As a young girl, I lived for Saturday morning cartoons. In the cartoons I watched, the little black girl had pretty brown pigtails, or dark hair just as straight as her blonde friend. Same skin as mine, but different hair.
As I grew, so too did my TV choices, from after school specials, to angst ridden teen dramas, to late night sitcoms and blockbuster movies. While my entertainment choices changed, the girls and women I saw on screen rarely did. White women with flowing hair. Black women with big curly weaves. Brown women with long hair down their backs. Never someone who looked quite like me.
Soon I came to realize, that “black” faces are wanted on TV, to represent diversity and growth in a highly exclusionary industry, but only certain black faces. Usually a girl of mixed race, whose skin is fair and whose hair is relatable to most people. A girl whose hair can be called “exotic” or “unique” while not being too different. Little black girls, usually under the age of 10, are allowed to have nappy roots, but never leading teenagers or adult women whose sex appeal equals ratings. And, in case you were wondering, it’s OK for guys to be dark skinned with nappy hair, even if the actress’ playing their sisters are not (e.g. Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).
Watch: Why Amandla Stenberg said no to starring in “Black Panther.” Blog continues below.
Eventually I came to realize that I’m not pretty. Not in the way that others want me to be. My hair, thick and nappy, is too different from that of the usual leading lady, so it is hidden on screen. Either covered or ignored altogether. I think about all of the beautiful black actresses given great opportunities to shine today (Storm Reid in a Wrinkle in Time or Zendaya in Spider-Man), and that’s amazing, but can count on one hand how many dark skinned girls rocking natural hair exist in mainstream media. (To be clear I think there needs to be various representations of “blackness” on screen. I loved that author Nicola Yoon wrote Everything Everything so that her daughter could “see herself in media”.)
To this day, when I watch an actress’s silky strands sway and move on TV, pangs of jealousy hit me. I can’t help it. Sometimes for brief moments, sometimes longer. If only I looked like that, I too would be prettier, happier, more likeable.
Now here’s the thing, my argument is not that mixed girls shouldn’t be on TV, or that weaves and braids are bad. Please, girl, let your curls go free, rock your weave and own those braids. I simply wished, still wish, that there were more people on screen who made me feel as if I could be pretty enough to be on a TV show, that I, with my hair as is, could have enough sex appeal to land the new attractive neighbour.
Carlo Allegri / Reuters
I simply wish that Danai Gurira had been on screen when I was younger, and that there were more black female faces and hair in mainstream media (not just Black Panther) that looked like hers. I simply wish that the family with two black parents wouldn’t suddenly have a mixed daughter with thick curly hair. I simply wish that there were more dreadlocks, more box braids, more bantu knots, more cornrows, more 4C afros in our media, beyond edgy fashion shows and editorial spreads.
In short, I wish that my nappy black hair was normalized. Not made a big ordeal like in Nappily Ever After, or as something we should feel ashamed of like in Good Hair (I’m sorry, but you can’t shame women for wanting to change their hair when they’re told it’s the only way to be accepted), but simply there. Simply there in the casting choice, simply there in the way a character finger combs her braid-out in the morning, simply there without being “othered.”
We know about the unnatural, often unattainably high, beauty standards created for women, and men, of all colours. I would like to end on a better note but that’s just the way it is, and something has to change. Maybe if we start with small changes in our cartoons, after school specials, angst ridden teen dramas, late night sitcoms and blockbuster movies, infuriating instances like a young girl getting kicked out of class for her braided hair extensions wouldn’t still occur today. And maybe the next generation of black girls will learn to be a little kinder to themselves.
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