How Brown Girls Got It Right

I watch the HBO original series Girls.

I do not take pride in that statement. It is a mediocre show with serious concerns regarding diversity and representation. It is not a show I would recommend to friends or family. So it was not until recently, when reading Roxane Gay’s essay, “Girls, Girls,Girls” from her New York Times best selling essay collection, Bad Feminist, that I was able to pinpoint what it is that keeps me coming back each week.

I have spent my life collecting and consuming representations of girlhood – anything and everything that chronicles the angst of difficult decisions in between being a girl and becoming a woman. My fascination stemmed from a desire to both commiserate and celebrate the loneliness I felt as I came into and crawled out of my adolescence. I wanted to and continue to live with a desire to engross myself in the beautiful struggles of girlhood.

As a bookworm, I often looked for books that would describe, in lurid detail, the many changes and scenarios that I was experiencing throughout my coming of age. Unfortunately, my inventory was limited and I did not see anyone who looked like me or sounded like me until I read In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez.

Even then – the only sense of closeness I felt was because the story took place in the Dominican Republic. I did not read about second generation Dominican girls raised in Evangelical homes navigating the morals and values of American schools in New York City. I did not read about Latina girls who claimed their blackness and how their families reacted.

Instead, I was obsessed with The Babysitter’s Club and the Nancy Drew series. Most of the prototype characters I read about had blonde hair and blue eyes and eventually these were also the physical traits of the cast in the stories I would come to create.

(Shout out to Ann M. Martin for including one Japanese girl and one Black girl in her mostly white series which was originally published in 1986. Although let’s be honest – Jessi was no one’s favorite. And Claudia – well, this is not an essay on the theology of honorary whites.)

Roxane Gay discusses a similar concept when she describes her childhood obsession with Sweet Valley High, a series about twins Jessica and Elizabeth who were both perfectly skinny, tall and blonde with fair complexions.

Looking to connect with the characters in a story, searching for similarities is not a unique phenomenon.

Gay goes on to explain how, “Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right. It is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly – girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience. We can only try to represent girlhood in ways that are varied and recognizable. All too often however, this doesn’t happen.”

I started watching Girls because it was semi-refreshing to watch a show about women in their twenties who didn’t have their shit together. Nothing more and nothing less. I became disenchanted the more I watched when I realized how far this show was from any reality I or any one of my friends know to be true.

It is clear that I am not the target audience for Girls.
__________
I had first seen the trailer for Brown Girls in my newsfeed on Facebook in December of 2016. The trailer of the show, written by Fatimah Asghar, started with the caption, “This new web series is everything we’re missing from ‘Broad City’ and ‘Girls’” and went on to explain the premise of the show.

‘Brown Girls’ is an intimate story of the lives of two young women of color. Leila is a South Asian-American writer just now owning her queerness. Patricia is a sex-positive Black-American musician who is struggling to commit to anything: job, art and relationships. While the two women come from completely different backgrounds, their friendship is ultimately what they lean on to get through the messiness of their mid-twenties.

I … was … hype. Did I mention that I also watch “Broad City?” And I admit to enjoying the foolish humor of the show, despite it being the epitome of gentrification in Brooklyn. I digress…

As soon as I got some free time, which happened to be in the airport with my sister on our way to D.R., I binge watched Brown Girls like there was no tomorrow. It was fantabulous and it spoke to me on so many different levels. A few of my favorite takeaways included, but are not limited, to the following:

