captures this gallows camaraderie when she writes, in The Story of a New Name: “If nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately.”
Female friendships can also hold tension, balancing precariously on the edge of competition for the success and autonomy only grudgingly granted to members of the second sex. It’s this dynamic that predominates in stories about female singers—like musical soap Nashville pitting Connie Britton’s country diva against a young upstart played by Hayden Panettiere.
A lighter approach to the mixed messages women receive about rivalry and sisterhood can make for wickedly effective comedy. In Girls5eva, whose second season aired on Peacock this past spring, the four surviving members of a short-lived Y2K-era pop quintet reunite after a rapper samples their retrospectively ironic hit “Famous 5eva.” Their lives have taken divergent directions. While Dawn (Sara Bareilles) has settled into anonymity, with a family and a restaurant job, Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry) keeps chasing fame. Busy Philipps’ Summer, a Christian airhead in a sham marriage to a closeted boy-band alum, is the foil for Gloria (Paula Pell), a divorced lesbian dentist.
In the group’s original incarnation, the girls were exploited, underpaid pawns of a scuzzy producer, Larry (Jonathan Hadary). Among their darkly hilarious singles was “Dream Girlfriends,” in which they wooed boys with pandering come-ons like: “Tell me again why Tarantino’s a genius.” Now, with the deck stacked against them as women over 30 in music, the characters still sometimes succumb to the industry’s grossest expectations. But when they succeed, it’s through collaboration. Season 2 finds Girls5eva recording a reunion album, and although it’s slow going at first, their creative breakthrough comes when Dawn and Summer improvise a song about leaving Larry behind.
Queens, an uneven but exhilarating melodrama that ABC canceled after a single season, couldn’t be more different in tone from the absurdist Girls5eva, yet the two shows’ premises are extremely similar. Built around a cast of late-’90s TRL staples including Brandy and Eve, Queens also follows a quartet of middle-aged female musicians–in this case a hip-hop act in the mold of Salt-N-Pepa—who reunite after two decades out of the spotlight. Like Girls5eva, they’re determined to reclaim the agency they signed away in their youth. One of their first collective decisions is to trade their hypersexualized original band name, Nasty Bitches, for a new moniker: Queens.
The show made some fascinating attempts to foster sudsy drama without recycling the ancient soap opera directive that all female characters must be in conflict. Before its cancellation, Queens was expanding its ambitions, as the group founded a record label to elevate the next generation of women in hip-hop. Although their girl-power sentiments sometimes felt generic, these fantastical story lines underscored how far from ideal the real music industry still is.
These shows aren’t just about women rejecting a lifetime’s worth of misogynistic messaging for the sake of getting rich or topping the charts. A girl band, in this context, is more than a strategic alliance of girlbosses in harmony. The core of these collaborations is creativity. Women in music have always faced more scrutiny than men, especially when it comes to technical skills like playing instruments. It’s telling that rock ‘n’ roll had existed for two decades by the time Fanny, in 1970, became the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label—and that girl groups, from the Ronettes to the Runaways, have often been treated as puppets by a controlling male Svengali. Now, and perhaps especially post-Roe, it’s still subversive to see women unite in uncensored self-expression, regardless of how many people are listening.
That spirit of liberation animates We Are Lady Parts, Peacock’s wonderful comedy about an all-female Muslim punk band in London. Although they share a gender and a religion, the five young women (including the band manager) who make up Lady Parts represent a variety of ethnicities, walks of life, and personalities. Each practices Islam in her own way. What binds the characters together is a passionate, angry energy whose creative outlet is music. For the show’s protagonist, Amina (Anjana Vasan), Lady Parts is a revelation. Focused on her studies, fitting in with her perfect Muslim girlfriends, and making the right arranged marriage, she joins the band unwittingly and finds a rebellious voice she never knew she had.
All the desires and frustrations left unarticulated in the women’s daily lives come out in their songs. “Voldemort Under My Headscarf” playfully pokes fun at people who can’t deal with hijabi. Watching frontwoman Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey) transform Amina’s boy-crazy ramblings into the crush anthem “Bashir With the Good Beard,” songwriters might protest that the process is never that easy. But what resonates in the scene is the ecstatic experience of collective artmaking—of conjuring a perfect chorus out of the ether, just by jamming with your bandmates.
These pleasures aren’t just for boys, and they haven’t been for generations. Yet it’s a novel thrill to see them celebrated on the small screen. When Mia and Shawna, in Rap Sh!t, spontaneously jump up on a table the first time their song plays in a club to rap along in front of a captive audience of fellow revelers, that’s a vision of female friendship that revolves around making each other better rather than tearing each other down. Or, as Mia puts it: “Real bitches gon’ ride for you.”
This appears in the July 25, 2022 issue of TIME.
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