I didn’t see myself on television or on film until I was 17 years old. It was in the Netflix original series “Sex Education” with the character Ola.
Ola was a lot like me, she was black, pansexual, dressed in masculine clothing, and never cared what anyone thought of her appearance. I admired her deeply, FINALLY a character who looks and acts like I do! But… it’s important to note “Sex Education” does not take place in the U.S., it takes place in the U.K., and Ola was not one of the main characters in the show. So, I still try to look for representation of people like me in American films and television, and I have found nothing yet…
It’s somewhat discouraging not seeing people like you in media content throughout your life. Growing up I watched popular shows and movies like “Friends”, and “Harry Potter”, it was all me and my friends could talk about at the time. The world seemed to be filled with endless possibilities where I could be a wizard, a chef, an actress, or anything I wanted to be as a child.
Until one day in the 5th grade, I was on the playground at school roleplaying “Harry Potter” with my friends (most of whom were white), and we picked characters all of us could play. “I want Hermoine!” my friend Joy said. “Well I want Voldemort”, my friend Georgia said. I was about to shout with excitement “I want to be Luna or Harry”, but before I could open my mouth my friend Joy says to me “Raeven you can be Kingsley Shacklebolt or Dean Thomas”. “I don’t want to play Shacklebolt or Dean,” I told them (both of those characters aren’t even central to the plot, most viewers don’t even know who they are at first glance.) I told them I wanted to play a central character and they told me “Too bad”, those were the only black characters in the movies. That’s when I realized… “oh… my friends were right. There aren’t a lot of girls that look like me in big movie franchises or critically acclaimed tv shows.” Suddenly I was no longer free to be a wizard, a chef, an actress, or anything I wanted to be.
I looked at the current representations of black female characters and how they were written and realized I now had to play the role of “the dramatic, overly aggressive black best friend whose only purpose is to encourage the main white characters.” It was strange looking around to see black characters in films on TV who were nothing like me. Overly aggressive, loud, sassy, comic relief. Basically caricatures of what black people are like in reality. Only there to help out their white friends or employers. I thought to myself, “Is this who they think we are? Because that is NOT me…”
My dream has always been to become a screenwriter in Hollywood and make movies, plays, and television shows including characters no one has ever seen before. However, that dream seems to fade more and more each day, as I’m constantly reminded how hard it will be for me to break into the industry coming from a middle-class, black household in Maryland with only my mother and grandmother to provide for me. I don’t blame people (like teachers) telling me the journey will be hard because they’re right. Hollywood has a tendency to ignore people like me. In fact, I don’t think I could name 10 black queer women on television right now even if my life depended on it.
Sure, over the years Hollywood has made strides in terms of representation for people who are not straight, cisgender, rich, white men. But the representation in Hollywood is still lacking even in the year 2023. Just a few weeks ago, Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian-American actress to win in the best actress category at the Oscars. She’s only the second woman of color in history to win the award. “That doesn’t sound right”, you’re probably thinking “There ought to be more.” However, the only other woman of color to win in the best actress category was Halle Berry in 2002.
I was shocked to hear this information, after all of these years of women of color fighting for a place in Hollywood, critics and producers still overlook them and refuse to nominate them for their talents. This year in the Best Supporting Actress category Jamie Lee Curtis won over the (critically acclaimed performances) of Stephanie Hsu and Angela Bassett. Both of whom are women of color who were more central in their respective films compared to Curtis’s character who was in the film for less than 20 minutes of screen time.
21 years is far too long for another woman of color to win best actress. And while the academy and Hollywood continue to praise themselves on the “progress” they’ve made, there is still a long way to go in terms of representation on the screen. Many minorities still don’t feel rightly represented on screen. I mean when’s the last time you saw a black queer woman leading a critically acclaimed big-budget Hollywood movie? You probably haven’t yet, and that’s a problem.
It’s not just producers and directors who cause minorities to be underrepresented, it also depends on you. The audience. Recently, a new trailer for the live-action “Little Mermaid” was released which shows the main character Ariel played by actress Halle Bailey (who is a black woman). Mind you, the film has not been released yet and already people are criticizing the lead actress. Not for her performance, but because of her skin tone. With racist people claiming “Ariel can’t be black. She was white in the cartoon.” Judging someone (based on skin color) before they even get a chance to speak or show off their talents is a form of microaggression. While some may think it’s harmless to write comments like that online, media consumers need to realize that they too play a role in whether minorities are represented or not. Meaning when a minority group is being represented on screen and maybe they’re not the same race as you (Asian, Latina, black, indigenous, etc), it’s not our job to criticize or belittle them. Trust me you will get your time in the spotlight again soon. Now is the time to sit back, open your mind, and listen to what these underrepresented groups have to say.
Representation is important because it shows minorities a possibility of what or who they could be. It shows people of color that they can be storytellers, queens, kings, superheroes, comedians, dancers, designers, musicians, soldiers, inventors, painters, architects, engineers, scientists, innovators, the list goes on.
Ultimately, it shows them that they are capable of success and that they are more than just side characters in someone else’s stories. It shows them that they can be the leaders of their own stories. Minorities such as myself should not be overlooked or hated. We should be heard and praised because we too have talent and intelligence, and we too have stories to share. We should call out microaggressions when we hear them. And we should support organizations that try to give BIPOC individuals a voice, such as Hue You Know,
Firelight Media, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, and so on. But it all starts with you. As a media consumer. To learn more about the organizations uplifting BIPOC in Hollywood, read the full list on Refinery29.com.