Imagine being a young black girl and being fed the idea that your dark skin is bad, that the lighter you are and straighter your hair is, the more beautiful you will be. You end up believing these messages and it’s not until you’re older that you begin to unlearn those beliefs. To see yourself portrayed positively, in television and/or film, is a great feeling. You can look at a character and say, “I relate to this person.” I didn’t have much of that growing up, as most black women with darker skin, were portrayed negatively. They were usually seen as baby mamas, gold diggers, ghetto, sassy, or whatever other negative trope that was used. It surely didn’t help that whenever a black woman was portrayed as beautiful, nine times out of ten she was light-skinned. Seemingly biracial. It was unfair.
In 2012, I found a humourous web series called, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” that follows the life of awkward black girl “J,” in both her work and personal lives. It was refreshing to finally see a black girl (and a dark brown one at that) who was both awkward and introverted like me. Too often, black women who are of a darker complexion are seen as being extra-strong, capable of withstanding emotional obstacles without any support (but that’s for another piece).
In episode four of season one, there’s an icebreaker at J’s workplace that she has to participate in. In a voiceover, J says:
“Interacting with new people is the worst. You have to put your real personality in a cage, as you assess whether the person you’re talking to is even worth getting to know. It’s draining.”
As an introverted adult, this is a truth that many don’t understand. And as a black woman, this is one of the few times that I’ve come across a character who I can relate to beyond skin colour. The fact that Issa Rae, the writer and creator of the series, gave J this characteristic that people of all colours can relate to is something that should be seen more often in TV.
There are those who would say, “Well, there’s a black person in this show/movie, you should be happy.” And to that I’d say, “That doesn’t mean I’m being represented.” Representation goes beyond just skin colour. If we’re being represented negatively, that’s not representation. For example, there’s a trope used in TV for black women--especially those who are dark skinned--and that’s the “I’m independent and don’t need a man” trope. I remember growing up and seeing this trope used countless times, though at the time I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that I could agree with the woman in the movie, thinking “Yeah! I don’t need any man!”
Little did I know how harmful a characterization that was. The woman would usually show little to no vulnerable emotions, and would only be career-driven. Yet if she did show any emotions--sadness in particular--it would be a sign of weakness. And that’s what I grew up thinking. I remember in grade seven or eight, the principal of my school, Mrs. Newnham, wanted to talk to me in her office. She ended up talking about my weight and how I needed to eat healthier. I didn’t like it that she was talking to me about this, when it was none of her business. Even if she believed she was helping me. After leaving, I sat down in the school’s small cafeteria burying my head into my arms, trying to keep myself from crying but the tears came anyways. I berated myself for being weak and allowing myself to cry.
Don’t get me wrong, I still hate showing my vulnerable side to people, but I no longer see it as me being weak. An example of the aforementioned trope can be seen in the film, Think Like a Man, in which the character of Lauren Harris (played by Taraji P. Henson), is a career driven woman, who doesn’t want a serious relationship, with Michael Ealy’s character, Dominic. She keeps herself levelheaded throughout most of the film, rarely ever showing any vulnerable emotions. And even though she does decide to pursue a serious relationship with Dominic in the end, the trope is still there. She’s seen as “The Woman Who Is Her Own Man,” as she doesn’t want Dominic to ever pay for her, because she can handle it herself.
For the most part, I’m glad that there are more positive portrayals of dark-skinned black women in television. Ones that I can relate to, even beyond skin colour. Like Michonne from “The Walking Dead.” An aspect of her personality that I relate to the most is slowly opening up to people as you get closer to and more comfortable with them. It’s simply refreshing to see black women be portrayed as wholesome, three-dimensional characters who are also human, instead of stereotypes.
But it’s also saddening when black women, who aren’t created based off of stereotypes, are vilified online by mostly non-black people. I use Tumblr often and whenever people in The Walking Dead fandom give a reason for not liking Michonne, it’s all the same thing: they’re flawed characters. They want them to be perfect. But perfection isn’t real, and aren’t all humans flawed? When it comes to flawed white characters, they’re seen as very compelling. For example, The Governor from “The Walking Dead,” or The Punisher from “Daredevil.” But bring in a black character with the same negative personality traits, especially a black woman, there’s instantly essay-length posts online about how they’re actually a bad person because of these flaws. It’s like black characters are supposed to not be human. Why is that? What makes us so different that the minute we show what makes us human, we’re suddenly the villain?
Now, this isn’t to say that it’s impossible to relate to non-black characters in television, because trust me, I relate to Daria Morgendorffer (“Daria”) on a spiritual level with her introverted personality. But when you don’t see yourself reflected positively in the media, you’re left wondering, “Who can I look up to that also looks like me?” This is also a fact when it comes to portraying dark-skinned women as desirable by men, especially white men. If a black woman is seen as desirable, she is usually lighter and it’s really sad because this idea that dark-skinned women aren’t desirable is ridiculous. Viola Davis said it best:
“The paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. Hollywood simply does not view dark-brown actresses as women who are desirable by men. That’s the whole racial aspect of colourism. If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire.”
A great example of this is in the upcoming 2018 DC film, The Flash, in which the role of Iris West was given to Kiersey Clemons, who is biracial (black father, white mother). While it is a step forward in casting a non-white person as the love interest for a superhero film, Kiersey Clemons still passes the paper-bag test. Viola’s quote shows how much we need more dark-brown women in television and film, to be seen as desirable. Whether by men or women.
When Rick and Michonne (“The Walking Dead”) finally got together, I felt elated. It was such a groundbreaking moment, that part of me still couldn’t believe it. Granted, I read the spoilers for the episode prior to it airing but even then, I really couldn’t believe that AMC and the writers were actually going to let this happen. Having a dark-brown woman be desired and by the leading male at that, doesn’t happen often. And for the first time since Shawn and Angela’s relationship in “Boy Meets World,” it felt like I was being told, “Yes, you are worthy. Yes, you are desirable.” That feeling hasn’t left since Rick and Michonne consummated their relationship.
I had low self-esteem during my teen years partially because of the lack of positive representation in television and film. Growing up, my friends who were lighter than me, I would think they were prettier. Anytime I saw a light-skinned black woman with that “good hair,” I’d tell myself “I wish I looked like her.” Seeing more dark-brown women be portrayed as humans and not stereotypes has helped a lot. Watching interviews with dark-brown actresses like Danai Gurira, Viola Davis, and Issa Rae has helped me to be proud of my skin. Not just that, but the importance of representation has also made me realize that I want to become a screenwriter. If someone were to ask me why I want to write for television, I’d tell them this: I want more black women as protagonists. I want little black girls to grow up seeing themselves reflected as humans and not stereotypes. They need to see that they’re beautiful, desirable, and worthy of love. That they’re deserving of the full human experience, and can express their emotions without repercussions. If they’re angry or sad, that those emotions don’t make them weak. Neither does asking someone for help. It makes them human along with their flaws. Because at the end of the day, they shouldn’t have to say, “I deserve to be represented, too.”