Why Jem & The Holograms Is Insulting To Black Girls

In the movie adaptation of my illustrious life, tentatively titled Everdeen: Live Fast, Love Harder, I’d like to be portrayed by someone like the beautiful Aja Naomi King, from How To Get Away With Murder. But in reality, Hollywood would probably cast Paula Patton as the lighter-skinned version of me. I’ve been burned before. When Josie & The Pussycats came out in 2001, I couldn’t wait to see one of my favorite old school 'toons — regularly acknowledged for having one of the first Black lead characters on TV in the '70s — on the big screen. But I also remember the niggling feeling of disappointment when I saw Rosario Dawson as that character, Valerie. See, I thought she would look more like me. I thought she’d be dark, like she was on TV. It’s happening again now with Jem and The Holograms, which hits theaters October 22. Since the cast was announced in April, reaction has been harsh. The loudest chorus of dismay came from fans upset that the big-screen version seemed to retain nothing from the weird, kitschy, cult animated series on which the movie is based. But what caught my eye — and ignited my ire — was that yet again, a dark-skinned character, Shana, was being played by someone several shades lighter — in this case, by actress Aurora Perrineau. These casting choices send a clear message: Hollywood wants people of color who fit a white standard of beauty as closely as possible.
There is an understanding, misguided or not, that the individuals we see on TV and in movies are supposed to be beautiful — the sexier, more perfect versions of real life. But when a light-skinned, wavy-haired woman is cast to play a dark woman of African descent, it’s not the same as blonde Jennifer Lawrence playing brunette Katniss Everdeen. It’s telling society — and in the case of Jem and The Holograms, young teens — that the closer you are to being white, the better. Now, I’m not here to say who is Black and who isn’t. Blackness is a construct and the U.S. is unique in the way it has used race to draw clear lines in society. The one-drop-rule, which developed in the 19th century and meant that anyone with even the smallest bit of African heritage qualifies as Black, was a way to make sure white people knew who was property and that any child of a female slave would be a slave, too, no matter the shade of his or her skin. Later, it was used during the eras of Jim Crow and segregation to ensure that the right people got the prime seats on the bus. So “Black” has an incredibly broad definition. In fact, it encompasses a variety of colors, features, and textures. Unfortunately, these very distinctions make a difference in how women in particular are treated within the Black community and in the world at large. And when Hollywood casts a light-skinned actress in a role meant for a darker woman — based on source material or, in the case of biopics, reality — the industry is not just taking away a job from an actress who has precious few to chose from in the first place. It’s not even about ethnicity. It’s about erasing an entire group of human beings from pop culture. The erasure of dark-skinned women from our country’s most widespread form of communication has consequences on how we’re seen and treated in real life. If we’re constantly portrayed as people not worthy of attention and storylines, as stereotypes of sassy best friends and loud women, why would would we be treated any differently in real life? I want to see people who look like me on the big or small screen every once in a while. But judging by the pop cultural landscape, I am asking for too much.
Photos: Coqueran/ FAMEFLY.NET & David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images.
Zoe Saldana (left) had her skin darkened to portray Nina Simone (right).
Thandie Newton played Igbo woman Olenna from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, while Zoë Kravitz plays the dark-skinned Christina in the Divergent movies. Zoe Saldana is starring as Nina Simone in an upcoming film about the late jazz singer. Even award-winning actresses like Viola Davis have struggled with finding meaningful representation of themselves. In an interview for TheWrap, she talked about the importance of her How To Get Away With Murder character for Black women. “The paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire,” Davis said. “And in the history of television and even in film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me.” That we do get to see Davis every week is thanks to Shonda Rhimes, one of the show’s exec-producers and one of the most powerful forces on television right now. With Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and now Murder, she has proved that diversity on TV won’t scare off viewers. On the contrary, her shows enjoy some of the highest ratings on TV. But she’s rare.

Issa Rae
, the talent behind the hit web series The Misadventures Of An Awkward Black Girl, has been lauded for her frank, fresh representation of a young woman of color. But it took about four years after her work on the internet first earned her attention and accolades for her pilot, Insecure, to be green lit. She’s been open about her struggle to stay true to her vision. In one case, executives wanted her to cast the main character, modeled after herself, with a light-skinned woman with straight hair.

She is tall, with dark brown skin and short hair. Pretty.

Author Veronica Roth, describing Christina in "Divergent."
Who’s to blame for this? Some blame big studios and their executives, who claim that minority-led films don’t play overseas, despite the fact that movies with diverse casts, including the Fast & Furious franchise, have proven successful abroad. Director Ridley Scott basically admitted to this bias when he came under fire for whitewashing Exodus: Gods and Kings, casting a pack of predominantly white Europeans as ancient Middle Easterners. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott said. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” A similar case can be found in the recent box office bomb Pan, in which Rooney Mara plays the Native American character Tiger Lily. At least Mara acknowledged there was a problem and admitted she "feels really bad about it.” My opinion? I think the blame lies with us — not because we’re racist, but because we’re too easily satisfied. We see a character with a halo of vaguely curly hair, a hint of exoticism, and we pat ourselves on the back for living in a post-racial America. But I also believe we can change this. As consumers, we can demand better entertainment and more truthful representation of marginalized groups. If the source material — like The Hunger Games, Divergent, or X-Men — describes a character as dark-skinned, then that’s how they should appear on screen. Jem and The Holograms will undoubtedly preach values of honesty, friendship, and self-love to its core audience of teen girls. But along the way to this message of harmony, it also drives home the idea that whiter is beautiful. We cannot support that message any longer.

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