What I Learned From Token Black Characters in Teen Movies

Like my white friends, I learned how to be a proper teenager through movies—except for most of the films I watched didn't have any real black characters.

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Sep 21 2015, 7:50pm

Still from 'Clueless,' via IMDB

Growing up, I was surrounded by whiteness. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Connecticut, where we were the only non-white family on the block and where I was one of the few black students in my school district. My inner circle of girlfriends was all white, and even though none of them knew it at the time, they couldn't understand the great chasm that separated my teenage experience from theirs.

In middle school, we used to flip through the yearbook and decide which boys would make good boyfriends. While my friends had free reign of the pickings, I was always paired up with the one of the few black boys in our grade. It wasn't because of our shared race, my friends would say, it was just theoretical matchmaking. The truth was that the white boys in my town did not think I was attractive or interesting or hip. I had big lips before big lips were "in," frizzy hair that people liked to pull, and my dad was always pushing books about black history on me. I was the "other."

This became obvious watching the films I grew up with. The teen movie of the week at sleepovers typically followed the trope of a girl from the "wrong side of the tracks" falling head over heels in stupid love with some unexpected boy from a different social strata. I consumed these movies with equal parts greedy delight and hope, pushing down the unsettling feeling that these films were made not for me, but for my white friends. Like my white friends, I learned how to be a proper teenager through these movies—except most of the films I watched didn't have many black characters. When they did, it was most often the "token black friend," a girl who existed to support the white characters and to act as representative of an entire race.

Scene from 'She's All That,' via YouTube

Take She's All That (1999), one of the first teen movies I watched in a theater. In it, Gabrielle Union and Lil' Kim play members of the popular girl's court. Lil' Kim barely has any lines and Union is more mammy than heroine. Their role in the narrative is to support the storyline of the main character, Laney Boggs, a white, conventionally attractive, if endearingly eccentric, art student played by Rachael Leigh Cook.

Laney, the heroine, was meant to be a symbol for being "different" and misunderstood; in actuality her differences amounted to paint-splattered overalls and hipster glasses. The black characters had no unique lives or motivations, but instead served as set pieces to break up the monotony of whiteness.

Chastity's character never evolves—she's just a mean girl, a foil to the white protagonist, a conduit for Bianca to learn how to be a better person.

Angelica Bastién, a culture writer who identifies as a black Latina, told me she was "always attracted to the teen movies I felt reflected the grotesque, contradictory, and exhilarating reality of being a teen girl." But her favorite films growing up—The Craft, Jawbreaker, Clueless, and Bring It On—presented a world "radically different" from her experience.

"Watching teen movies, I often felt invisible," she reflected. "Most of the black characters—when there were any, and had their own storylines—didn't have my diverse background. They didn't struggle with poverty or mental illness or messy family dynamics."

In 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Union plays Chastity, the opportunistic, lady-in-waiting to Bianca Stratford, a spoiled sophomore who debates the merits of a Prada backpack in relation to Skechers. Chastity is beautiful and cunning, but also shallow. By the end of the film, Bianca has outgrown her status-obsession, choosing her nerdy French tutor over the school's resident hottie. But Chastity's character never evolves—she's just a mean girl, a foil to the white protagonist, a conduit for Bianca to learn how to be a better person.

There were a few exceptions. Like every other girl my age, I was obsessed with Clueless (1995). My parents bought me the soundtrack, the VHS, and the Dionne Barbie doll. Dionne became my idol. I thought her nose ring was so edgy and cool and I admired the fact that although she was relegated to the role of Cher's best friend, she was confident and didn't let her boyfriend push her around. She was Cher's right-hand-woman, but she called her out when necessary.

For me, Dionne was a new kind of black girl on film: one who refused to sacrifice her blackness to fit in. Bastién expanded on this, telling me the Dionne character "[agitated] the boundaries around black women in pop culture quite a bit showing how wildly different the black teen experience can be."

Still from 'Bring It On,' via IMDB

The cheerleading movie Bring It On (2000), released a couple of years after Clueless, actually dealt with issues of race and class head-on. The all-black East Compton Clovers could have been written as caricatures, but were instead portrayed as smart, talented, and hardworking athletes, whose blackness isn't hyper-exaggerated with excessive slang or overt racist stereotypes.

The head cheerleader of the Clovers, Isis, was played by Gabrielle Union (the fact that Union was cast over and over again in roles that provided on-screen diversity is itself a sign of this tokenism). She was a take-no-bullshit leader who didn't accept the racist bureaucracies of competitive cheerleading. In a defining character scene, the film's protagonist, played by the lily-white Kirsten Dunst, approaches Isis with a huge check to help pay for the Clovers' entry-fee to Nationals. Isis tears up the check and asks, "What is this? Hush money?" It's one of the few scenes in the teen movies I grew up where a black girl does something so strong and independent, without settling into the flattened trop of the "strong black woman."

Unfortunately, Bring It On didn't usher in a new era of film with strong, dynamic black characters. Today's teen movies are just as whitewashed as the ones released two decades ago, perhaps even more so. The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Paper Towns (2015), both originally novels written by reigning young adult author John Green, feature white leading males who discover the meaning of life via their quirky, but beautiful, white dreamgirls. This can also be said of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), which features characters of color only in throwaway roles like "school teacher" or "Shakespeare girl." Dystopian YA epics like the The Hunger Games (2012) and Divergent (2014) also predominantly cast white actors, despite taking place in the near future, when white people are expected to be a demographic minority (at least in the US). In these movies, there often isn't even a token black friend—instead, everyone with an actual character name is white.

As a teen, watching whitewashed movies was like peering into an alternate reality, a world that I could inhabit if I only tried hard enough. Maybe that's why I kept watching them—for the off-chance that once, just once, the black characters could also live in the full spectrum of human vulnerability and messiness and first love, instead of being subjected to the role of background player, a role I knew too well from the everyday truths of my own life.

Follow Vanessa Willoughby on Twitter.

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