Not The Way White Girls Do
by Fariha Roisin
Girls of color don’t have films made about them. Especially not in the way white girls do. There’s no Mean Girls featuring a black co-lead, or a Ten Things I Hate About You where the Stratford sisters are Hispanic. There isn’t even a WOC in either film that has agency over her own life, anything but a buffer for the white kids and their antics. Though I’ll give a shout out to Gabrielle Union, “You can be overwhelmed, and underwhelmed—but can you ever just be whelmed?” It’s a pretty philosophically astute observation, but it’s also one of the only sentences she speaks in Ten Things.
When I was young, I searched high and low for something that was applicable to me and my life. I liked Arthur because he was brown, and that made me feel normal. I liked The Craft because I identified with Rochelle, “the token brown girl” (Rachel True) and the constant barrage of insults she was inflicted by Laura Lizzie on a daily basis. Of course, sometimes, a lot of those experiences are just a part of being a teenager—teens can be unduly mean. But trust me: being a woman of color (or trans, or queer) is not a comparable experience, and sometimes having media that speaks to you—even just characters that look like you—makes it all less lonely. Through them, you are able to make sense of your existence in a world where you are constantly defined by how society others you, and therein how they treat you and your so-called differences. When someone on screen represents you, in some capacity, you can draw solace in their struggles—they somehow make your own less stark, less overwhelming; they normalize you.
Films about POC kids are generally thought to be the territory of POC writers—Spike Lee for Crooklyn, Gurinder Chadha with Bend It Like Beckham, et al. However, recently, pop culture has understood, to some degree, that having dynamic POC as their leads can be as profitable, and just as interesting, as having a cast of white leads. Sleepy Hollow does this well—Abbie Mills is played by Nicole Beharie, an African American woman; in Elementary, Dr.Watson is a female, and Asian American, played by Lucy Liu.
In this vein, white filmmaker, Céline Sciamma’s latest film Girlhood, or rather—Bande de Filles, the literal translation being ‘girl gang’—features not only a black lead, but focuses primarily on black girls throughout the whole film.
Black girls definitely don’t have films made about them. The best explanation for this that I’ve ever read or heard is in Jessica Hopper’s Village Voice piece about R.Kelly. In it, she interviews Chicago Sun-Times writer Jim DeRogatis who laments: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.” Through studied intentions we are told, black girls, and WOC at-large, are non-identifiable; that, in order to write a story about a POC kid, it inevitably needs to be within the context of race. The language is coded.
Sciamma defies tradition with Girlhood. Her rendition of a black girl’s life is ordinary. Her lead, Marieme (Kardija Touré) is black, yes, but her life is not defined by this premise—she’s also curious about boys, about how to be; there’s a sense that she’s searching for something more, as all teenagers often are, and she grapples with her mediocre existence as she begins to explore what lies in the world outside of her own confines.
One of the reasons that films, like all art, are profound is because they give you an escape. Through them you can meditate your state in the ether; you can sublimate your own pain, find comfort, learn, grow, transform. Art allows you to transcend quotidian woes. When you’re a POC, however, both the art, and the experience of that art, is limited. That feeling of societal exclusion is stark, and only exacerbates feelings of self-hate that so readily exist when you’re a POC. The system is designed against you—and so often that system works.
Sciamma honors Marieme’s existence, and other WOC, by deeming that our stories having meaning. However, it doesn’t seem like an act of political warfare for her: it’s just natural. That’s powerful—POC just are; we exist, we live, we are worthy of stories, too.
Sciamma’s interests, as a director, lie in coming-of-age stories, but her focus has always been the fluidity of gender and the wondrous complexities of girls and their sexual identities. Though there’s an emphasis on gender normativeness in Girlhood, it mainly portrays Marieme coming to terms with herself, amidst her transforming body, in an outer-Parisian milieu. She’s brave, and she’s strong—within a few hours we see her evolve from girl to woman.
WOC are often othered by pop culture due to the illusory expectation that we are “so hard” to write about, but when it is done correctly, all of the ostensible challenges that are implanted on our existence are suddenly usurped by, well, good writing.
Coming-of-age stories, like Girlhood, in this case, are lauded as necessary, and they are. They make those awkward years a little more palatable or bearable. So much of my youth was also spent watching TV shows like The O.C., which glorified the problems of rich kids with long limbs, and of course—that token working class dude. Now, I wonder why it was always seen as necessary to normalize the problems of white heteronormative teens, but not everybody else? I spent so much of my adolescence wanting to be like these pomposity-stricken starved white girls—from Marissa Cooper to Serena Van Der Woodsen—assuming that to be liked, to be pretty, I had to be white. To make matters worse, I was surrounded by a sea of white people. All my friends, were white—except I lacked the constitution to separate myself from their delicate white bullshit, and their othering comments directed toward me. Every “I wish I was brown!”—to “It must be so nice to not look like everyone else”—to “Why are your knees so weird?”—to “Don’t you think its funny that you’re the only person that isn’t white in this group?”—was put inside of my hollow grief-stricken self, interjecting the words, enabling my own self hate bit-by-bit.
