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Black girls have been stuck on the sidelines of teen dramas - but a new wave of shows is changing that

Ama Qamata as Puleng in ’Blood and Water.’ Picture: Lindsey Appolis/Netflix

Ama Qamata as Puleng in ’Blood and Water.’ Picture: Lindsey Appolis/Netflix

Published Oct 30, 2021

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By Helena Andrews-Dyer

Brenda. Buffy. Joey. Veronica. Blair. Serena.

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Those names are instantly recognisable if you've watched even just one episode of a soapy high school drama in the past 20 years.

They are the girls given free rein to make mistakes and have messy lives, all while garnering the most screen time.

They are the queen bees, rulers of a career-making genre that has spent decades relegating characters of colour to the sidelines - if they existed at all.

But there are some new girls in town.

Say hello to Puleng, Fikile, Wendy, Rue, Julien and Zoya. They are the characters riding a new wave of teen TV told from the oft-ignored point of view of Black girls.

The shift isn't seismic yet, but it is a change deeply felt for both those behind the scenes and audiences watching at home.

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"The conversation has shifted," said Joshua Safran, creator of the new "Gossip Girl." "We are looking at the perspectives of BIPOC in these spaces."

Gen Z, he said, is an audience that isn't afraid to call the media to the mat. Safran's decision to give two women of colour top billing on his reboot of a predominantly White series (on which he also worked) was not only intentional but a sign of the times.

The South African Netflix original "Blood and Water" also stars two Black actresses, but creator Nosipho Dumisa-Ngoasheng said that even in a majority-Black country, her show is breaking new ground.

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"We haven't seen ourselves depicted this way on screen," she said. And that "we" reaches across the ocean.

When it debuted in 2020, "Blood and Water" was the first South African show to break into Netflix's Top 10 list in the United States.

The series, a hybrid mystery and elite private high school drama set in Cape Town, is "Veronica Mars" meets "Gossip Girl" meets "The O.C.," but with much better beaches and a mostly Black cast.

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Its popularity in the United States was a shock to Dumisa-Ngoasheng at first but more understandable once you take into account the dearth of shows like it.

Young Black audiences are "looking to see themselves," said Valerie Adams-Bass, a developmental psychologist who teaches a course about adolescents and the media at the University of Virginia.

"It's super-important to see people your age who look like you. To see how they're managing these encounters, how they navigate the racial tensions, the class tensions that have to do with your identity."

Since the fanatical success of "Beverly Hills, 90210" in 1990, teen television shows have largely been concerned with one particular point of view - of the White and wealthy.

At the genre's mid-2000s peak, the list of network-anchoring series stretched far. There was "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "One Tree Hill," "The O.C.," "Friday Night Lights," "Veronica Mars" and "Gossip Girl," just to name a few. Each glossy reimagining of high school assembled a cast of soon-to-be Hollywood stars and starlets, their brooding, squinty-eyed faces staring at viewers from promotional posters.

The characters were almost always on the verge of some homecoming-induced crisis - and the cast was almost always entirely White.

It's still a pervasive trope. Last year, actress Vanessa Morgan, a series regular on the wildly popular CW teen soap "Riverdale," publicly expressed her frustration at playing a sidelined Black character on the mostly White teen drama.

"Tired of us also being used as sidekick non-dimensional characters to our white leads. Or only used in the ads for diversity but not actually in the show," she tweeted.

The show's creator apologized and promised to do better. "She's right," executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa responded in an Instagram post.

"We're sorry and we make the same promise to you that we did to her. We will do better to honor her and the character she plays. As well as all of our actors and characters of color. Change is happening and will continue to happen."

The marked change so far is thanks in part to reboots, colourblind casting and streaming. The teen drama script we've grown accustomed to might finally be flipping.

"Blood and Water" and "Gossip Girl" 2.0 join the growing list of more inclusive teen TV with shows such as "Never Have I Ever," "Elite," "On My Block" and "13 Reasons Why" also reining in viewers.

But it took a long time to get here.

It was almost 30 years ago when veteran TV writer Sara Finney-Johnson saw a void in the entertainment landscape she thought she could fill.

"I had never seen a story from a Black girl's point of view," the former "Family Matters" and "The Parent 'Hood" writer said.

