I am afraid of the direction we are heading in when it comes to people of color being represented on TV.
There’s a clear difference between having characters of color and investing in characters of color. To invest in people of color is to dedicate oneself to depicting our individual narratives — creating narratives that make us three-dimensional as opposed to the white noise we’ve been marginalized to for so long. Recently, there has been a massive increase in shows that actually invest in POC characters.
Today, I can laugh along and empathize with the comical goddess that is Issa Rae as she navigates the struggles of the dating world and her job at We Got Y’all, and I can follow her growth along with her best friend Molly. I can stream episodes of the disco-reviving hip-hop underground created in “The Get Down.” I can follow the characters Leila and Patricia of Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey’s show “Brown Girls,” as they navigate the messy adventures of their mid-twenties. I am finally able to see people of color standing in the spotlight in a different way — they’re the center of attention and nuanced personalities that I can relate to and see myself in.
You would think that with the rise of invested POC characters we would see a change in the way minority groups are represented on television shows, and we have. It just isn’t for the better, but rather a turn for the worst. We have become commoditized puppets for shows like Netflix’s adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel “13 Reasons Why.”
Originally, when first watching the show, I was pleased by seeing such a diverse cast. The characters surrounding the major protagonists, Clay and Hannah (who are both played by white actors), are diverse either in race or sexuality. The show features young Black, Asian and Latinx actors all playing nonstereotypical roles. For example, there’s Ross Butler, who is Chinese-Malaysian and American, and he plays the school’s star athlete Zach Dempsey. Jessica, Hannah’s former best friend and a popular cheerleader, is played by Alisha Boe, who is Norwegian-Somali. Latinx actor Christian Navarro plays Tony Padilla, who is gay and the guardian of Hannah’s tapes.
The show includes a variety of diverse characters, who are in fact breaking stereotypes through their labeled roles. However, these characters aren’t invested in — they simply just exist, and therein lies the double-edged sword. What matters more: existing or being?
Take, for example, the character of Jessica played by Boe, the young Norwegian-Somali actress. Jessica endures a lot throughout the show, experiencing a multitude of rapid emotions from paranoia to recklessness, as a result of the truth that Hannah’s tapes reveal. If Boe were representing a young Black girl, she should have been invested in more, because her character does not speak on the behalf of Black people or her individual experience. They do not give her an opportunity to display any ounce of Black girl magic, and this happens because Jessica was never truly invested in. She’s a plot device that orbits around Hannah. We know nothing about Jessica, and we have no insight into what is going on in her head, how she feels about everything that’s occurring throughout the show or even what it is like to be a young Black girl in her position. We just see her, and apparently, that’s enough.
Prime television today provides us with characters who appear to be defying stereotypes because they play characters not normally played by people of color. But what is the benefit of using POC characters if some part of their narrative isn’t being included in the show? Representation is becoming something that can be commoditized, and while it is fantastic to see a Black girl in a nuanced role (that I did not grow up seeing) like Jessica, she provides no use to me as a puppet for diversity. You cannot call a show diverse and capable of representing people of color if those POC characters are not able to speak for themselves or speak on behalf of where they come from.
The reason that the characters created by Rae or Asghar and Bailey are so important is because of these characters’ entire narrative. Every aspect of their being from their sexuality, jobs, relationships and so much more are vividly depicted to their audiences. They are seen, heard and listened to and that’s important for POC people to see. It helps seeing another woman’s Black girl magic journey as you are searching for your own. When representation is done in a way that creates a textured story of the beauties and complexities of POC life, it can help another person of color out there experiencing the same things the characters endure or simply let one know that they are not alone.
“13 Reasons Why” is not the only show guilty of depicting characters of color in a way that illustrates them more as decorations rather than an actual depiction of diverse characters, and they probably won’t be the last. The problem is that this show is called revolutionary for its choice of casting, but there’s nothing revolutionary about characters of color whose narratives are not unlocked. I am afraid for the direction we are heading in when it comes to people of color being represented on television because sometimes, people of color become puppets under an industry’s illusion that being present is the same as being an in-depth representation.
Symone Campbell is a rising junior and intended English major at UC Berkeley.