From the sassy best-friend cameo in TV sitcoms to the controversy-touting regulars in reality TV franchises, the Black female character can have a very linear representation in Hollywood.
Hollywood’s mainstream shows would have us believe that Black women’s personalities range either from being confident to being career-focused. From Molly in Insecure to Mary Jane in Being Mary Jane, the media has consistently created the same character archetype for Black women.
There’s hardly ever any range and it’s not surprising considering how hard the media works to minimise Black women and our multifacetedness.
While common archetypes can be necessary for storytelling, it’s a problem when these same few tropes rotate for a particular race or gender. As a Black woman, I've struggled with the portrayal of Black female characters.
I remember watching Jessica and Sherri on 13 Reasons Why and being happy because of the representation but later having mixed feelings because I could not relate to them on a personality and temperament level. I was happy with the representation but I couldn't connect as deeply as I would have liked.
However, one character that has been doing it for me is Olivia from All American. CW’s All American is a drama series inspired by the true story of American footballer Spencer Paysinger. It follows the life of Spencer and his friends. And Olivia, played by Samantha Logan, is the character I connected with.
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Olivia is soft-spoken, reserved, a careful thinker and a deep feeler. She's a keen observer of people and situations and we see her do this throughout the series. During the first episodes of the series, she observes Spencer acclimate to her school and provides help to make that process easier. The scene of them bonding over chromosomal DNA while sharing a tablet in a science class is a prime example.
Olivia progresses from a quiet to a more outspoken character. At the start of season 1, she was often overlooked and awkward but she then transitioned to speaking up and acting on issues she cared about in her own way. She focuses on social justice and issues that affect Black youth. Her transition to podcasting and journalism displays a recognisable way of how quiet people like to speak up.
The quiet exuberance she exhibits is something I had never seen played by a Black female character before. She made me see the power of being quiet. Another thing I relate to is how she expresses her beliefs through actions. At the start of season 3, we see her organise her friends to create a piece of art in their predominantly white school supporting Black Lives Matter.
I've always operated from the background. I don't like to do anything that would draw any attention to myself. I like to be subtle and lowkey in all my affairs. And seeing a character do this as well gave me the healthy validation I needed.
I connected with her so much that I began to form a parasocial relationship with her. A parasocial relationship is when an audience member becomes emotionally attached to a media character who doesn’t return the emotion and might not even know they exist.
I felt the intimacy from a distance and this began to affect how I made real-life decisions. I started approaching my relationships with more empathy and care than I normally would. It's more beneficial when you think about the fact that these stories are inspired by real lives.
She is one of the new Black female characters that are exhibiting our layers and complexity. Euphoria did the same. They created a side character that grabbed the audience because of how different she was from the known Black women tropes.
Played by Veronica Taylor, Bobbi is reserved. Compared to the loud, overly-complex and difficult characters Euphoria is known for, she is more laid back and has a unique way of carrying herself. She's the perfect mix of soft and sassy.
23-year-old Ariel Baise, a social media copywriter, comments on this concept. She loved how Bobbi carried herself when managing the play: “I loved one of the first scenes with Bobbi where Lexi whispers, 'Are they all here to audition?' and Bobbi asks the crowd of students, 'Are you all here to audition?' The crowd nods their heads, agrees, etc. Then, Bobbi says to Lexi, 'They’re here to audition.'
"I related to that moment because I’m like that. I’ll straight-up ask and get things done, but people get so shocked because I’m soft-spoken.”
Bobbi is such a layered character because she can be both soft-spoken and direct. She might not be the loudest in the room but her presence is still known. Some other characters that display this archetype are Lara-Jean from To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place.
The importance of characters like Bobbi and Olivia cannot be overemphasised. Extroversion is certainly the norm, society and its experiences are built around this personality and how they approach the world. It can sometimes be disadvantageous to be shy and introverted. That's why it's important to highlight characters that display this archetype – women need to know the normalcy and strength in their being.
Essentially, it's not about representation, it's about normalisation, so these characters are doing things as it relates to race and gender and class, but they're doing it normally. Like it's just a part of their everyday.”
“There is a whole target demographic of Black women who are shy and in real life are disregarded,” says Ariel. “I'm often told that 'we talk white' or, 'Oh, she’s just quiet, she has nothing to say,' or 'She needs to speak more.' It’s nice to be seen personality-wise and physical-wise on TV.”
Ariel pointed out that Bobbi's distinctive high-pitched and soft-spoken voice was an encouragement.
“She’s the first character that I honestly saw with a soft voice that wasn’t used as comedic and it was simply her voice,” shared Ariel. “She also got her job done as a stage manager. I loved how she carried herself. Her soft voice was never used to belittle her, which often happens to me.”
Seeing a character that displays an introverted personality that is very similar to ours provides a healthy dose of validation. Olivia and Bobbi display shy and reserved behaviours that many introverted Black women are bullied and made fun of. And seeing someone they can relate to on-screen that is just living their life, not despite the trait but in conjunction with it, might just be the first step in healing that trauma.
Keicia Shanta, who is 32 and a full-time content creator, also finds herself relating to some of these characters. She relates to another distinctive feature of Bobbi, one that Black women have been downgraded for years. It's no secret that most television shows don't pass the Brown Paper Bag Test when it comes to casting Black women and even if they do they act out the same trope.
“Seeing Bobbi’s character on Euphoria made me feel that we need more dark-skinned Black faces on these types of social-impacting shows,” said Keicia. “We have for far too long seen dark-skinned Black women portrayed as always going through rough and tough times. Bobbi represented a new face and persona that has always existed.”
It is imperative to know that these Black counterparts exist in these spaces. And Bobbi brings the uniqueness and complexity that mainstream media has far too long been missing.
These characters and their stories are the first steps in creating a fictional world that represents the real world accurately. Stories are powerful, they influence people to perceive and create beauty. These characters have inspired me to see the beauty in my personality and be more confident with everything I do flowing from the power of being a quiet Black female character.
All American seasons 1-4 are available to watch on ITV Hub.
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