It Isn’t Just Gossip Girl — TV Has A Major Colorism Problem


JULY 15, 2021 5:01 PM

The R29Unbothered team tackles one of Hollywood’s most consistent — and frustrating — issues: its constant erasure of dark-skinned Black women and girls.

When photos from the Gossip Girl reboot first dropped, the new show was praised for its “diverse” upgrade from the all-white cast of the original. After the OG creators spent years expressing their regret over creating a show with six white leads, the fact that the new series stars three Black women (Jordan Alexander, Whitney Peak and Savannah Lee Smith) was viewed as a positive sign of long-overdue progress. And while it is a symbol of a certain shift in Hollywood, many Black women looked at the show’s new cast and saw something else: TV’s persistent commitment to colorism.  

All three of the Black actresses starring in Gossip Girl are light-skinned — the kind of Black this industry consistently deems worthy of lead roles. When it comes to this exhausting issue, Black women and teen girls get the worst of it. Oftentimes when you do see dark-skinned characters in desirable roles (or at all), it is Black men and boys. This has bolstered the notion that darker skin is equated to masculinity and lighter skin to femininity. Darker-skinned Black girls are rarely portrayed as the popular, pretty, love interests (see again: Gossip Girl) but to take it one step further: the erasure of dark Black femininity is an insidious way the lie that lightness links to soft, delicateness and that darkness is akin to all the things society pegs to masculinity — strength, aggression, cockiness — continues to spread. Sure, you could call casting any Black stars over none a win for the “representation matters” crowd, (biracial Black actress Jessica Szohr was the exception on the original Gossip Girl, but she was a supporting character at best and her race was barely acknowledged) but when the same shade of Black woman and girls is perpetually prioritized over others, who is really winning? 

Gossip Girl isn’t the only one. We just saw colorism play out in real-time when In The Heights erased dark-skinned Afro Latinx people from a neighborhood where they most definitely exist, in the same space the film claimed to be celebrating. You can also see the erasure of dark-skinned Black teen girls in pretty much every popular Netflix show of the moment (Ginny and GeorgiaNever Have I Ever, Outer Banks). In Never Have I Ever, Niecy Nash’s character is a darker-skinned Black woman but her character is nothing more than a modern mammy or “Black Lady Therapist” trope, there solely to fix the life of the main character. Netflix’s own Strong Black Lead podcast, “Okay, Now Listen,” acknowledged Netflix’s colorism conundrum in a recent episode. But aside from its popular reality shows which have featured dark-skinned women competing for love and its content from the Continent, Netflix (US) continues to churn out content with dark-skinned Black girls and women largely absent from its stories.

Even shows that are celebrated for including Black characters in ways that challenge antiquated stereotypes (like Euphoria or Black-ish) still cling to colorism and their stars benefit from the light-skinned privilege that Hollywood affords them. We stan Zendaya forever, but she is one of the most recognizable (and Emmy-winning) TV actors of her generation who is playing a complex, layered LGBTQ Black teen girl character we have never seen before. While Zendaya has repeatedly acknowledged her privilege, it’s telling that the person who gets to play a role that shatters preconceptions of Black teen girlhood is a light-skinned actress, and on the same show, no dark-skinned Black girls exist.

While many of the aforementioned actresses are extremely talented, for too long, Hollywood has hidden behind the excuse of “meritocracy” to justify its treatment of dark-skinned Black women and girls. In a post “racial reckoning” climate when “diversity” is touted as an industry priority, the complexity and beautiful array of Blackness is still too-often rejected in favor of hires who check a quota of bare-minimum inclusion (aka the Black people who are light enough to keep white studio execs comfortable). IT GOES BEYOND BEAUTY STANDARDS AND LOVE INTERESTS. COLORISM DOESN’T ONLY PLAY OUT ON SCREEN BUT ALSO IN OUR WORKPLACES, CLASSROOMS, AND IN THE PRISON SYSTEM.

