You can feel the absence of Countess Vaughn in season five of the iconic Black TV sitcom “Moesha.” That’s how good she is.
For four seasons starting in 1996, the then-teenage actor played Kim Parker, Moesha’s quirky, funny and loyal best friend. In 1999, she left for her own spinoff series, “The Parkers.”
Vaughn as Kim offset the acerbic sarcasm of Niecy (Shar Jackson) and proved an excellent zany sidekick opposite Brandy’s seemingly perfect and serious Moesha (Brandy Norwood). Vaughn infused the show with much-needed doses of humor and heart. And she did all this, we all seem to recall, with sometimes little to work with.
In the weeks since Netflix announced that it would stream several classic Black sitcoms of the 1990s and 2000s (including “Girlfriends” and “Half & Half”), we have rediscovered how important Vaughn was to the show and face a pop-culture reckoning with the ways the show failed her.
Viewers have taken to Twitter to collectively chat about the six-season show, and people have praised everything from Vaughn’s excellent comedic timing to her character’s ’90s fashions to her singing ability. People have also called out the countless fat jokes aimed at her character, starting in season one, episode one, when Kim asked, “Do you think I need to lose weight, Mo?”
Moesha, hesitated, laughed and answered, “Girl, you got a cute face!!”
These kinds of quips riddled the series, particularly in the early seasons. Kim — a 15-year-old girl when we first met her in season one — was constantly on the receiving end of jokes and gags about her weight, usually from her own friends and sometimes from adults on the show.
The character of Kim Parker is part of a long tradition of so-called “sassy,” fat Black women in film and TV of the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s (think “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Insecure”). They often functioned largely to provide funny one-liners and to be the butt of jokes, usually about their size or intelligence.
They were almost always desexualized. If they were vocal about their sexuality, this, too, was played for laughs. Isn’t it funny that the fat Black woman is talking about getting the D? Who does she think she is? These characters rarely had actual storylines or arcs that didn’t revolve around the main character. And yet, without them, nothing else would work. This was certainly the case with Countess Vaughn’s Kim.
It seemed Vaughn was always aware of her importance to the sitcom, and this infamously created tension on set. In a 1998 profile in VIBE magazine, Brandy said of Vaughn:
“I think she’s very funny, very talented. I just feel like she wants to be in the position I’m in. People tell her, ‘You’re the reason why the show’s successful.’ And she’s told me that before. And she’s called me a bitch — to my face. She said, ‘I’m the reason why the show is successful, bitch.’ In front of a lot of people. And I looked at her like, ‘Wow.’ I couldn’t say nothing about her because I wasn’t about to. ... She knows. She wakes up and looks at herself in the mirror and gets disgusted. I don’t.”
The tension between them, as evidenced in Brandy’s quote, got so bad that a compromise was made: Vaughn would leave “Moesha” for her own spinoff, “The Parkers.” With Mo’Nique co-starring, the show became an equally big hit, running for five seasons and drawing 3.6 million viewers for its finale episode in 2004.
And so it seems, in spite of it all, Vaughn kind of won. She was able to parlay a beloved if disrespected character into her own successful show. But then what? After “The Parkers” ended, Vaughn’s career largely stalled. This is typical of many TV stars, of course, but especially for stars such as Vaughn: Black women who, though talented, don’t easily conform to arbitrary Hollywood standards that privilege whiteness and thinness.
After just a handful of guest spots throughout the 2000s, Vaughn came back into the Black Twitter zeitgeist in 2014 as a cast member of the TV One reality show “Hollywood Divas.” On the show, which also starred “Girlfriends” actor Golden Brooks, Vaughn revealed that she became pregnant at 18, just as “The Parkers” was beginning.
“I had an unwanted pregnancy. I had just started my TV show,” she said. “I knew that in Black Hollywood a girl having a baby, they’d get rid of you.”
She added, “I had to make a decision to get rid of the child for my career because I knew from the jump that if I let any of them know what was going on, they would have canceled my show.”
Vaughn made a decision that many other young women have had to make. Her experience, though, also underscored the precariousness of being an actor like her at the time that she got the spinoff. There was a sense that she couldn’t miss this chance because she’d probably never get another one like it again. And in a sense, this was true.
It’s always tempting and easy to do the thing we all do when we look back at the objects of our nostalgia, that thing where you pick apart all the ways in which something from the past was problematic. This kind of looking back can be useful, as long as it doesn’t turn into some sort of exercise in making ourselves feel morally superior to a past that we were a part of.
Instead, we should look back as a way to understand the ramifications of problematic tropes and the ways we’ve integrated these stereotypes into real life.
It’s great that so many people are giving Vaughn her flowers right now as they return to “Moesha” and eagerly await the arrival of “The Parkers” on Netflix on Oct. 1. It’s great that people are shouting at her style, her singing, her humor. It’s great that they are rightly calling attention to the countless, useless fat jokes.
But I’m interested in thinking about how those jokes showed up in the world. Like, how many 16-year-old girls watched Moesha laugh at the idea of Kim thinking she could be a cheerleader and laughed along, even if they themselves looked like Kim? And how did Vaughn feel about it?
So many people have tweeted how amazing the actor’s singing was on the show, how she should have released an album back then. Which makes me think about the time she made a serious foray into music in 2016 with the release of a single called “Do You Love Him?” The song’s video quickly became fodder for hilarious memes and parodies. I definitely laughed along.
But I wonder how much of that laughter at her expense was tied to the conditioning we’ve all had for years to not take Vaughn or Kim or any big Black woman seriously? How did that way of thinking about her and looking at her impede her career, despite her clear and obvious talent? How many more Countess Vaughns are we not talking about?