identity

Exclusive Interview: “Charcoal” writer/director Francesca Andre talks colorism

Francesca Andre has a message for everyone with her short film, Charcoal. The main theme of her film is about colorism and its damaging effects on the black diaspora. Her two main characters go through a journey of self-acceptance and self-awareness, and that journey is something Andre hopes is replicated in her viewers.

I’ve had the chance to speak with Andre recently about her film (which you can learn more about in a previous article and the trailer below) as well as her opinions on how colorism affects us. I also asked about the Dove ad that sparked controversy, and how we can heal as a people from our societal wounds. Andre offers clear insight into her own journey towards healing and how we can continue the process of healing in our own lives. Here are highlights from that conversation.

Charcoal can be seen at the Yonkers Film Festival Nov. 3-8.

The inspiration for Charcoal:

Colorism is something that has impacted my life at a very young age. It’s very common in Haiti—it’s not white people versus black people, it’s really lighter skin versus darker skin. At a very young age, I was made aware of that. When I was probably five years old, I received a dark-skinned doll. When I took it home, people started making fun of the doll, saying the doll is ugly. My mother being brown-skinned, my grandmother being lighter-skinned, and my grandfather and my father being darker skinned men, people just made comparisons to the skintones.

Colorism and the lasting effects of racism in the black diaspora:

We’re still dealing with the consequences [of racism] as a people when it comes to economic empowerment, how we are being perceived and anything else—colorism sits right in there. It’s still affecting us, we’re still dealing with it, it’s not a thing of the past. We’re still healing from it. Those of us who are aware and are making a conscious decision to talk about it. You can’t really talk about racism or the advancement of us as a people and not talk about colorism.

Here in America, [the Dove colorism ad] was a mainstream brand that everyone can see, but you have some smaller brands, when you go to Caribbean markets that are selling [similar] products. You have women making skin-bleaching lotion and selling it to other women. I guess for some people here, it’s not as blatant as it is in other cultures—if you go to CVS, you probably won’t be able to find it, right? But it’s happening. It never went away, at least from my experience; as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always known about these products.

Even thinking about “good” hair,the hair is not closer to our hair texture. It’s something closer to European hair texture. But when you look at our hair and the versatility of our hair, to me it’s like, really good hair! It took me a long time to reprogram myself, my thoughts, and redefine what “good” hair was for me to access [my hair] and accept it, love it, and embrace it…I don’t have any problems with it now.

Francesca Andre

On how to heal from colorism:

I do feel like we need to start having conversations, and an important part of that is the healing part of that. I think you will see that you’ll find more women going natural more than ever. Here’s what’s fascinating: how so many black women did not know their hair period because they just haven’t been dealing with their hair…they did not know how to take care of their hair; it’s been processed. When they find out what products work on our hair and what they can do to make their hair do this and that. Again, it’s knowledge and healing and more women are stepping out. It’s not a strange thing now to see a black woman with natural hair in the workplace. There was a time when this wasn’t a thing. Now, more people are going natural, embracing it and being unapologetic about it. I feel like we’re going forward. Even with skintones, too—[online campaigns and phrases like] “My melanin’s poppin’,” #BlackGirlMagic—we are healing collectively. I hope the men are using those terms as well; I hope the men are healing because they are also victims of colorism. I hope that we as a people stop the vicious cycle.

…First of all, I think [the first step to healing is] knowing what colorism is. Many people don’t even know what colorism means. It really starts the conversation. It’s hard to change beliefs, but one way we can do that as a people is to talk—ask [about it] and dialogue. Increase representation [in the media] to make women more confident in who they are and how they look. As an artist and storyteller, the way I [change] people is including it and showing it, talking about it and not pushing it away…Whenever I see a girl with natural hair, I tell them “I love your hair” or “I love your twists”; I make it my job to remind them because all the messages they are receiving are the opposite.

