In last week’s episode of Grown-ish, Zoey found herself going on an Instagram spiral.
Insecure about her relationship with her boyfriend Luca, she ends up doing some serious social media sleuthing to find out about his past, culminating in her accidentally double-tapping on an embarrassingly old post. She then proceeds to, understandably, freak out about it.
Zoey and her often hilarious relationship woes are a breath of fresh air when it comes to the portrayals of young black women on the small screen. As the leading lady of her own show, Zoey gets to deal with the kind of engrossing relationship melodrama that any soapy teen drama or comedy worth its salt is known for, love triangle and all. In the vast majority of teen shows, black girls aren’t even allowed the space for that kind of storyline.
In a world where black teenage girls are routinely subject to gross stereotypes, misogynoir, and violent over-policing, changing the narrative around young black women on television becomes imperative.
To be fair, teen television has become more diverse in recent years. As much as we all love the mid-2000s classics like Gossip Girl and The OC, roles for women of color on those shows were high-key lacking. Newer shows like Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are definitely making a noticeable effort to change that. However, in all of these shows, the female characters of color, and particularly the black female characters, are only part of the supporting cast with their stories often minimized in favor of the white (and male) leads.
Meanwhile, on shows like On My Block and The Bold Type, the black female characters may have larger roles, but these characters appear as part of an ensemble, where there is no clear lead. Although I love shows that focus on a cast of interesting characters, the fact that this is one of the only ways in which young black women are portrayed on television is definitely worth questioning.
At the end of the day, both of these methods of portraying young black women on screen send an implicit message: as a black girl, you can maybe be part of the story but you can’t be the focus of it.
Issues with representation on television are nothing new, but when it comes to stories about teenagers and young adults, it becomes all the more important for us to address. Young women deserve to see themselves in the media that they most regularly consume, and that applies to women of color as well.
What’s more, the lack of substantive representation for young black women in the media is absolutely linked to the way that they are viewed by society as a whole. The general cultural impression of black teenage girls and young women is still overwhelmingly based on racist and reductive one-note stereotypes. Loud, angry, violent, unattractive, sassy… the list goes on and on.
When young black women are routinely relegated to side characters, it becomes easier for creators to simply fall back on these tired old stereotypes rather than portray them as fully realized people. In turn, these minimal and often one-dimensional characters feed these stereotypes right back into society. It’s a continuous feedback loop, with the lives of real, young black women at its center. In feminist theory and critical media studies, this is known as symbolic annihilation, an act that renders the full, and multifaceted lives of underrepresented groups (in this case, young black women) socially invisible.
And that’s what makes a moment like Zoey’s frantic Instagram deep-dive on Grown-ish so unexpectedly important. It’s funny and relatable, and a reminder that hey, young women of color totally do this kind of thing too.
Watching a young black woman struggle with Blair Waldorf-level relationship drama, navigate her friendships, figure out her identity, and all other number of relatable, everyday issues is honestly revolutionary. Before last year, that just wasn’t something that existed on TV. And its absence is something that young black women have been keenly aware of for years. After all, there’s a reason why hashtags like #BlackGirlJoy exist; there’s a real need and desire for depictions of young black women being more than a collection of background stereotypes.
Grown-ish is a great show that’s doing amazing things for representation and normalizing the lives of young black women, but I’m longing for the day when it isn’t the only example. It’s 2019; a black girl scrolling through Instagram shouldn’t have to be revolutionary.