When In The Heights director John M. Chu defended his casting choices by telling Felice León of The Root that he included “the people who were best for those roles,” he was parroting a white supremacist refrain we’ve heard over and over that is only masking a white supremacist lie: that lightness equates skill and that Black excellence can only pertain to people who fit into a certain mold of Eurocentric beauty standards. We’re expected to believe that the most talented people for non-stereotypical roles just happen to be light-skinned every single time, and not that the decision makers are just deeply biased in favor of white supremacist stereotypes they’ve adopted about what light skin represents.

“[Cho’s] response perpetuates the notion that Black actors are somehow less talented or capable than white actors, when in fact casting choices are often marred by personal biases and ingrained ideas about who is deserving or worthy of a lead role… It’s a reflection of a global culture of anti-Blackness,” writer Concepción de León told The New York Times. This culture of anti-Blackness is prevalent on television. Research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media noted in March that nearly 80% of Black female characters on television have “light or medium skin tones” and specified that “colorism is persistent” on TV.  According to Deadline, the report also found that the hairstyles of more than half of Black female leads in popular films were consistent with “European standards of beauty as opposed to natural Black hairstyles.” Of course, there are exceptions (Issa Rae, Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba, Michaela Coel) but television still has a long way to go to rectify its constant reliance on colorism. 

For dark-skinned Black women and girls, complex characters who look like them on TV are often non-existent or perpetuate harmful narratives that hurt them in real life too. It goes beyond beauty standards and love interests. Colorism doesn’t only play out on screen but also in our workplaces, classrooms, and in the prison system. There’s an intraracial wage gap where darker-skinned Black women make less money than light-skinned Black women. Dark-skinned Black girls are three times more likely to be suspended from school than their lighter counterparts. The darker your skin, the more likely you are to go to prison, and dark-skinned Black women face higher rates of unemployment.  It’s not surprising that these biases seep into boardrooms and casting calls and it’s undeniable that these alarming stats are why light-skinned Black people make white people more comfortable. The ability to ignore colorism is due to ignorance and privilege — yes, even for some Black folk. And I know talking about privilege within the Black community makes some people squirm, but that’s exactly why it’s necessary. It’s also imperative to center the people that colorism impacts: dark-skinned Black women. (Sorry, while light-skinned Black people can face intracommunity prejudice or harassment that can be devastating and traumatic on an individual level, colorism is systemic oppression that privileges lighter-skinned people over darker-skinned people and reverse-colorism just isn’t a thing, as dark-skinned people do not wield institutional power to oppress light-skinned people as a group.)

That’s why I’m passing the mic to some of my beautiful Team Unbothered colleagues. Here, they share how colorism on TV informed their childhoods and what it’s like to watch the harm of anti-Blackness continue to play out in 2021.

Ineye Komonibo, Entertainment Writer 

Once upon a time, Black women and girls could tune into shows like Sister, SisterMoesha, and Girlfriends and see a spectrum of Blackness depicted. The representation of the ’90s and early 2000s was just years ago, but let today’s Hollywood tell it, it’s impossible to feature anyone darker than a paper bag in a lead role across any television genre. I can’t believe that in this big year 2021, we’re still begging studios to consider casting darker-skinned Black actresses as their protagonists or love interests — or worse, we’re still having showrunners playing in our faces about “diversity” when no one in their cast is darker than Fenty 360. Respectfully, Joshua Safran…you tried it with this Gossip Girl reboot, sir.ADVERTISEMENTI CAN’T BELIEVE THAT IN THIS BIG YEAR 2021, WE’RE STILL HAVING SHOWRUNNERS PLAYING IN OUR FACES ABOUT “DIVERSITY” WHEN NO ONE IN THEIR CAST IS DARKER THAN FENTY 360.INEYE KOMONIBO

