In elementary school, I wanted an American Girl Doll, one like all my classmates had. The doll’s stories are based on important historical events and eras, such as colonial America or World War II. There were several white dolls available and a few other girls of color, but at the time there was only one Black doll named Addy Walker. She was the first Black doll the American girl brand created in 1993, and remained the only Black doll available until the release of 2011’s Cecile Rey. Addy’s backstory was that she was a slave. While the other historical American girl dolls had unique hobbies and best friends, Addy’s story started with escaping the plantation so she could reunite with her family.
Addy was important because she helped introduce children to the reality of Black oppression in America. As the hero of her story, Addy’s background sparked much-needed conversations with parents about Black history. She looked like me, with textured hair and brown skin, and as a child, I was grateful for that mainstream representation.
Looking back as a teenager, though, I wonder how much I would have benefitted from a historical Black American Girl doll with a story that didn’t center around slavery. A slave character who was strong and kind may be one narrative that young Black girls should grow up with, but as white children did, we should have had the chance to grow up with many more choices. Black people are more than the result of oppression from others.
The reason I thought back to my experience with Addy as a child was because of a recent Disney+ announcement about the introduction of a new character for the Proud Family spinoff named Maya Leibowitz-Jenkins. Maya is a 14-year-old Black activist, and in the announcement Disney described her as . I never grew up watching Proud Family, but I found one comment criticizing the show interesting.
This made me think of how much I wish that dark-skinned Black girls could see themselves in popular coming-of-age TV shows without being the “loud” or “woke” character. Maya’s character could be the representation that some kids need, but I also see the commenter’s point that the “activist” dark-skinned Black girl could be the newest trope forced onto dark-skinned women.
Can we ever be the main character with problems that aren’t tied to social justice issues, problems similar to the storylines of the white girls in Booksmart and The Kissing Booth?
When we do receive representation in mainstream media, it’s often as the sassy best friend, but never the love interest. Representation doesn’t begin and end with having people of color in a movie. True representation means creating complex characters that are more than just the stereotypes of their race or ethnic group. Usually, good representation on screen is created by diverse writers and showrunners as well.
This is where tokenism comes in. The definition of tokenism is “the practice of making only symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups to give the appearance of racial equality.” Most of the time, movies and shows praised for their diverse casts only include light-skinned women or Black men. I can count on my fingers the number of dark-skinned Black female teenage characters on TV right now.
Grown-ish, which is essentially the only light-hearted Black teen sitcom on TV today, could have been that coming-of-age story that Black girls needed. The main character, Zoey, doesn’t have a life defined by racial justice or trauma. She’s just a girl in college figuring her life out with the help of her friends.
From the moment the show was cast, however, the lack of dark-skinned female characters was easy to spot. For a show that takes place at a fictional California university, you’d think that one dark-skinned girl would have made it into the diverse ensemble cast.
There was a 2018 episode of Grown-ish titled “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” that focused on how hard dating is for Black women at white colleges. The episode made some points, but the storyline still relied on light-skinned sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey to address the issue. You can’t teach a good lesson on colorism and anti-Blackness without actually putting any dark-skinned women in the cast. It’s unrealistic to pretend that girls who look like Chloe and Halle, A.K.A girls who are the Black beauty standard, would have the same problems with desirability as darker-skinned women do.
Opportunities for dark-skinned Black girls to be in mainstream movies are often recast as biracial or lighter-skinned women. When looking at all the examples below this tweet, the trend is clear. Hollywood may be producing more movies with Black lead actresses, but only one type of Black girl is deemed acceptable.
The rhetoric that a lighter-skinned or biracial woman could’ve been what’s “best for the role” of an unambiguously Black woman comes only from colorism and the unwillingness to try and find a dark-skinned woman to play the part. It sends a message to dark-skinned women that they aren’t enough.
All in all, the need for diverse representation of dark-skinned girls comes from the need to establish more than a “single story” of what a Black woman is. If someone were to look at only the people on TV to assume what most Black women looked or acted like, it wouldn’t be representative of the real diversity in what a Black woman can be. Black girls can be light-skinned, but we are also dark and every shade in-between. The central conflicts in our lives do not only revolve around race. We are funny, we are creative, we are smart, we are beautiful– and our onscreen representation should highlight that.
featured image is of Coco Conners from Netflix’s Dear White People, one of my favorite black women on TV right now.