  1. When in desperate need of ending a phone call with your conservative family members, tell them the white people at work will get nervous if you continue to speak in your native tongue.No, but seriously … there is a lot of guilt associated with not upholding the religious and cultural traditions of immigrant parents. The kind of guilt that will have you lying when asked uncomfortable questions and hiding relationships elders would not approve of.The pilot episode opens up with Layla picking up a phone call as she leaves the bed she is sharing with her lover and greeting her auntie in Arabic. As-salāmuʿalaykum is a standard greeting amongst Muslims and the auntie’s response about how late in the morning it is (11am) for her to be sleeping feels all too familiar. Layla pretends that she is at work to hurry her aunt off the phone and avoid the conversation about whether or not she will be attending the mosque and the question about whether or not she is having sex.
  2. The awkward “What are we doing?” conversation transcends race, class, gender and sexual orientation.
  3. The bathroom scene between Layla and Miranda is a conversation every girl is familiar with, whether it was on the receiving end or the delivering end. Layla skirts about, trying to avoid any serious conversation about their hookup or the question of committing to a serious relationship, but Miranda is not having it.“What are we doing?” Miranda asks in a soft, nervous voice as if she is afraid of what the answer might be, “I mean it’s just – We always do this, you know. We start talking, then we stop talking, then we start talking again. We tell all of our friends we’re just friends but they all know. What are we doing?”What are we doing conversations rarely end well – the bathroom scene in Brown Girls was no different. Miranda’s last words before the camera switches to Layla walking down the street are not as soft. She asks with frustration increasing the volume and firmness in her tone, “Do you want to be with me or not? It is that simple.” She is met with silence and erupts in Spanish, “Layla! Ecuchame, te toy hablando!”Side note: Miranda’s ethnicity is not revealed in season one, but she sounded super Dominican. And if her character is not Domincan, then she might have been raised by or around some Dominicans cuz that accent was too real.
  4. Moms sometimes need to find themselves too.I remember the moment I realized my parents were not superheroes, that they too had gaping character flaws – that they experienced heartbreak and rage and loneliness. Episode two explores the relationship between Patricia and her mother. Patricia’s mother reveals that her relationship with her husband, Patricia’s father, is shaky and Patricia is confused to learn that there was no one definitive moment or crisis that caused the difficulty.Patricia tells her daughter, “ My whole life –  I have always been around people. Your dad, your sisters. I have never been alone. I was always been afraid of that. But you know what, it’s ok. It’s ok to be alone … because … you get to listen to yourself. You get to listen to what you want. There’s no one to tell you no. You get to decide what you want to do and go after it.”I don’t know about ya’ll – but that mini-monologue pulled at my heartstrings. It brought me back to my mother and the sacrifices she’s been making since she was seven years old. It made me think of many women in my family history, in my friend circles. A little piece of girlhood that follows many of us into womanhood because we are socialized to put everyone else’s well being above our own.I’m here for Patricia’s mom standing on her own and discovering what she wants in life. Just sayin’.
  5. No one makes our food like our moms and aunties make our food.You may recall my previous essay on Mama Nelly’s kitchen. I don’t cook like my moms or my tias. Neither does Layla.Layla’s attempt to make a traditional dish of daal roti by substituting ata with Trader Joe’s garlic and herb pizza dough in episode three is amusing. Her sister’s reactions are even better.“Don’t eat samosas made my white people,” advises her older sister.Also, Layla “comes out” to her sister whose response will explain my previous quotation marks. The entire episode reminded me of my relationship with my sister. The dialogue, the eye rolls and skittish glances – it was all so real, familiar and heartwarming.
  6. It is a difficult to make a living off of what we love, what we are passionate about and as brown girls we are often made to feel like our stories don’t matter.Layla’s sister is shocked to hear that Layla is not getting paid cash for her published articles. “They pay you in exposure,” explains Layla.Layla discusses her recent writer’s block and feeling like what she has to say isn’t important. Uhmm…. We hear you Layla. This is what happens when you grow up on The Babysitter’s Club, Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High.

Brown Girls is an indelible step in the direction of expanding representations of girlhood in popular culture. My hope is that the show inspires many other creative projects. Brown Girls is not the story of every brown girl in America, it can’t be. It is one of thousands and it is time for those stories to be shared, to be produced, to be celebrated.

Also, I wrote this entire essay listening to the soundtrack of Brown Girls. It is #browngirlmagic at its finest. I’ll leave you with the soundtrack so you can check out the magic yourself.

Screen-Shot-2016-11-29-at-5.31.58-PM-e1480469642707

Brown Girls Theme Song  – Jamila Woods, Lisa Mishra, Dee Lilly
Honey – Ashni Divi
Thirst Behavior – Ayanna Woods
Lonely Lonely – Jamila Woods ft. Lorine Chia
Has To Be – Ayanna Woods
Nuts – Ayanna Woods
Almond Milk – Lisa Decibel
VRY BLK – Jamila Woods
Don’t Obey – Drea Vibe Dealer
Bubbles – Jamila Woods
I Ain’t Got it – Daryn Alexus

3 thoughts on “How Brown Girls Got It Right

  1. I loved this piece!!!! I’m gonna watch the whole series soon. I think this essay felt strong and confident and certain. You slayed! Sooooo looking forward to your writing!!!!!

    1. Connie – I appreciate your consistent support and encouraging words. Can I bottle your energy and put it on my desk for those really rough pieces? haha

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