Fuck, I wanted to be white so badly.
There’s a scene in Girlhood where the four girls—Marieme and her girl gang—are in a hotel where they drink, gossip, and dress up; nursing themselves with self-medicated self care. At one point, Marieme starts singing Diamonds by Rihanna, and slowly, one by one, the others join in. Their bodies are blue, against the effervescent karaoke glow of the TV; they are dressed in fancy clothes—they are happy. Do you know how audacious it is for not one, but four dark skinned girls, to be on screen singing the lyrics: Tonight/You and I/We’re beautiful/Like diamonds in the sky” with a disregard and ease that is only ever reserved for white kids? These girls aren’t lamenting their darkness, they are wholeheartedly embracing what they are because they’re never given an option not to. Like whiteness, they normalize their blackness, by never acknowledging a difference.
Sciamma creates a beautifully layered existence for Marieme, and her girl gang, by never fetishizing their lives. She never makes them the token black girls, or reproduces storylines that are insincere. It’s never about an “immigrant struggle,” but rather a story about a young girl navigating her life amidst socio-economic confrontations, or being a “female” in a patriarchal society.
Sciamma acknowledges that if Marieme were a man she would be afforded so many more privileges, and we see that through the relationship she has with her brother. He’s abusive towards her throughout the whole film, but there’s an inkling of a familial connection when he hears of her beating up another girl. The only chassis he exists in is within a masculine and “aggressive” one—and if Marieme can pretend to be masculine, then she can have an existing and healthy relationship with her brother. Otherwise, she is too foreign for him to understand and relate to. Inevitably, with him, she’s only ever defined by her femininity.
Like Beyoncé’s Flawless, which dares to allow us to accept ourselves as we are, Marieme is shown as an all-encompassing human being, who is not lacking in anything. We see her drama within the context of the complexity of circumstance, but never because of race—even though you know it’s a factor of her placement in society—and although it is intimated, there’s something revolutionary about just letting a character of color live, and let live.
Note to Hollywood producers and co: this is how you write POC characters.
Sciamma’s awareness of Marieme comes from a place of knowing that embracing the humanity of a subject is often the biggest, kindest and most radical gift—as opposed to fetishizing them. Boyhood by Richard Linklater was seen as this important cultural signifier—how great that this director was able to chronicle the life of a white, hetero male in America—but, to me, the most complex and valuable story is truly Marieme’s.
In filmmaker Cecile Emeke’s first episode of “flåneur” (Emeke’s work gives visibility to black creative voices) two black French girls—Gaëlle Ako and Christelle Oyiri—were interviewed about their lives growing up in Paris and how that informed their reactions to sisterhood, afrofuturism and Girlhood. They both lamented that the film lacked the joie-de-vivre of black French culture, i.e the music that is so embedded in their own identities, Christelle explains: “They didn’t have any rhythm. In the ghetto there tends to be a soundtrack to your life. Whether it’s rap, whether it’s dancehall, whether it’s techno. [Sciamma] only used motherfucking synth! It makes me feel like life in the ghetto doesn’t have any life.” To them, the film was from a white feminist gaze, one that dismissed and overlooked their quirks. Gaëlle begins saying “[w]hen you live in a society where black women are invisible—” and Cecile finishes “…you feel misrepresented. You’re like: ‘I do have black girls as friends and they’re not like this.’ So why you keep talking about these girls that are the minority of black girls?”
Going forward, filmmakers do need to be cognizant of the diversity, but also authenticity, of stories. Narratives about POC can’t lack dimension. The layers and complexities of white characters should translate into our stories, too. In Gina Rodriguez’s Golden Globe speech (for her lead character of Jane in the CW’s Jane The Virgin) she remarked, “This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” In a perfect world there would be multiple stories with whom WOC women can identity, not just one for the choosing.
Ultimately, representation is integral to the dialogue of film and television because of the impact it has on the viewers that watch it. If I had this film when I was growing up, maybe I would have been able to accept myself for what I was a long time ago. I wasn’t white, but that was okay. I was still valid. My story was still valid. My life was, and is, still valid. To me, this movie beckons more movies to be made like it—allowing there to be room for young boys and girls, everywhere, who are different, for more reasons than one, and to see themselves on a screen and know—that no matter what—they are important. That, despite all the forces out there dictating otherwise, they’re going to be alright.
Fariha Roísín is a writer extraordinaire. Follow her rambunctious tweeting @fariharoisin.
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