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"If they’re watching TV, I ask, “Where are the brown girls?”"
July 26, 2014 4:50 PM   Subscribe

Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A Black Feminist Conversation on Fantasy Fiction for Teens.
What happens when two great black women fiction writers get together to talk about race in young adult literature? That's exactly what happens in the conversation below, where Zetta Elliott, a black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children, and award-winning Haitian-American speculative fiction writer Ibi Aanu Zoboi decided to discuss current young adult sci-fi.
posted by Lexica (29 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
If they’re watching TV, I ask, “Where are the brown girls?”

Sleepy Hollow!
posted by Jacqueline at 6:11 PM on July 26 [5 favorites]


As an SF fan, I'm kind of psyched that sci-fi is seen as a culturally relevant enough genre for this to be an issue.
posted by signal at 6:15 PM on July 26


If they’re watching TV, I ask, “Where are the brown girls?”

Sleepy Hollow!


Also, The Mindy Project, which I've been working my way through lately and which is just amazing.

Not to say that TV in general isn't pretty dang white as a whole, mind.
posted by kafziel at 6:39 PM on July 26 [2 favorites]


Lots of recs and additional articles as part of a guest-blog series.
posted by kagredon at 6:45 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Come to think of it, Sleepy Hollow may be the most diverse TV show I've ever seen (70% of the important characters are people of color) that isn't targeted specifically at a black audience or about racial issues.

There actually are four black women: Lieutenant Abby Mills (co-star), Jenny Mills (major recurring character), Cynthia Irving (minor recurring character), and Macey Irving (minor recurring character).

And three men of color: Captain Frank Irving (major recurring character, black), zombie Officer Andy Brooks (minor recurring character, Korean), and Detective Luke Morales (minor recurring character, Latino).

Meanwhile, there are only three white people: Ichabod Crane (co-star), Katrina Crane (major recurring character), and the "Sin Eater" (recurring guest star).
posted by Jacqueline at 6:55 PM on July 26 [2 favorites]


Not to say that TV in general isn't pretty dang white as a whole, mind.

There was a thread a while back where I actually went through the network primetime line-up and looked at the numbers for the main casts. It turned out that black folks were hugely overrepresented, white folks were slightly over-represented, and hispanic folk were grossly under-represented. By a lot.
posted by Justinian at 7:16 PM on July 26


Does anyone see a list of the books included in that graphic? It says they have listed the sources but I can't find 'em.
posted by Justinian at 7:20 PM on July 26


...I actually went through the network primetime line-up and looked at the numbers for the main casts. It turned out that black folks were hugely overrepresented...

Did you distinguish between shows targeted to a black audience vs. shows targeted to more general audiences?

I've noticed that some networks seem to have one night/week where all their primetime shows have predominantly black casts and then the rest of the week is a sea of white faces. I'd be interested to know what the breakdown is for the shows airing on the non-black-themed (for lack of a better term) nights.

...and hispanic folk were grossly under-represented. By a lot.

I'm guessing since you didn't even mention Asian folk that they were underrepresented even worse?
posted by Jacqueline at 7:30 PM on July 26 [4 favorites]


I think that, if you just count characters, you can miss the distinction between a lead character and a member of an ensemble. So you've got Omar Epps and Kal Penn's characters on House, who are part of the ensemble, but that doesn't change the fact that the thing is named for Dr. House. There are plenty of black women in ensembles, but until Scandal and Sleepy Hollow, it had been a long time since there was a black woman lead in a mainstream network TV show. I really think Sleepy Hollow and Scandal may be game changers, though. At least, I hope so.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:01 PM on July 26 [4 favorites]


On the Hunger Games, I thought this bit was really good:

IBI: Reading the book, I had to wonder why the hero didn’t come from District 11 if they’re the most oppressed. I remember thinking Rue’s role in the whole novel is what this comic book writer calls “fridging.” Women in comic books serve to bring out the male hero’s deep humanity. The woman dies and then the hero taps into—

ZETTA: His sense of justice.

IBI: Right. And that was Rue. Katniss befriends Rue, who was like a little sister. You want her to make it as much as Katniss, but we know what happens.


...they don't mention it, but of course this is a Thing in movies also, the magical/wise/sacrificial black character who dies to give the white hero that one last blast of angry justice to kill the bad guy. Or whatever.
posted by emjaybee at 8:13 PM on July 26 [4 favorites]


...I actually went through the network primetime line-up and looked at the numbers for the main casts. It turned out that black folks were hugely overrepresented...

Did you distinguish between shows targeted to a black audience vs. shows targeted to more general audiences?

I've noticed that some networks seem to have one night/week where all their primetime shows have predominantly black casts and then the rest of the week is a sea of white faces. I'd be interested to know what the breakdown is for the shows airing on the non-black-themed (for lack of a better term) nights.

...and hispanic folk were grossly under-represented. By a lot.

I'm guessing since you didn't even mention Asian folk that they were underrepresented even worse?


Well, if you're looking at over/under-representation, you sorta have to look at demographics. 12.2% of the US population is African-American, 16.4% of the population is Hispanic/Latino, and between them and white people that's 92.3% of the population. 4.8% of us are Asian.

