Actresses of Color Are Finally Starring In Campy Romcoms — And I’m Conflicted About It

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
“You have no idea how hard it is to be a person of color at this firm.” This statement, uttered by Partner Track’s Ingrid Yun could be a Housewives-type tagline for the Netflix series. Ingrid, played by Arden Cho, is an up-and-coming lawyer at an elite Manhattan law firm gunning for a much-deserved position as partner. But it, as Ingrid says, isn’t easy. The firm is less than inclusive, pretty cutthroat, and overwhelmingly white.
The same could be said for the movie and TV industry. Part of what makes Partner Track an interesting watch is that these kinds of glossy Hallmark Channel-lite shows of a woman pushing against the work status quo mixed with a campy love story and hunky romantic interest (or two) have been typically led by white women. We’ve watched 90210’s Jessica Lowndes play a matchmaker who finds love of her own with a childhood friend, Rachael Leigh Cook return to her family’s inn to help plan a Christmas party (and fall in love), and Victoria Justice travel to the Australian outback in order to kick start her career in the wine selling business (and, of course, fall in love). And it’s also part of why I feel so conflicted — because Partner Track isn’t very good. And the thing is, like Netflix movies like Love in the Villa and Resort to Love, I don’t necessarily think it’s meant to be winning any awards. Instead these titles are meant to be a feel-good escape; a few hours of time when you can just turn off your brain and enjoy people falling in love.

White actresses like Lucy Hale (A Nice Girl Like You), Emma Roberts (Holidate), and Justice (A Perfect Pairing) have made their careers off of titles like Partner Track, but when actresses of color like Cho, Christina Milian, and Kat Graham lean into them, as is their right, it feels like both a win and a letdown. It’s a complicated and unfair reaction that’s based on decades of pressure and expectations that when actresses of color do make it as a lead, they should be turning out Oscar-winning performances, because they need to do the most to earn their spot, regardless of the material they’re given or the point of the actual show. And it’s a knee-jerk reaction that’s not helping anyone, least of all actors and creators of color.

Partner Track is far from the first and definitely won’t be the last show or movie that doesn’t do it for me, for a host of reasons. While the show makes an attempt at talking about race in dating, it ends up feeling more like a throwaway check mark off their to-do list; the main romantic interest is toxic with a capital T, and the writing is pretty cheesy (of course, what’s “good” and “not good” is entirely subjective). But it is one of a few shows that, when I saw the trailer, I initially groaned then crossed my fingers and hoped it would be good. 
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But to be fair, the show is doing exactly what it should be. These Lifetime-style shows — you know, feel-good and what some might classify as “fluff” — aren’t supposed to reshape longstanding thought systems around race and identity. They’re supposed to be easy to watch, something you put on in the background while you’re cooking dinner or doing your laundry, or when you want to leave the shit show that is the real world and just escape. They’re cheesy, over-the-top, unrealistic, and written to be exactly that. Unapologetically so. 
Despite the fact that strides have been made when it comes to on-screen representation (a 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA found that both people of color and women are equally represented to men and white actors as leads in films), they’re still under-represented when it comes to emulating the general population and actual makeup of the United States. In its latest study, USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 41% of leads or co-leads in 2021 were women, and 32% were from a historically excluded race or ethnicity. For context, almost 40% of the U.S. population is not white. In the world of Hallmark movies (which have a similar vibe to Netflix series like Partner Track) that could technically have any race be the lead, the disparity is so much greater. In 2019, of the 24 original Hallmark movies released that year, only four had non-white leads. So serious question: Do they think only white women could have these kinds of whirlwind serendipitous love stories?
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As uncomplex and fluffy as Partner Track is, in many ways, the Netflix show is making bounds in representation within this genre. They’re centering women of color as not only worthy of a starring role, but also of love, and giving viewers an opportunity to see themselves in a way they may not have before, including being the lead in a lightweight love story. But still, I find myself stressed — and disappointed — when these films do exactly what they’ve set out to, providing viewers with cheesy goodness. Because they tend to overall just be kind of meh.

Maybe it’s time to just embrace these titles and the actors who grace our screens in them as they are. Fluff and all.

It’s a standard I don’t hold for white actresses like Roberts and Hale, who have made careers off of movies like this. Which isn’t to say that these actresses aren’t great (I, an unapologetic Emma Roberts stan, would never!), but rather that we don’t hold the same expectations for them — or at least don’t seem to put as much stock in their less-than-Oscar-worthy roles as we do others. We don’t hold them to the same standards that we do actors of color simply because we don’t have to. No offense to Roberts, Hale, and Justice, but the gates of Hollywood are always open or more easily accessible for white actors in a way that they aren’t for BIPOC people (as much as Sydney Sweeney thinks they aren’t). Meaning that they can afford to be in shows that get canceled after one season, because they’ll probably have another one from the CW they can hop to for the next season.
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I recognize that a lot of this is my own internal bias, one that’s been conditioned by decades of an industry that has historically been #SoWhite, predominantly excluding talent of color from even entering this space, let alone finding success. But it’s also been reinforced with money and filmmakers’ decisions, even to this day. Whenever we do take a few strides forward, we’re always batted back. In July 2021, Afro-Latina actress Leslie Grace was announced as the star of DC’s Batgirl film, an exciting decision for representation on-screen, as Grace was one of three Latina actresses cast in key DC Comics movie roles that year. But over a year later and after the film had wrapped, Warner Bros. and DC announced they were canceling the movie due to budget concerns and that it didn’t have “the spectacle that audiences have come to expect from DC fare,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote, reinforcing a feeling that many people of color feel: we don’t have the luxury to fail. We can’t be mediocre or just coasting by, because these films — and our presence in them — mean so much more because they are so rare. 
I’m not alone in these expectations, or at least in acknowledging that films and series with a lead of color are still held to a certain standard and expectation because there’s a lot riding on them. In the lead up to Partner Track, much of the conversation has revolved around the excitement of the show’s portrayal of a Korean American woman’s experience, and what this means for representation. That’s a big mantle to carry for a simple Netflix rom-com legal drama.
It ends up becoming a vicious and somewhat self-sabotaging cycle that’s not doing anyone any favors, least of all actors and creators of color. These expectations, however natural they may be based on Hollywood’s history, are limiting and continue to place great talent in a box of having to represent an entire culture or group of people and only take on roles that have cultural impact (no pressure). This pigeonholes actors and creators of color into continuously having to prove themselves, their culture, and their validity to be on screen in the first place. Wouldn’t part of the equal opportunity we’ve been wanting be just allowing these films to be what they are — and sometimes that might include just letting them be bad? 
Maybe it’s time to just embrace these titles and the actors who grace our screens in them as they are. Fluff and all.

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