By Celeste Little
Jun 20, 2018 @ 11:00 am

As the MTV Movie & TV Awards begin, Tiffany Haddish reminds the audience that she is the first black woman to ever host the show. It’s expressed with the same frank persistence with which she reiterates the price of her white Alexander McQueen dress. As the show continues and Haddish “repeats” dresses worn by powerful female entertainers, from Cardi B. to Meghan Markle, it’s clear that this running joke isn’t just about clothes.

Tucked in the ruched layers of Haddish’s performance are pointed messages about class, authenticity, women’s sexuality, and access. On a night proclaimed genderless by Riverdale stars Madelaine Petsch, Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes—because no awards are divided into male and female categories—Haddish begins and ends in white, a reminder of women’s equality, while subtly honoring women of color.

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Haddish’s last Instagram posted before the show is an ad for diamonds. In it, she writes about a tiny diamond her grandmother gave her as a teenager, poking fun at its size and then reflecting on the lesson in the gift—that it’s best to have something, to be someone, real. “When it comes to expressing what is real—real moments, real caring, real love and real emotion, only the real thing will do,” Haddish writes. “Thank you, Grandma, for teaching me that being real feels really good.”

A few hours after the post goes up, Haddish opens the show, breathlessly singing, “This is rented. These are not my size. My toes are turning blue,” as she parodies Cardi B’s SNL baby announcement. She is wearing the same Christian Siriano gown, the same bouffant of dark hair. She attributes her baby bump to Michael B. Jordan’s sexy stare (and then to gas).

"It’s clear that this running joke isn’t just about clothes."

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for MTV

The opening performance is timely and laugh-out-loud funny, but neither the dress, the scene, nor the topic is an accident. Haddish made a statement by choosing to imitate Cardi B.’s pregnancy reveal. It was a moment when the controversial rapper from the Bronx seemed to have achieved everything she’d said she wanted. Rapping on SNL’s stage, under the glow of a vintage spotlight, Bardi insisted that she would have it all, despite comments that a pregnancy at this stage would be career-ending.

“As a woman, why can’t I have both? Like, why do I have to choose a career or a baby? ” Cardi B. asked her naysayers via an interview with Power 105.1’s Breakfast Club. Just before the MTV Movie & TV Awards aired, Cardi performed at Hot 107.9’s Birthday Bash ATL at nine months pregnant.

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Both Tiffany Haddish and Cardi B. are “real.” Each seems to rely on her own quirky brand of authenticity. Both are influenced by upbringings and neighborhoods littered with struggle. Each has been the topic of allegedly career-ending headlines—Cardi B. for her life choices and Haddish for her run-ins with Beyonce—and have emerged unscathed.As the show goes on, Haddish doesn’t shy away from class commentary, pulling apart the seams of a money-laden entertainment industry when she reveals that she cannot toss a $4,000 Alexander McQueen dress after one wear; her Christian Siriano is rented and her shoes don’t fit. Bardi visits her former neighborhood regularly, dances on her grandmother’s kitchen counter in her underwear and says, “I’ve never pretended to sound like anyone or look like anyone for attention ... I’ve been like this, always.” No matter how much either woman has been attacked for it, neither offers to pull back any measure of her “realness.”

According to interviews after the 2000 Grammys, when Jennifer Lopez arrived in her infamous, navel-baring emerald Versace dress, she did not know that it was an important moment until it passed. The same cannot be said for Tiffany Haddish’s “swap-meet” version. Before she steps on stage to honor the Bronx woman who changed the definition of awards-show sexy, Haddish has already affirmed that she is boldly and unapologetically sexual.

"As women are celebrating the fullness of themselves, stories like Haddish’s and Markle’s do not need to become secrets."

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Over the course of the show, she flirts with chuckling male audience members dozens of times. It starts with Michael B. Jordan, but she also wants Nick Jonas to “do her with mustard” just like his performance; she says she has a weakness for Adam Driver’s high-waisted pants. Moments after she disappears off stage in her green dress, Haddish is back, accepting the award for Best Comedic Performance and claiming that she wants to “get in trouble.”

Somehow, she doesn’t. Maybe because she’s deft enough to joke about women’s sexuality without reminding the audience of its chilling subtext in Hollywood (the fact that she hasn’t abused her platform to cause anyone harm certainly helps). Maybe because she’s able to toe the fine line between comical and crass without stepping too far over it in any direction. Regardless, if her aim was to change how women’s sexuality is expressed on screen, a genderless awards show seems like the perfect place to start.

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“Meghan isn’t the only one who can look good in a dress,” Haddish remarks, standing between two bare-chested men in a copy of Markle’s wedding dress, her fourth all-white look of the night. (Admittedly, one of those looks was a bathrobe.) “She’s from my hood so I had to represent,” she says.

It’s true. Both the newly married Duchess of Sussex and the newly minted host of the MTV Movie & TV Awards are from Los Angeles. Both are opinionated and authentic, both have made waves in spaces that were not initially open to them. Both are completely honest about who they were before the fame. Markle was previously married and divorced, and was a briefcase model on Deal or No Deal before becoming a royal last month. Haddish grew up in the foster system and experienced abuse there, which she chronicles in her memoir. At another time, perhaps these facts would’ve unfairly disqualified these black women from their current stations in life. But right now, as women are celebrating the fullness of themselves, stories like Haddish’s and Markle’s do not need to become secrets. They are more inspirational because of their honesty and realness, not less so.

The final repeated dress of the night is a glittery gold gown with an expansive train from another royal wedding, albeit a fictional one. Haddish’s last look is pulled directly from Coming to America, the classic all-black comedy starring Eddie Murphy as the prince of a fictional African nation, Zamunda. In the movie, Murphy is engaged to be married to the woman in the gold gown. But he realizes that she isn’t “real” enough—she doesn’t have her own interests, her own desires or opinions—and he decides to go to Queens, New York, to find a wife, “because that’s where queens are found.”

Tiffany Haddish is one of a very small cohort of black female comedians who’ve had the opportunity to go mainstream. The group of black, female comics who’ve been able to do that without hiding their truths or changing their personalities is likely smaller. And of those women, who have gained entry into the mainstream, only one was invited to host the MTV Movie & TV Awards.

But as the night closes out, and Tiffany Haddish appears in her all-white pantsuit, it’s clear that she’s a real one.