Hollywood may not realize it, but refusing to cast darker-skinned Black women in meaningful, nuanced roles (or at all) is one of the active facets of misogynoir, the intersection of racism and gender oppression. Colorism takes it a step further, denying women who don’t fit the often-racist standards of beauty the opportunity to be seen as or to exist as feminine. For Black women on the darker side of the spectrum, that erasure is personal. When you’re never allowed to be more than the comic relief or a depthless face in the crowd, the message being sent is that you’ll never be the main character of any story — not one on television, not one in real life. Though there are a number of shows, consciously or otherwise, doing the work to center the narratives of darker-skinned Black women (Hi InsecureI May Destroy Youand Run the World!), the industry’s general tendency to overlook darker-skinned Black actresses across generations is getting to a maddening point. Something’s gotta give…and it might be our viewership; if you don’t see us, we don’t see you. Good luck with those ratings, though.

Sandy Pierre, Branded Execution Specialist

Growing up, Brandy from Moesha and Kellie Williams from Family Matters were the only two people on TV I saw who looked like me. Every other show was a light-skinned girl who got all the guys while the dark-skinned girls always got made fun of. It was a reflection of everyday life for me. Being a dark-skinned girl wasn’t the easiest. Hearing things like, “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” stay with you forever. Now that I’m older, it’s so much more important to change this narrative.EVERY OTHER SHOW WAS A LIGHT-SKINNED GIRL WHO GOT ALL THE GUYS WHILE THE DARK-SKINNED GIRLS ALWAYS GOT MADE FUN OF. IT WAS A REFLECTION OF EVERYDAY LIFE FOR ME.SANDY PIERRE

I wish colorism wasn’t a thing but unfortunately we are still here. We see it in film and TV all the time. The light-skinned women always seem to be doing better than the dark-skinned women. Just recently I binged watched the Starz show Run The World and it was no surprise that out of the four friends, the two light-skinned Black women were doing well for themselves. One is getting married and has a great job and the other is in a great, growing relationship. Meanwhile, of the two dark-skinned Black women, one is getting a divorce, and the other has a shitty job, and went through a bad breakup. At this point, I’m used to it and it feels normal (which sucks), but as a dark-skinned woman I’d love to see more of us in film and TV winning and being happy. We should be represented just as much as the next Black girl. Now, I’m always thinking of ways to show versatility in Black skin and give flowers to our dark-skinned girls.

Maiya Carmichael, Social Coordinator

As an adult, I don’t watch much TV, but growing up I did. At the time, I didn’t realize the trope of the ‘light-skinned wife/ dark-skinned husband’ or ‘pretty light-skinned friend with an “ugly” dark-skinned friend’ existed, but looking back it’s very clear. During that time, it didn’t have a direct effect on me because my mama made sure I knew I was that girl, lol. But it did affect how others (including adults) treated me. I remember being on the playground and a little boy asking one of my friends to “hook him up” with one of her friends, but she had to be “red.” Or times when boys would use me as the go-between to hit on my light-skinned friends. It made me feel unseen and undesirable as a person and looking back on it I don’t know who to be more frustrated with: the TV shows and videos for pushing this message or the people in my life perpetuating them, who were sometimes darker than me.THESE ‘DIVERSITY HIRES’ WERE NOT MEANT TO REPRESENT ME, BUT TO CREATE “PALATABLE” TV FOR WHITE PEOPLE AND GIVE THEM FAKE INSIGHT ON WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE BLACK.MAIYA CARMICHAEL

Now, I expect TV shows and movies to be typical, lackluster and one dimensional when it comes to casting and portraying Black lives. I’m not saying that lighter-skinned people haven’t put in work, but the fact that lightness is how TV chooses to represent Blackness the majority of the time says a lot. I have also come to realize that these ‘diversity hires’ were not meant to represent me, but to create “palatable” TV for white people and give them fake insight on what it’s like to be Black (as if appropriation isn’t enough). It seems much easier to sell a storyline when the main character is racially ambiguous. That’s why I don’t really watch TV now. The storylines seem unrelatable to where I’ve been or where I’m going, and when they do get it a little right, there’s always Black trauma involved. Ironically, the trauma filled shows (like Amazon Prime’s Them for example) and movies lie (Queen & Slim) always seem to cast dark-skinned leads. Coincidence? I think not.