But over/under-representation in the name of diversity is a good thing. If we take a random sampling of 20 sitcom characters, we really shouldn't get 12 white people, three hispanics, two black people, one asian, and Rashida Jones.

... okay maybe Rashida Jones should be 5% of all sitcom characters, but you get my point.
posted by kafziel at 8:23 PM on July 26 [3 favorites]


on TV in South Asia and Latin America?
posted by Renoroc at 8:25 PM on July 26


I'm guessing since you didn't even mention Asian folk that they were underrepresented even worse?

No, they're over-represented. But since they make up such a small proportion of the population (as kafziel points out) that means there are very few shows with Asian-Americans on them. Because there are so few Asian Americans.

I'd be interested to know what the breakdown is for the shows airing on the non-black-themed (for lack of a better term) nights.

Are there actually black-themed nights? I don't think there are on network TV. What really skews the numbers is Shonda Rhimes. Grey's Anatomy, for example, usually has people of color making up a large fraction of its cast. And its cast is big.
posted by Justinian at 8:45 PM on July 26


But over/under-representation in the name of diversity is a good thing.

I totally agree. But that's a different thing than "people of color are under-represented on TV."

None of which has to do with books of course, but I still can't find the numbers or sources they were using and since I don't read a lot of YA stuff I have no idea about any of that.
posted by Justinian at 8:47 PM on July 26


Meanwhile, there are only three white people: Ichabod Crane (co-star), Katrina Crane (major recurring character), and the "Sin Eater" (recurring guest star).

Not quite. The sheriff for starters. Also, since there are surely folks who haven't seen it - hello spoilers!

There are plenty of white people on Sleepy Hollow. It's a great, diverse show though.

...I actually went through the network primetime line-up and looked at the numbers for the main casts. It turned out that black folks were hugely overrepresented...

Buzz me if you get a chance to look up the link. I think it's been pretty obvious for years that white folks are overrepresented. But it's going to require going show by show, and looking at the settings. One of the most used examples is Seinfeld, where a few minorities mysteriously disappeared in the middle of New York. There are a lot of shows set in cities where there should be more people of color. So like Greys, for example. The hospital it is representing in Seattle should have a certain demographic to be compared against, whether that's the org itself or the surrounding population.

Separately, since the whole idea is the tangible effect of these shows, it makes more sense to me to look at say the top 20 shows on television period. Those are the ones getting the most eyeballs, whose ads get lots more views, and so on and so forth.

But this thread has reminded me I need to catch up on Extant, so thanks.
posted by cashman at 9:29 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Seinfeld has been off the air for more than 15 years!
posted by Justinian at 9:49 PM on July 26


But this thread has reminded me I need to catch up on Extant, so thanks.
posted by cashman at 11:29 PM on July 26


I'm surprised Extant isn't on Fanfare.
posted by Ik ben afgesneden at 10:01 PM on July 26


I think that, if you just count characters, you can miss the distinction between a lead character and a member of an ensemble.

Back in the 90s when all of the procedurals were beginning to really take off, one of the tv reviewers for EW, I think it was, coined the phrase Black Lieutenant Syndrome for shows that would cast, like, one black actor in a nominal authoritarian role (wanting credit for: look! Black person with status!) but what that really meant was... Black person whose character development was largely relegated to the B- or C-plot. I think that similar patterns still emerge today.
posted by TwoStride at 10:12 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


I don't know what to tell you except that when I look at the actual numbers I don't see how it lines up with that impression. There are African Americans all over scripted television including in many lead roles (Scandal, Sleepy Hollow, Extant, etc etc). Compare that to, say, Hispanic people who make up a significantly greater fraction of the population but are practically invisible on television. Numbers wise.
posted by Justinian at 12:45 AM on July 27


...they don't mention it, but of course this is a Thing in movies also, the magical/wise/sacrificial black character who dies to give the white hero that one last blast of angry justice to kill the bad guy. Or whatever.

I couldn't even begin to count the number of movies and books where the motivation for the main guy comes from his wife or daughter being gruesomely killed, also. That and the magic black friend are such lazy cliches that it is actively disappointing to still see them being used.

I don't know what to tell you except that when I look at the actual numbers I don't see how it lines up with that impression.

This cries out for citations -- I can guarantee that people study this and count things like "substantive roles for black women on primetime shows," and honestly I'll be surprised if anyone other than whites are overrepresented in those substantive roles. A lot of the non-white roles get relegated to "maid number three" or "prisoner being booked in the background," which is of course part of why Orange Is the New Black stands out so much for its showcasing of such an array of actors.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:59 AM on July 27


There was a thread a while back where I actually went through the network primetime line-up and looked at the numbers for the main casts. It turned out that black folks were hugely overrepresented, white folks were slightly over-represented, and hispanic folk were grossly under-represented. By a lot.

By searching for the word 'represented' in your Mefi activity, it was easy to find that comment you're talking about. You only looked at dramas that were on for a particular night, which yoink later noted actually accurately matched the US demographics for African-Americans

So.

