The Myth of “Doing Better”: Why So Much of Black Queer Representation Fails Us

By Sydney Turner

As a Black queer person, interacting with media without being disappointed is … hard. Much of popular media media is still hesitant to include either Black or queer characters, let alone Black queer characters. I am very used to being underwhelmed by background or token characters thrown into a show in the name of “diversity”. 

Now, however, a new problem with representation is emerging. 

These days, we’re seeing more and more Black and queer characters on our screens — which should be good for Black queer audiences, but that is often not the case. Unfortunately, there are very few Black queer creators who have the privilege to operate in the space of popular media, so it usually winds up that the people presenting such characters to us are not actually Black and queer themselves. Often, it becomes one person’s job to speak for the entire Black queer experience, or the non-Black, non-queer creators fail to do justice to either the characters’ Blackness, their queerness, or sometimes both. Some cases of this have been The Bold Type’s Kat Edison, Riverdale’s Toni Topaz, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s Bow.

The Bold Type is a show that stands out amongst its counterparts. Shows about women dating men, working their way up the career ladder, and facing other hardships are aplenty. These women are almost always white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, and rarely — if ever at all — talk about how almost every single component that makes up their lives and identities is a privilege. On the other hand, The Bold Type talks openly and plainly about many significant issues such as women’s health, white privilege, LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, sexual assault, and even more. 

 

 

A big reason so many of these topics are approached with honesty is because of Kat Edison (Aisha Dee). Kat is biracial, bisexual, and, as the show’s most outspoken character, she is most definitely “the bold type”. In the show, Kat is held accountable by another Black character for not fully embracing her Black identity and, after embracing that part of herself, later holds her friends and others accountable for their white privilege. She starts off the show as a “proud hetero”, but throughout the series transforms into a loud and proud bisexual. 

For so many Black queer people, especially Black queer women, Kat Edison is a refreshing change of pace — which is why it was so disappointing to audiences when she ended up in a relationship with a white privileged conservative woman. Aisha Dee herself spoke up about this, saying it “felt confusing and out of character” in an Instagram post. She continued: “[I]t was heartbreaking to watch Kat’s redemption story turn into a redemption story for someone else, someone who is complicit in the oppression of so many.” 

 

Audiences were disappointed when Kat ended up in a relationship with a white privileged conservative woman, with Dee saying it “felt confusing and out of character”. (Image via NYMag)

 

Dee stressed that she was not trying to be negative; she knows the impact the show and especially Kat’s character have had on people and that this direction felt wrong for Kat, adding that “the diversity we see in front of the camera needs to be reflected in the diversity of the creative team behind the camera”.

It’s a fair statement, seeing as it took two seasons for a person of color to even get into the writer’s room and, in four seasons of airing, the show has hired only one Black female director. It took three seasons to get a stylist who knew how to work with textured hair into the hair department, and despite the show talking about how important it was for Kat to be Scarlet magazine’s first Black female department head, the show itself does not have any Black women occupying department head roles. Network Freeform and the executive producers have since released a statement saying that they are listening and will do better.

Another Black actress who has spoken out about a similar issue is Riverdale‘s Vanessa Morgan. Morgan, who plays Toni Topaz, tweeted that she was “tired of how Black people are portrayed in Media, tired of us being portrayed as thugs, dangerous or angry scary people. Tired of us also being used as side kick non dimensional characters to our white leads. Or only used in the ads for diversity but not actually in the show.” 

Compared to other characters, Toni’s backstory is lacking in the show, to the point where Morgan herself has expressed a desire to know more about her own character’s story and her parents. Morgan also brought up the pay gap between herself and her other castmates, saying explicitly that she is the lowest-paid series regular. 

 

Vanessa Morgan, who plays Toni Topaz on Riverdale, has brought up the pay gap between herself and her other castmates, saying explicitly that she is the lowest-paid series regular. (Image via Decider)

 

None of this is surprising as Riverdale is not known for writing good arcs for characters of color or queer characters. Other Black former cast members have also spoken up about the show’s tokenism before, and did so again in support of Morgan’s comments. Asha Bromfield, who played Pussycats band member Melody Valentine, said that the Pussycats “had so much more to contribute than standing in the background and adding sass to a storyline”. Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre Sacasa has since released a statement of apology, saying that Riverdale will — once again — do better. 

