Why We Need More Complex Black Female Characters
In 2015, Beyoncé — the woman who had long reigned supreme as black female royalty — decided not to appear on talk shows, speak to journalists, or present herself to the media in any other way. I viewed it as an act of grace. Beyoncé was so loved by the public that she could put out any music she wanted without saying anything about it, and still break records within minutes. As a 15-year-old girl finishing her freshman year of high school at the time, I marvelled at this black woman’s ability to hold everyone’s attention through complete and utter silence.
But I’ve since come to see the very silence I admired as problematic. Oftentimes the black women the world chooses to place on a pedestal are also relatively silent — or, if not silent, easily muted. Famous black women like Zendaya and Lupita Nyong’o tend to speak about race only when making vague statements white audiences have already deemed safe to claim — like “black girls are pretty, too” and “racism is wrong.” These black women are permitted to stay on their platforms because of their elegant postures, white-teeth smiles, polite laughs, and bodies built to fit designer dresses.
Perhaps Beyoncé’s decision to stop doing interviews, therefore, wasn’t an act of claiming her power, but one of becoming even more palatable and easy to love by her ever-growing (and therefore rapidly diversifying) fanbase. Beyoncé’s silent lack of self-definition enables her fans to interpret her however they wish, as pro-black or as nonpolitical as they see fit.
What’s more, while Beyoncé used the privilege of her own position to opt out of media participation, depiction of black women in the media at large remained stalled in two limited categories: the idiotic, loud, violent female character in a black family movie (think any female character in a Tyler Perry movie) and those written to combat the former — characters so squeaky clean, so careful to avoid any stereotypes, that they are almost unbelievable. Their problems are generally overcome by simply realizing that being black doesn’t mean they deserve less rather than exploring their complex inner lives beyond race.
Black women are supposed to relate to and admire these two-dimensional characters, but in reality their lives are multi-dimensional: they’re real people who face obstacles outside of combating racism. Most black girls have gained enough life experience by adolescence to understand that “black girls are pretty, too” and “racism is wrong.” What we’re still grappling with is that being a black girl is still really hard because while we may believe those messages, the people we interact with on a daily basis don’t necessarily understand or believe those messages. And, of course, we are dealing with that racism at the same time that we deal with the everyday problems any other complicated person does.
It wasn’t until last year that I finally found a show depicting black women who were neither two-dimensional nor superhuman. I started watching Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure at the insistence of my older sister. I expected a few good jokes from a dorky-but-lovable black girl but instead found a depiction of black women weighed down by their insecurities and terrible judgment. The protagonist, Issa, is a refreshingly bad person: she selfishly avoids her long-term boyfriend after suggesting they break up just to escape awkward conversation, accidentally embarrasses her best friend by trying to impress a guy, and hilariously raps to herself in the mirror to hype herself up. She’s also surrounded by other flawed black characters: Her boyfriend Lawrence lacks motivation to get a job after years of unemployment, her highly ambitious best friend Molly complains about having to sleep around to find a suitable husband. I could relate to their backstories and varying responses to everything the white-dominated world threw at them.
While the characters on Insecure do not make good choices, they face the consequences of their actions — and manage to do so without turning their blackness into a caricature. These loud, messy mistakes speak to black girls far more than perfect silence ever could: there are more black girls who are awkward and hate their coworkers and need to just dump that one boyfriend than there are Beyoncé-like shapeshifters. Those girls need to see black women on TV who get eviction notices and wear head wraps to sleep and may be powerful and confident but still have to deal with racism after the episode ends.
This is the black female representation we actually need: representation that normalizes black women who don’t always make good role models, who can’t always provide white-teeth smiles and polite laughs. The representation I want is of more real-life black women who make believable, relatable mistakes.
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