She had an idea for a show starring a Black teen girl who "owned her own space." It was titled "Moesha."

Finney-Johnson and her co-creators, Vida Spears and Ralph Farquhar, first took the idea to CBS. "We pitched our hearts out," she said. The network passed at the last minute. ABC passed, too.

"I had heard some rumblings," said Finney-Johnson, "that it was too quote-unquote 'ethnic.'" Once UPN, a new network with time slots to fill, entered the picture, "Moesha," which starred the fresh-faced singer Brandy, found its home and its audience.

But by the end of the show's run, the ground was shifting yet again. Viacom (and later CBS) bought controlling interest in the company, which prompted what Finney-Johnson called "a massacre": the mass cancelling of Black-centered shows such as "Moesha," "The Parkers" and "Eve."

"One day they were done," said Finney-Johnson, who is now a producer for "Queen Sugar," a Black family drama on OWN. "We had built that network, but they were done."

By 2006, UPN would merge with the WB to become the CW. Subsequently, that network became its own teen drama factory, churning out the most recognizable (and mostly White) titles in the genre.

"I don't think we have seen another 'Moesha' and definitely think we should. She was a regular girl but had a very strong presence about her.

“She was learning and figuring out who she was but she had confidence," said Finney-Johnson of the iconic character.

"We don't often see our young Black girls in that light but we need to. You don't know them but they're out there."

"Blood and Water's" Dumisa-Ngoasheng agreed that there is a vacuum. "I'm still struggling to think of a show that is predominantly centred around young Black girls," she said.

Obviously her own series, starring actresses Ama Qamata and Khosi Ngema, fits the bill, but Dumisa-Ngoasheng didn't initially set out to make a teen drama.

Her original pitch relied heavily on the crime mystery aspect of the story, but Netflix suggested she lean into the high school part, too.

A diverse South African show telling the tale of two Black girls set against the lush background of the capital's upper crust? "Our eyes just went like, 'Oh my gosh, of course,'" she said. "We haven't had this in years in South Africa."

Or anywhere else, frankly.

It's why the new "Gossip Girl," where half sisters Zoya and Julien collide at the same Upper East Side private school that served as the glitzy backdrop for the original CW series, feels so refreshing.

The main characters are young women of colour, and the cast as a whole is much more diverse than the original show based faithfully on the books by Cecily von Ziegesar.

The original's overarching theme was "rich people have problems, too." But a lot has happened since the show bowed in 2012.

The new version, which premiered on HBO Max in July and will air the second half of its debut season next month, is intentional about the questions it asks: What does it look like to be rich and privileged in this country right now, but not be White or straight? What is your place in the world?

Safran said the writers' room is hyper-aware of the impact the characters and the choices they make have on the audience, "probably to the detriment in some people's eyes to the show."

"We made a decision early on that Zoya would not be co-opted by these people. She has the strength of her convictions, she has that fortitude," he said.

"That's our way of saying like, 'Hey, if you're watching this, you don't actually have to lose yourself.

“Not fitting in is a strength in and of itself that you should be proud of.' There is like a hidden message in there."

Those Easter eggs are crucial, and they don't go unnoticed, according to psychologist Adams-Bass.

TV shows centred on young Black women - even the messy melodramatic schmaltz of a teen soap - are impactful because they act almost like a peer, she said.

They can help guide adolescents through their own decision-making, whether it be pursuing a relationship with the bad boy versus the good one or, in Puleng's case, whether to steal secret files from her boyfriend's shady dad. Sure, the story lines are over the top, but they can also be allegorical.

"Puleng had to be imperfect," said Dumisa-Ngoasheng. "She makes some decisions that are really frustrating if you're an adult. It's like 'Come on, Puleng, why would you do that?' But if you think about who you were as a young person, you made mistakes all the time."

"These kids needed to feel like kids," she added. It's a role that Black teens, on screen and in real life, don't often get to play.

The goal then isn't just to give these characters more screen time (though that's key), but to give them the space to screw up, sneak out and steal a boyfriend or two, just like their White counterparts.

They should actually be a part of the drama and not simply a witness to it.

"We wanted to allow for the reality of mess. Growing up is about mess," said Safran about how he and his writers approach the show.

"It's just that messiness maybe means something different when you're not like rich, White and privileged."

The Washington Post

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