Image Source: Netflix
Recently, I was on a five-hour-plus flight back home and decided to check out the movie The Incredible Jessica James on Netflix (which I initially thought was the first season of a show and was heartbroken to find out I was wrong). It had everything I love in my movies — a quirky (but not annoying) protagonist, an awkward love interest, and that modern-millennial romance that makes us wince in secondhand embarrassment while wishing we had that kind of love. Plus, Jessica James is played by Jessica Williams, who I basically want to be when I grow up. So I went into it guessing that I was going to enjoy it. By the end of the movie, I was crying.
She's creative, smart, a little bitter, a lot jaded, full of swagger, and black. Just like me.
I wasn't crying because the movie is particularly heartbreaking or overwhelmingly amazing (though it's good; you should definitely check it out), but because it felt like ME. I watched Jessica James on my 13.3-inch screen, and I related to her so much. She's creative, smart, a little bitter, a lot jaded, full of swagger, and black. Just like me. In my 26 years of life, the times all those boxes were checked for a character I connected with were very few and far between. But with movies like The Incredible Jessica James or Black Panther and shows like Being Mary Jane or Insecure, I'm beginning to check off that final box more and more, which was practically impossible several years ago. I was a kid during what felt like the golden age of black television. I remember staying up with my sister so I could watch repeats of shows like A Different World, Living Single, and Martin, but never getting them because I was too young. When I got older, there was UPN (which was basically known as the "black channel"), and with it came iconic shows like Girlfriends, Everybody Hates Chris, All of Us, and Moesha. These were essential watches for black families in the late '80s / early '00s. We had actual black families on our TVs who were loving and realistic and who dealt with problems we understood.
These were the kinds of shows that stuck with us. I'm fairly certain that if I ran into a black woman my age who also grew up in New York and randomly started singing the Moesha theme song, she would join in. Whenever I think about the kind of relationship I want, I think of Whitley and Dwayne (I love a little drama; I can't deny it). When I think about my girlfriends, I want us to be as close as Khadijah, Maxine, Synclaire, and Regina. These were the shows that shaped my hopes and dreams of the future, and they were shows that focused on black women.
Image Source: Everett Collection
But the older I got, the less those shows were around. By the time I was in high school, there were barely any shows that had predominantly black casts. Sure, there were black characters on shows, but they weren't the focus or the protagonists. They were always the sidekicks.
As someone who has always watched a lot of TV, that had an impact on me. Sure, I enjoyed a lot of shows that had predominantly white cast members, but I was always conscious of the fact that no one looked like me, even with shows based in my own city. I could relate to aspects of a character's personality, but that was as far as it could go. I would always find myself thinking, "But if she were black . . ."
Some people might think that's a negative way to watch a show. I call bull, because everyone tries to find pieces of themselves in their favorite characters. For example, I fell in love with the show Veronica Mars. But even though I related to Veronica with gusto, it was a superficial connection, and I could never imagine being in her shoes. Even within the skewed reality of laws that Veronica Mars existed within, there was absolutely no way a black girl would get away with the same things Veronica did. The entire show would have been changed because all of Veronica's experiences would have had that added layer of her being black, which would have altered how she reacted to situations and how people reacted to her. Because the reality is that fictional characters or not, things are different when you're different.
Image Source: HBO
That's why the re-emergence of predominantly black television is so damn important. Proper representation matters. Seeing yourself in the media is a sign of relevance. It's an indication that your existence is acknowledged and understood. It makes people feel seen and not alone. It shows people that they matter in the grand scheme of things, and it can teach people how to understand those who aren't like them. Proper representation can give someone hope or show them their own potential.
Seeing yourself in the media is a sign of relevance. It's an indication that your existence is acknowledged and understood.
Despite what people like to believe, the media is part of everyone's lives. Whether you're conscious of it or not, it permeates your brain; it builds up and becomes part of your belief of what is "normal" and possible. When you don't see images or characterizations that you can relate to, you start to alter yourself. I would have killed for a PG-13 version of Awkward Black Girl when I was a tween and getting called an Oreo for being too "bougie" and awkward. It would have saved me a lot of years of feeling like an anomaly. Instead, the only figures in media who were close to how I saw myself were Hollywood's answer to geeks, i.e., really attractive white guys who liked to listen to Death Cab for Cutie and read manga (yes, I'm referring to Seth Cohen from The O.C.).
Having a character like Jessica James to relate to in my awkward tween years would have been a godsend. It would have meant that enough people understood that black girls are also quirky and weird and like to dance offbeat to music just like anyone else. And they understood it enough to make it a movie! Tween Meki would have been over the moon to see someone act like her, who looked like her and could have easily grown up like her, on the screen.
— Nova Bored-Alone (@milas_universe) December 4, 2015
Yes, there have been great strides for representation of various identities in media, but as a black woman, I can honestly say that seeing so many different kinds of black women on my screen has changed me. Seeing the black women of Queen Sugar, Black-ish, and soon Grown-ish showcase how truly different we can be is exhilarating! I see black women who differ in shade, occupation, education, and temperament. I see black women who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, creatives, and stay-at-home mothers. I see black women who are shapely, athletic, full-figured, and slim. And I want to see more. I need to see more. We all need to see more! We have generations of black women who have lacked images of themselves in media, which claims to showcase the world but only does so sparingly or so incorrectly its warped, and they are hungry for something more. It's about f*cking time we gave it to them.