There's no reason to bring up your point in a thread about two black women talking about the under-representation of black female heroines in young adult fiction. It's two different subjects and your comment is derail that adds nothing to this particular conversation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:00 AM on July 27 [10 favorites]


On the television side, the interesting figures would be on the advertising dollars. How do ethnically targeted shows affect the various bottom lines. There have to be numbers on this kind of thing.

I was struck by the comment about being unable to get into The Narnia Chronicles because of the characters. Not clear what she meant by that. Too boring? Too white? What? I'm not religious (nor 1940's era English), but I had no difficulty getting into C.S. Lewis. I'm not Indian (nor raised by wolves), yet I had no difficulty getting into The Jungle Book. Attributing this to White Privilege or whatever is kind of insulting to all readers, to say nothing of these particular writers.

So if you’re going to write a story about the marginalized, why not reach down and pick the darkest girl?

Why not indeed? So go ahead, do it. This is golden age of self-publishing, and any under-representation of YA geared for blacks is simply a market opportunity waiting to be exploited. These two should be salivating.

Back in the 90s when all of the procedurals were beginning to really take off, one of the tv reviewers for EW, I think it was, coined the phrase Black Lieutenant Syndrome for shows that would cast, like, one black actor in a nominal authoritarian role (wanting credit for: look! Black person with status!) but what that really meant was... Black person whose character development was largely relegated to the B- or C-plot.

The problem here is less one of race than of cliched story structure, which is chiefly the business world's utter terror of the new and innovative. Who you pop into secondary and tertiary roles is more or less arbitrary; would you notice if the guy sacrificed in the second reel was white? Probably not. Anyway, would you prefer they not hire black actors for such roles? Knee-jerk snark is a poor way to win hearts and minds.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:21 PM on July 27


Anyway, would you prefer they not hire black actors for such roles? Knee-jerk snark is a poor way to win hearts and minds.

The situation was one where black actors were being hired exclusively for those roles. You'd see a white supporting lieutenant, but never a black guy anywhere else in the cast.
posted by kafziel at 2:55 PM on July 27


I was struck by the comment about being unable to get into The Narnia Chronicles because of the characters. Not clear what she meant by that. Too boring? Too white? What? I'm not religious (nor 1940's era English), but I had no difficulty getting into C.S. Lewis. I'm not Indian (nor raised by wolves), yet I had no difficulty getting into The Jungle Book. Attributing this to White Privilege or whatever is kind of insulting to all readers, to say nothing of these particular writers.


Here's the actual comment by Zoboi:
IBI ZOBOI: Not at all. I remember having to read the Chronicles of Narnia. I went to a Catholic school in Bushwick, Brooklyn and Sister Ann was reading it to us and we were bored to death. It was all Black and Latino kids in the class. The nuns for the most part were Irish. I remember Sister Ann loved the book and we were like, "YAWN." I was that kid who did not read because I just didn’t care about the characters.
1. First as a reader, I'm not insulted, but so there's no need for you to speak for me or any other reader. 2. Is it really so hard to see how a room full of kids might be bored by a teacher reading a book to them?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:06 PM on July 27


There's no reason to bring up your point in a thread about two black women talking about the under-representation of black female heroines in young adult fiction. It's two different subjects and your comment is derail that adds nothing to this particular conversation.

Oh please. As I noted in that thread if you look at other nights the numbers change. I checked it myself to make sure. Feel free to add more noise to the thread, though.
posted by Justinian at 4:06 PM on July 27


This cries out for citations -- I can guarantee that people study this and count things like "substantive roles for black women on primetime shows," and honestly I'll be surprised if anyone other than whites are overrepresented in those substantive roles.

It's not that hard to check. You get a list of network shows. You get a list of the people listed as "main cast" which therefore excludes anyone not in a major role. You look them up on wikipedia. I've done it and I'm telling you the numbers are fairly clear. But listing all the shows and their cast would make Brandon Blatcher's head explode and be quite a long comment. It really is not that hard to look up yourself, though.

As far as YA fiction go I don't think anyone has yet figured out where they are getting their numbers from? It's really hard to look at facts when we don't actually have any on that front.
posted by Justinian at 4:13 PM on July 27


Oooo, if you zoom WAY IN on the graphic it says in tiny little print
"Children's Books by and about People of Color Published in the United Sates" statistics gathered by the Cooperative Children's Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison
So that may be it! Good. Googling that leads to this site. So if people are interested in the statistics that appears to be the source!
posted by Justinian at 4:20 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


The book I'm writing right now (god damn writing a book gets difficult) has a woman of color as one of its leads, and I made the immediate choice to show each chapter as it comes out to a selection of people who were interested in giving their editorial opinions, about half of which are women of color. I'm very happy I made this choice. This book is (ostensibly) Sci Fi, but not YA, so I don't know how much it would fit in this discussion, but having kind but honest friends giving feedback as to what rings true, what doesn't, what is heavy-handed, etc. is invaluable.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:20 PM on July 27


Is it really so hard to see how a room full of kids might be bored by a teacher reading a book to them?

But that's not how she couched it. She said: "I was that kid who did not read because I just didn’t care about the characters".
posted by IndigoJones at 7:53 AM on August 9


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