Why Don't Black Women Get To Be Romantic On British TV?

Courtesy of Netflix
We like to throw the word 'relatable' around a lot, don’t we? The restraint I just had to exercise to avoid attaching a hashtag to the word is proof enough that it’s very much A Thing that we, the social media generation, are invested in. Clichéd as it may now be, the fact remains. It’s 2019 and sincere relatability is what we deserve.
There are some brilliant things going on in that department right now. Especially on television. Look at how Fleabag's magnificently catastrophic protagonist resonates with so many people. Take Derry Girls, the most aptly nostalgic representation of being a teenage girl in the UK in the '90s. And let's not forget Pure, a glorious series that finally addresses a young woman's coming of age through the lens of a narrowly understood mental health condition. Female-led television is slowly but surely expanding to depict more of our experiences. But once again, there’s something that slows my celebration of how far British programming is climbing the relatability scale – where are all the black women?
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I wouldn't dare diminish some of the best contemporary narratives in British television by way of a few thematic generalisations. We're starting to see the nuances of untold experiences appear on our screens. Hell, 'diversity' remains a buzzword and we've finally got it in our heads that women can and should be playing the roles that men do. But if we break all these stories down, at the heart of every single one is love. There's not a comedy or drama on telly in which the lead character isn't involved in some sort of romance and yet, black women continue to be sidelined in these narratives in a really big way.
I'll give you a moment here to roll your eyes, call me a Carrie Bradshaw wannabe and deny my mushy-gushy claim that love is everywhere. When you're done, I'll tell you that I'm right, though. Unpick some of the most popular shows of recent months and you'll find it in some shape or form. There's bad sex, strained relationships, unrequited love, complicated friendship, a bewildering quest for identity and, occasionally, some good sex interwoven into surface-level narratives.
Let's survey the arena. Julia Davis' Sally4Ever burst onto our screens in a chaotic orgy of excitement at the end of last year, with not a black woman to be seen. Our beloved Catastrophe, another relationship-based comedy, came to an end last month and no, save for Sharon's old pal Melissa (Sarah Niles), there were no black women in that series to lust, love or be loved, either. There's also Wanderlust, another very white, middle-class comedy about sex that hit the BBC at the tail end of 2018. I can't help but be conflicted about the brilliant Zawe Ashton starring in the show as Claire, the colleague who Alan sleeps with before officially pursuing a polyamorous relationship with his wife. Looking at it retrospectively, the treatment of Jordyn Woods in the Khloé Kardashian/Tristan Thompson scandal, and the wider issue about where women of colour are positioned in the media, runs parallel.
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Even if we look to Phoebe Waller-Bridge's big hitters, Killing Eve and Fleabag, we'll find that the former's black supporting character, Elena Felton (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) has a romantic narrative teased only every now and again, and in the latter there isn't a black woman to even dangle some sexual tension in front of. Netflix's big hitter, Sex Education did better representation-wise but still managed to leave black women out of the occasion and then where else are we to look for our romantic storylines to appear front and centre? America?
On this side of the pond, we've only really had Chewing Gum, Michaela Coel's raucous comedy about 24-year-old Tracey Gordon who lives with her pious mother on a London council estate and is desperate to lose her virginity. It was one of the most genuine, exciting comedies on screen at the time but sadly didn’t make it past a second season, which ended in 2017. The trail for black British woman-led comedy wasn’t taken all that much further until Coel’s starring role in Black Earth Rising, but even then it still feels like we’re lingering in the unfortunate area of the television landscape that allows only one 'black' programme at a time – see E4’s Timewasters which, thankfully, returns for a second season later this year.
We could hark back further to 2012 and BBC Three's Some Girls, the school comedy not all that dissimilar to Derry Girls save for its south London setting and the mixed cast of young women. Timewasters’ Adelayo Adedayo starred as Viva Bennett, one of four best friends navigating the standard sex, relationships and secondary school struggle in a way that allowed young black women in on the jokes that, for the most part, had been reserved for the likes of The Inbetweeners. Rewind even further and you’ll land on Misfits and Skins, which wove the love lives of their women of colour into the ensemble cast's wider storyline. Jal (Larissa Wilson) was a heroine to so many teenagers who struggled to see their romantic narratives taken seriously, let alone developed beyond the angry, attitudal and hyper-sexualised stereotypes we’re used to.
But it's not enough to have to look backwards to find stories that give glimpses into the reality of sex, love and romance that black women live and want to see on screen, is it? The problem, of course, speaks to the wider issue that British TV continues to have with reflecting the lives of our country's underrepresented minorities. It speaks to the fact that so many of these shows are born from the experiences of a narrow demographic, a stark majority of whom aren’t a minority ethnicity, LGBTQ+, working class or disabled. Though we don’t often care to admit it, our love lives are an incomparably huge part of who we are as people. So no, it's not good enough to be made to feel like your relationships don't matter or don't exist when, despite the reflection in today's TV guides, they do.
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