How Charcoal can start viewers’ journeys toward self-acceptance:

I think there’s a universal aspect to it. I hope people feel inspired and hopeful. I hope people find some sort of healing or be the beginning of that journey. We all can relate to pain, and the characters go through that, but we can see how they overcome that.♦

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

“Star Trek: Discovery”: How Michael Burnham speaks to my perfectionist, highly sensitive struggles

As I’ve stated in my SlashFilm review, I’ve always been a Star Trek fan ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad about 20 years ago. But while Jean-Luc Picard will always be my favorite Star Trek captain ever (who can say no to Patrick Stewart and the way he commanded with calm authority?), Picard has to battle Spock for the title of favorite Star Trek character ever.

The reason? Because as a half human, half Vulcan, Spock has had to battle his reason with his human emotions, emotions that had the potential to get (and, in the reboot films, has gotten) the best of him. The battle between raging emotions and cold reason is a battle I face constantly. Never did I think Star Trek would continue to crystallize this struggle in such a poignant way, but the franchise succeeded again with Star Trek: Discovery‘s Michael Burnham and her relationship to her father figure (and Spock’s future father) Sarek.

I’ve stated many times on this site and in other publications about how much of my love for Star Trek stems from its ability to showcase varying struggles that exist under the umbrella of “diversity.” Thankfully, the franchise also includes psychological diversity as well, as is the case with the Vulcan race. The Vulcans have stood for many things to many viewers. Some see the Vulcans and their occasional misunderstandings as a way to thoughtfully approach the autism spectrum. Others see the Vulcans as simply uppity living cardboard figures. Speaking personally, the Vulcans have always shown a light on two of my big personal struggles–perfectionism and the highly sensitive (or even empathic) mind.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham. Photo credit: CBS

The running joke my sister and I have is that I’m a Vulcan. In fact, when I said it as self-deprication a few years ago, my sister replied thoughtfully, “You know what? I agree with that.”

I’ve always been a deep thinker, and too many times, that thinking has either gotten me in some type of mental trouble or made me appear as unable to connect with the “normal” outside world. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t connect with the outside world, because I’m so wrapped up in how other people feel, how I feel, and how to best convey those feelings to people who might not have emotions that run as deeply as mine do. As psychiatrist and Emotional Freedom author Judith Orloff accurately described, “It’s like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10. You have more receptors to feel things.”

Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a feeler, and our Western society makes sure it’s tougher than it has to be. As a society,we value loudness over softness, action over reflection, and doing over being. The stereotypes of a highly sensitive person make us out to be gooey bundles of mush that can’t defend ourselves because we’re supposedly so much weaker than the “average” person. That’s not the case–we aren’t weak. We’re actually quite strong. But you wouldn’t know it from how much emphasis people put on having an extroverted outlook and put down those of us who are reserved within ourselves.

All this leads to is, aside from a smattering of depression, a bad case of perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” now, but for a long time, I’ve been investigating where my perfectionism came from. I’d have to say that there are a lot of reasons for it, but one of them is because I’ve used perfectionism as a bad coping mechanism for the harsh world who can’t handle tears. I grew up comparing myself to others who I thought were better than me simply because they could they naturally handled emotions in a different way than I did. I didn’t realize that the way I handled my emotions was simply my nature–it’s as much an integral part of me as my black skin is. After growing into adulthood I’ve realized that there’s no reason to try to change myself, since my emotions work just like how they’re supposed to work. They are part of the inner strength that help make me a better version of myself each day.

Arista Arhin in Star Trek: Discovery (Photo credit: CBS)

Michael Burnham seems tailor made for this type of exploration of inner strength. I see in her what I’ve seen in me all the time. I see her struggle to adapt to her Vulcan upbringing and tamp down her human (i.e. emotional) self. I see her struggle to fit in with her Vulcan peers, possibly feeling a lack of self-esteem at not being like the others. I see the shadow of perfectionism that showed itself as cockiness when she first enters the U.S.S. Shenzhou–you can tell she thinks she knows everything about everything because she’s been the first human to graduate from the Vulcan academies and excel amid intense pressure and a stacked deck. I also see her struggle to understand that her humanness–her emotions–is what makes her great.

Her struggle against emotions is also apparent in Sarek and other Vulcans. Big fans of Star Trek know that Vulcans do, in fact, feel. As Memory-Alpha states:

“Contrary to stereotype, Vulcans did possess emotions; indeed, Vulcan emotions were far more intense, violent, and passionate than those of many other species, including even Humans. It was this passionate, explosive emotionality that Vulcans blamed for the vicious cycle of wars which nearly devastated their planet. As such, they focused their mental energies on mastering them.”