Christa Eduafo, Social Content Strategist

As a melanin-rich baddie who grew up in the very Caucasian neighborhoods of Dayton, Ohio, I feel lucky to have had dark-skinned characters — Brandy’s MoeshaAngela in Boy Meets World, Vanessa Huxtable in The C*sby ShowMaxine Shaw in Living Single —  to look up to as a kid. Seeing them on my screens played an immeasurable part in solidifying my self-image and self-confidence as a young Black girl. But since then, the representation of women and girls who looked like me steadily declined. Why does it feel like dark-skinned Black female actresses are now relegated to supporting roles, if included at all, and often as a response to backlash received from a less-than-diverse series (*cough* Grown-ish *cough*)? Why do dark-skinned Black female leads often have to painstakingly carve that leading actress space out for themselves (see: Issa Rae in Insecure, Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You)? We are here! We are talented! Let us shine! HELP us shine!WHY DO DARK-SKINNED BLACK FEMALE LEADS OFTEN HAVE TO PAINSTAKINGLY CARVE THAT LEADING ACTRESS SPACE OUT FOR THEMSELVES (SEE: ISSA RAE IN INSECURE, MICHAELA COEL IN I MAY DESTROY YOU)?CHRISTA EDUAFO

In another life, I was an assistant in the television department at a talent agency, where I watched the agent I worked for (the only Black woman in the department) fight to get her darker-skinned clients considered for roles that casting agencies were regularly giving to light-skinned actresses. While she was often successful in that fight, it was disappointing to witness first-hand the lack of demand in the industry for deeper-hued talent. The decision-makers in Hollywood are overwhelmingly white, and their preferences cause a ripple effect with wide-reaching consequences. I’m thankful for the Issas and the Michaelas and the Quintas of the world who are proving defiantly that there is more than enough space for dark-skinned women in Hollywood, but I’m looking forward to the day that dark-skinned women don’t have to work so damn hard to get the opportunities that they (we) deserve.

Venesa Coger, Associate Social Content StrategistADVERTISEMENT

Colorism is honestly what keeps pop culture thriving. The entertainment industry knows there is going to be an uproar and conversations taking place via social media when there is a mostly light-skinned cast, so I feel like at this point it’s part of their promotional tactics. I hate to say it but it’s true — from major movies to TV shows, and even music, it’s always the same women who pass the paper bag test who are highlighted and mainstreamed. I often find myself shrugging, rolling my eyes, and asking, Where are the dark-skinned girls? As a dark-skinned woman, it makes me feel sad and I start to think about the times I would get bullied because of my skin tone and how I questioned my worth at a young age. BLACK WOMEN COME IN ALL SHADES AND THAT NEEDS TO BE REFLECTED. OTHERWISE, HOLLYWOOD IS SELLING THE LIE THAT IT CARES ABOUT THE INCLUSION OF BLACK WOMEN WHEN IT REALLY DOESN’T. VENESA COGER

There weren’t many dark-skinned actresses playing lead on shows that I could see myself in, that’s why Camille Winbush who played Vanessa in The Bernie Mac Show meant so much to me and why in today’s time I root for actresses like Ryan DestinyJavicia LeslieNafeesa Williams, and Lovie Simone, to name a few. This thread from Twitter recently showed the main Black girls in popular tv shows Gossip Girl and All American, and no shade but all facts – they look the same and it’s like that’s all Hollywood wants to accept as the model of Black girlhood and Black womanhood! However, Black women and girls come in all shades and that needs to be reflected. Otherwise, Hollywood is selling the lie that it cares about inclusion of us when they really don’t. LET’S TALK ABOUT COLORISM ON TELEVISION


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