Another incident that let Black queer fans down was with She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s creative team. Netflix’s She-Ra is so important for queer representation; it is one of the few worlds in which queerphobia is not a factor, which is why it was upsetting to Black fans of the show to learn that racism occurs behind closed doors. During a live stream on August 26th, some crew members and Noelle Stevenson (creator, showrunner, and executive producer) brought up a joke about the character Bow (Marcus Scribner) and one of his siblings, who is not seen in the show. “All of Bow’s brothers, their names rhyme with Bow. So there’s Oboe, who plays the oboe, Gogh, like Van Gogh and he’s missing an ear,” they said. “Which one of Bow’s brothers likes to till the fields? Sow.” 

The “joke” may not have been made with malicious intent, but it was still careless and racist, and upset many Black fans and fans of color. Stevenson has since apologized and said that they take the responsibility of making a safe space for fans seriously and will — you guessed it — work to do better in the future. However, for many Black fans, a big issue remained that if there were Black people on the She-Ra staff, the “joke” probably would not ever have made it out of the room in the first place. While She-Ra has a significant proportion of queer staff, it is still not racially diverse with exactly zero Black people in the writers’ room. 

Of course, it is not always possible to have Black creators on staff — but it also was not always possible to have two girls kiss in the finale of a show and She-Ra still made it happen. In a show with a Black main character, why not hire some of the many Black people, and specifically Black queer people, who want to work in animation and are skilled and qualified to do so? 

 

She-Ra creator Noelle Stevenson has apologized for the casual racism exhibited in a livestream and promised to do better in the future. However, it remains a concern for many Black fans that if there were Black people on the She-Ra staff, the “joke” probably would not ever have made it out of the room in the first place. (Image via Newsweek)

 

No show is going to be perfect. Every media creative is going to make mistakes, and it is also not up to marginalized creators to represent the entire communities they belong to. At the same time, it is disappointing that, over and over again, that the people who almost always slip through the cracks are Black people — especially and specifically Black queer people. 

It is also exasperating that the only people who are allowed to make mistakes and given unlimited room to grow are white people. Black creators, specifically Black queer creators, are held to an impossibly high standard when creating media for ourselves. It is because of this impossible standard that we are rarely if ever able to have media created for us by us. Due to this, we are often let down by our non-Black queer and/or cishet Black counterparts when they create Black queer characters, and that’s exactly the problem.

Non-Black queer and cishet Black creators continue to create Black queer characters without consulting or hiring enough, if any, Black queer people. Mistakes can and will happen, but not pushing harder for more Black queer writers, directors, staff, or even sensitivity readers is a choice. Non-Black creatives, especially white creatives, even when marginalized themselves may not always be racist, but they will always have racial bias, and the only way to continually check and examine that bias is by hiring Black queer people in positions where their voices and perspectives are heard. Otherwise, there is no way to do justice to their Black queer characters, and if creatives cannot do justice to their Black queer characters, then who and what are they creating these characters for? 

 

Other prominent Black queer characters on television include, from left to right, Mj Rodriguez as Blanca Evangelista from Pose, Lena Waithe as Denise on Master of None, and Garnet (voiced by Estelle) on Steven Universe. (Image via Pride.com)

 

Non-Black queer creators, especially white creators, need to ask themselves if they are creating diverse characters only for diversity’s sake — or worse, for clout — or if it’s to genuinely uplift those characters, identities, and audiences. When trying to break boundaries, they cannot just break the boundaries that hinder them and ignore the ones they continue to benefit from. It is exhausting for those of us who live in the center of an intersection or multiple intersections to interact with media that is supposedly for us without the people behind the camera actually giving us due consideration. It is repetitive and frustrating to hear apologies and promises to “do better in future” from creatives and networks when changes are rarely implemented, promises are seldom fulfilled, and that so-called future more often than not remains nothing less than a hypothetical aspiration. 

We need both the Blackness and queerness of Black queer characters to be respected and valued enough by creatives, enough so that they hire the very people they claim to care about and work hard to truly do justice to those characters and creatives. This is how we get to a place where Black queer creators are the ones taking charge of their own stories. 

Until then, the future that creators continue to reference in their apologies is nothing more than a myth. 

 

 

 

Edited by Melissa Lee

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