Vulcans, including human-born/Vulcan-raised members like Michael and Vulcan-human hybrids like Spock, always suffered with deep-running emotions. Here on planet Earth, there are tons of folks like me who always seem to be drowning in their own emotions, even as we attempt to tamp them down. The actual suffering doesn’t come from the emotions themselves, but from the attempt to control them. But if you unleash those emotions, then what? The fear of being out of control in any fashion is what, sadly, keeps the suffering going. It’s the Vulcans’ own fear of a lack of self-control that keeps them perpetuating what is essentially a culture of emotional abuse and intense perfectionism over and over. The aspiration to be the ultimate Vulcan, as it were, is what causes Vulcans to stay at war with themselves.

The Vulcan brain can also be a scary place to be due to their intense emotions. Again, to quote Memory-Alpha:

“The Vulcan brain was described as ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium.’ This had some basis in fact, as the Vulcan brain was composed of many layers…Unlike most humanoid species, traumatic memories were not only psychologically disturbing to Vulcans, but had physical consequences as well. The Vulcan brain, in reordering neural pathways, could literally lobotomize itself.”

The human brain can’t lobotomize itself (although it can block highly traumatic memories from ever reaching the surface), but his description of the Vulcan brain, especially the part about how much of a puzzle it is, fits the highly emotional mind as well. A mind that is constantly drenched in deep emotion is a mind that is mystery even to itself. The fact that there’s science spearheaded by the leading HSP expert, Dr. Elaine Aron, that show that the highly sensitive person has a hypersensitive wired nervous system and empathy-targeted brain is evidence that the highly sensitive mind is an overactive (and sometimes over-reactive) place. Also, like Vulcans, those who consider themselves highly sensitive or even empathic have extremely strong reactions to events as well as the mundane, due to the fact that–like Vulcans–we can usually sense the emotions of others.

James Frain and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sarek and Michael. (Photo credit: CBS)

However, with all of this going on, it’s fascinating that Sarek still saw the value in human emotions, so much so that he entrusted his ward to Capt. Georgiou in an attempt to give her the human experiences she never had. It’s also poignant to note that he only shows his true emotions to those closest to him, like when he does his best to hold back a proud smile as he introduces Michael to Georgiou for the first time. Or when he reveals to Michael through their mental connection his regret at not showing her the emotional support she needed throughout her life. His statements are made simply, but you can see the depth of feeling there. You can tell how much he loves Michael and does truly believe in her, like any good father would. Like any parent, he’s made mistakes in raising his child, and he’s emotionally intelligent enough to be able to admit that–and his emotional state surrounding this fact–to Michael. As we already know from Star Trek, Sarek sees a lot of admirable qualities in humans, so much so that he married one and had a child. Perhaps it was raising Michael that helped him open his eyes to the importance of having a balance between emotion and reason.

Showing Sarek reveal his emotional side to Michael, and Michael revealing her emotions to Georgiou, brings up another point about highly sensitive people, or at least, someone like me–it’s difficult showing your full self to the public. It’s much easier–and much more intimate–to show the full extent of your emotions to those closest to you, to those who understand you. Not everyone realizes that emotions aren’t there to be played with or used against the person; we highly sensitive people only feel safest revealing ourselves to those who mean the most to us in our lives. Those people have earned the right to know us as we are, and that is a coveted position to hold. In Star Trek terms, it is a coveted position to have a Vulcan as a friend, because they will probably be extremely loyal to you because of the position you hold in their life.

