Black Teen Girls On TV Are A Mess… Finally

Welcome to “What’s Good,” a column where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the streaming world with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy.
Photo: courtesy of Netflix, HBO MAX.
What’s Good? Black teen girls on TV. I’ve spent a lot of time in previous editions of this column writing about what we didn’t get to see on television growing up, how representation won’t save us but it does still matter, and how teen shows are giving us some of the best, most nuanced storylines on TV. In the past few years, Black teen girl characters have finally graduated from sitting on the sidelines of high school stories to standing front and center in their own narratives. From Ginny & Georgia to Euphoria, Gossip Girl and Blood & Water, we’re finally getting multiple depictions of Black girlhood that can be summed up in one word: MESSY. 
Sure, Moesha did some dumb shit (how she treated Kim, when she outed Omar before he was ready, that time she kissed her teacher Channing) but her chaos was always coupled with a moral resolution. When Tia and Tamara messed up, it was in service of an after-school-special-style cautionary tale. They always circled back to the same respectability politics. And those examples are decades old. For too long, the teens who got to fall apart onscreen — to fail, fuck up, and figure shit out — were white girls named Peyton and Brooke or Summer and Marissa or Joey and Jen… I could go on. I grew up in an era when the Black girls on teen TV were only there as sidekicks (Jessica Szhor as Vanessa on the OG Gossip Girl, Kat Graham as Bonnie Bennett on The Vampire Diaries) or as temporary love interest used for the white leads’ character development (Bianca Lawson as Principal Green’s daughter Nikki on Dawson’s Creek, Mekia Cox as Faith on One Tree Hill, Tika Sumpter as Raina Thorpe on Gossip Girl), just a pit stop on their path to their OTP. Raven Symoné was the rare main character exception on That’s So Raven but that was a Disney Channel show bound to the confines of a G rating. On the shows where there was sex, drugs, and regret — all very normal teen activities — Black girls always took a backseat. And because of their scarcity, I was left clinging to the crumbs these characters lacking depth were left with. 
Now, it’s thrilling to get to actively despise Ginny Miller (Antonia Gentry) on Ginny & Georgia and simultaneously yell at Gossip Girl’s Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) through my TV screen while rooting for Rue Bennett (Zendaya) on Euphoria and trying to unravel mysteries and lies with Blood & Water’s Puleng Khumalo (Ama Qamata). Each of these shows have their own flaws (there’s a reason why the Gossip Girl reboot got canceled) and the majority of them subscribe to Hollywood’s longtime colorist pastime of favoring light-skinned Black actresses and, aside from Blood & Water, refusing to give these girls Black love interests (let Black boys be great, abeg!), but each of them also give us what so few teen shows have in the past: messy ass portrayals of Black teen girlhood that embrace chaos over caricature and humanity over homogeneity.
Even though there is still lots of room for improvement (see: colorism), I’m excited about the current landscape of teen TV and the options — and the fact that there are even multiple options — that Black girls now have to choose from are very good. 

Each of these teen shows give us what so few have in the past: messy ass portrayals of Black teen girlhood that embrace chaos over caricature and humanity over homogeneity.

Who It’s Good For: It’s easy to write off teen shows as just being good for, you know, actual teenagers, but that would be depriving their greatness and relatability from grown ass adults like myself who are very connected to the adolescents inside of us (teen Kathleen and I talk daily) and ones who just love good TV. The problem with so many shows starring young people is that they feel like they’re either written by people who are trying to preach to the next generation or ones who have never met them. And when it comes to Black characters, it’s easy to spot when they’ve been written by or for white people. The best part of Ginny, Julien, Puleng, and Rue is that — most of the time — they don’t seem like they are written for anyone but themselves, their complexity seems crafted on purpose with their individuality as the priority instead of seeming like they were cooked up in a lab for a focus group. Stories about Black teen girlhood have evolved on film too (Selah and the Spades, Pariah, and Jinn are some of my faves) but on TV, you have more time to dig deep into the psyche of a hormonal teenager dealing with heightened emotions, complicated romances, and inevitable mistakes — from the inconsequential and mundane to the monumental — that everyone goes through, especially Black girls. 
We know in real life that Black girls’ childhoods are erased, with studies showing that Black girls are viewed as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. So how do shows that depict Black girls partying, drinking, and having sex combat these harmful stereotypes? Part of the “adultification bias” aimed at Black girls links back to misogynoir and the fact that “when a Black girl misbehaves, her behavior is often treated as a deliberate, calculated infraction, rather than as a child making a mistake,” according to Vox. If you watch each of these shows, the characters’ mistakes are shown to have nuanced reasoning and be the run-of-the-mill miscalculations of youth (with the drama dialed up to 100) that so many people go through. As you get frustrated with Ginny, annoyed by Julien, sympathize with Rue, and live for Puleng’s chaos, it’s clear that each of these characters exist as full, complex, flawed human beings, and for Black girls, that’s still really refreshing to see onscreen. 
How Good Is It? There aren’t a lot of similarities between Ginny & Georgia, Euphoria, Gossip Girl, and Blood & Water except that they each center Black teen characters so let’s break them down specifically and individually. I’ll start with our most divisive young woman: Ginny Miller.

Ginny is a mess, emotionally and physically (girl, what are those outfits?), and it's in her shambles where we find her strength: she gets to be the worst, like so many other teen girls on TV. 