James Frain as Sarek. (Photo credit: CBS)

The scene between Sarek and Michael in the mind meld was extremely special for me. It hit home in a way I didn’t expect that scene to do. It made me feel like I finally have someone who understands my personal struggle on television, and she’s also a black woman. It showcases a different side to blackness that is rarely seen on television (so much so that tons of Star Trek fanbros are up in arms over Michael leading the series). She’s not loud or brash. She’s not sexually promiscuous. She’s not even funny, really. She’s a no-nonsense, yet naive woman who is still trying to find herself amid her place between two cultures. She’s ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium,’ and it’s good to see someone like her exist in our pop culture. She lets other black women like me, women with Vulcan brains, know that not only are they just fine, but they can–yes, I’m saying it–live long and prosper. 🖖🏾

Weekend reading: What Munroe Bergdorf meant in her Facebook post + more

There’s tons of stuff going on in the media including the continued fallout L’Oréal is facing for firing black trans model/activist Munroe Bergdorf for her comments about systemic racism in relation to the violence in Charlottesville. Here’s what’s happening out there:

What Munroe Bergdorf meant when she said all white people are racist|Quartz

19-Year-Old Haitian Japanese Tennis Star, Naomi Osaka, Defeats U.S. Open Champ|Blavity

Nitty Scott Celebrates “La Diaspora” In New Short Film|Fader

Janelle Monae’s Undiscussed Queer Legacy|Into

Chance The Rapper is starting a new awards show for teachers|A.V. Club

In Indonesia, 3 Muslim Girls Fight for Their Right to Play Heavy Metal|The New York Times

Waiting for a Perfect Protest?|The New York Times

How ‘Dunkirk’ failed and the continued historical whitewashing of World War II in big budget film|Shadow and Act

Why It’s SO Important That Comics Are Finally Including More Girls|TeenVogue

James Wong Howe: how the great cinematographer shaped Hollywood|The Telegraph

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Lana Condor finally becomes the rom-com lead she always wished to be

You’ve seen Lana Condor even if you don’t remember her. If you’ve seen X-Men: Apocalypse, you’ve seen her as Jubilee, even though the film did her dirty and didn’t actually let her speak. But you’ll not only hear her speak in her latest film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, she’ll be starring as the love interest, a dream she never thought possible.

Condor spoke to NBC Asian America about her role in the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA novel. In the film, Condor stars as Jean Song Covey, a biracial Korean/white American teenager who lives with her two sisters and widowed dad. The book and film will follow Covey’s love life, which gets completely turned upside down when the letters she’s written to boys she’s liked are taken from under her bed and sent.

“A few months ago when I was on a plane, I was daydreaming about how fun it’d be to act in a romantic comedy, because I don’t know of any rom-coms where Asian women are the leads,” she said. “And now here we are.”

Han herself gave Condor her blessing with the role. “That is truly groundbreaking,” she wrote on Instagram. “I haven’t seen Asian American women centered on the screen since Joy Luck Club which was nearly 25 years ago. Representation is so important, and this means the world to me. More than anything, I hope that the success of this movie will lead to more opportunities for Asian American actors and writers down the line.”

A little love note from me to you

A post shared by Jenny Han (@jennyhan) on

Condor said she hopes her work career can change the landscape for the Asian diaspora in Hollywood, something she started thinking about after landing her role as Jubilee.

“It got me thinking, if I can just put a little dent in the wall that is Hollywood in terms of race, then I’ve done enough,” she said. “Now, I’ve been so lucky in my career that I might be able to put an even bigger dent in that wall than I thought.”

You can read more at NBC News.

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All hail The Chief: A virtual roundtable on Wonder Woman’s Native American inclusion

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has been a revelation to many who love film. Not only did the film open up the box office to finally accepting a female superhero, but it also paved the way for one of DC’s longest-standing, but often misrepresented character, Apache Chief. In the film, the character is treated a lot more seriously and realistically, only going by “The Chief” to mere mortals, but is actually Napi, a Blackfoot demi-god hoping to protect his people and fight against evil.

The Chief got much of is backstory from actor Eugene Brave Rock, who integrated parts of his own background into the character to make an even richer experience for himself as an actor, for the film, and for the viewer, especially those who might not have ever seen a non-stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. The role was even more special for Native American viewers, who rarely see themselves portrayed in full in the media.

I was able to catch up with three Wonder Woman fans who are also African-American and Native-American. From their points of view, the DCEU—and movies in general—can only get better with the inclusion of more Native American characters like the Chief.

Cherry Davis, pop culture and lifestyle blogger and Afterbuzz TV guest host, said she is 1/16 Blackfoot and that the Chief is a rare character in a landscape lacking in complex Native roles.