When Ginny & Georgia’s first season aired, you may remember out-of-context cringey scenes going viral like the one where biracial Ginny and her half-Asian boyfriend have an “oppression Olympics” fight where he says she’s not Black enough because he’s never seen her  “pound back jerk chicken” — not their finest moment — but I swear in context the show, while clunky, is good. And Ginny is insufferable (seriously, you’ll want to punch her through your screen on multiple occasions) but she’s also real. That “oppression Olympics” scene was awful but I can’t say with confidence that two mixed teens living solely around white people wouldn’t say similarly clumsy, ignorant, and embarrassing shit about race. 
In Season 2, Ginny goes from an infuriatingly selfish and grating bratty teen (like so many of them are/us were) to a slightly less infuriating young woman dealing with racism, first love, a complicated relationship with her mom, and debilitating mental health struggles. I’ll defend Ginny & Georgia and its sometimes overwhelmingly embarrassing corniness because it’s one of the most raw and real depictions of a Black girl dealing with depression (which manifests in self-harm) that I have ever seen on screen. Love her or hate her (there are a lot of Ginny haters out there) but you can’t deny that the show’s handling of mental health is intentional, specific, and authentic. And even though its conversations about race can be uneven, scenes between Ginny and her Black dad Zion (the blindingly handsome Nathan Mitchell) are thoughtful and show a biracial kid trying, and sometimes failing, to figure out her identity and her place in the world. I also love Ginny’s friend Bracia (Tameka Griffiths), who at first exists solely to be Ginny’s “Black friend” (and give us some dark-skinned Black girl representation finally) but slowly gets her own spotlight with a love interest and the lead in the school play. Ginny is a mess, emotionally and physically (girl, what are those outfits?), and it's in her shambles where we find her strength: she gets to be the worst, like so many other teen girls on TV

Representation isn’t going to solve these systemic issues (abolishing policing and overhauling education departments would be a start), especially when the darker you are, the more exasperated these injustices become, but it can be a small step towards impacting biases that serve as the basis of oppression.

On Euphoria, Rue’s race is rarely mentioned and has little to no consequence to the plot. The character is based on creator Sam Levinson’s (a white man) own teenage years in which he battled addiction so the part doesn’t confront Rue’s Blackness head on. But we know that there are Black teen girls dealing with addiction and mental health struggles just like Rue. And what Euphoria does so well, as Nylah Burton writes for Vox, the show “does not glorify drug use, but it also doesn’t demonize drug use or drug users, and that is what makes people so uncomfortable. We are used to narratives that portray Black people with addiction as irredeemable, morally bereft, responsible for their own demise, and lacking qualities like humor and heart,” she writes. “In contrast, Rue is a character who shows us all of the frightening aspects of her disease, but as an audience, we are pushed to have empathy for her anyway.” So when Black girls are stripped of their innocence and disciplined at higher rates and suspended more than their white counterparts, there’s a lack of empathy inherent in these stats. Whether Black girls are dealing with Rue’s issues or not, we deserve the same compassion and understanding that white kids get. Representation isn’t going to solve these systemic issues (abolishing policing and overhauling education departments would be a start), especially when the darker you are, the more exasperated these injustices become, but it can be a small step towards impacting biases that serve as the basis of oppression. Rue is a person first, not a statistic or a trope. There’s a reason Zendaya keeps racking up awards for this role. 
Gossip Girl and Blood & Water are the most similar of the bunch (again, aside from the glaring colorism of GG) – both leads (Puleng and Julien) start their respective series hoping to connect with their half sisters, Zoya (Whitney Peak) and Fikile (Khosi Ngema). Their unconventional and extremely dramatic family situations serve as the foundation for ripe storytelling and general chaos. Both are set in elite schools with rich kids getting messy and solving mysteries. Both shows don’t take themselves too seriously — and have other Black girls in the cast to add even more drama and calamity (Savannah Lee Smith's Monet saved GG over and over). While the above series tackle serious topics with little comedic reprieve (Ginny & Georgia sometimes succeeds at being funny intentionally but inadvertently, it’s got hilarious moments), these two lean into the absurdity of teenhood. And amidst the kidnapping plots, long-lost sisters and sinister teachers masquerading as all-knowing trolls, they find time for joy. Say what you will about the Gossip Girl reboot (RIP) but watching it was silly and frustrating, yes, but it was also FUN. And Blood & Water is some of the most unhinged and entertaining TV in the current landscape. I hope we don’t have to wait as long as we did between Moesha and today’s lineup of teen TV shows to see Black girls being selfish, chaotic and messy as hell. We don’t have to be strong or excellent to be seen.
What Else Is Good?
• My future second husband Michael B. Jordan hosting SNL in a maroon suit looking aggressively fine.
Hair masks.
• The UK R&B girls are very good, and they deserve the recognition to go along with it.
• Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, Viola Davis and Lashauna Lynch in The Woman King, Keke Palmer in Nope, and Danielle Deadwyler in Till, even if the Oscars refused to acknowledge their work.
• My future second husband’s ex-girlfriend Lori Harvey and her very regular dating life.
• Ending the same way I always do, for Tyre Nichols and all of the Black people murdered by a system designed to oppress not protect: Defunding the police.

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