“…[It’s] likely the second time I’ve seen a Native/Indigenous character played by someone of that ethnic background. So big hurrah for that casting choice!” she said. “What stood out was that he didn’t speak in the ‘Entertainment Native Dialect’ and that he wasn’t subservient to the white characters.”

He was definitely the icing on an already delicious cake of a film. As soon as he appeared on the screen, I all but screamed Super Friends Reunion!” said Dennis R. Upkins, speculative fiction author and activist as well as part Cherokee. “He definitely had a mystique about and while we know little about this mysterious character, he was established enough that he could take the lead in his own narrative in the DCEU.”

Cherese Capadona, who is part Mississippi Choctaw, said what struck her the most about the Chief was his unapologetic approach to talking about “the Native American relationship with White Americans after colonization.” She said the Chief’s statement that men like Steve Trevor killed his people “was accurate.”

“It didn’t say they couldn’t have a good working relationship or couldn’t be friends, but that’s never been addressed in any television show, anything I’ve ever remembered seeing growing up like The Lone Ranger, which has my least favorite representation of a Native American character ever.”

Photo credit: Warner Bros./DC

Due to her Blackfoot heritage, the Chief hits even closer to home for Davis, who also minored in Native American Studies.

“This is dear to me,” she said. “…[I] am always excited to see diverse characters [and] characterizations. I applaud Patty Jenkins for allowing Eugene Brave Rock to truly make the character his own, imbuing the Chief with a backstory nod to his people. Also, a huge nod to Eugene for taking this opportunity as a platform for Native American Blackfoot mythology.  I’m hoping that people will be excited enough to read more and that DC Comics will have a ‘hmm’ moment. Expand on his mythology, cast him in some of the DC TV series to gather a fanbase and eventually comic book movie/series/cartoon around an entire mythology that people have little awareness of.”

She said seeing someone like the Chief on the big screen would be “incredible” to Native audience members who usually don’t see themselves represented. She said an audience member might feel “vindicated and excited to see not only someone who looks like them but is one of them and [is] a character treated with dignity in such a huge film.”

“I’m hoping that this will lead to seeing Chief in other films since as a demigod he’ll live for a long time,” she said.

“I can definitely speak for myself and say that…I felt relieved first of all that he wasn’t just coming in because his name was the Chief,” said Capadona. “You can almost imagine the eyerolling—what’s this character going to be like? But he isn’t what you would expect. Usually when there’s a character called the chief in a movie, there’s a stereotypical headdress, speaking broken English. There are just so many things that are stereotypical and none of that was there. Once I got over the relief portion, I was pretty happy.”

Capadona also hopes the Chief will make more people interested in learning more about the mythology of the nation’s first inhabitants.

“We spend so much time teaching kids Greek mythology and Roman mythology. Since we’ve come out with the Thor movies and The Avengers, there’s been an interest in Norse mythology. [There’s an interest in] Egyptian mythology. There’s never been characters from Native American mythology and every nation has their own creation stories and tales that follow in the realm of mythology,” she said. “I would hope that the chief being a demi-god would spark as much interest in those mythologies and kids don’t get exposed to any of things that are from this land, from this country. Whether you’re Native American or African American, we have our own stories [and] folklore. That was just really exciting for me.”

Upkins said he felt the inclusion of the Chief shows just how inclusive the movie-going experience can be.

“Being part Cherokee, I’m always excited to see this aspect of my culture reflected in the media, particularly in speculative fiction,” he said. “The film’s openness is a reflection of how inclusive Wonder Woman and for that matter the DCEU is. Diana herself is queer/bisexual protagonist which she all but states in the film when she references the fact that men are good for procreating but sexual gratification is best with other women. This is also the film that got to see queer black super heroines get some shine battling the German invaders. This inclusiveness has already paid off in dividends of $700 million worldwide.”

Brave Rock’s portrayal is one of a small number of Indigenous characters or characters played by Indigenous actors to take part in the DCEU. In Suicide Squad, Adam Beach, a member of the Saulteaux First Nations, portrays anti-hero Slipknot, and in Aquaman and Justice League, Jason Momoa, who is of Native Hawaiian, Irish, German, and Native American descent, is portraying Aquaman himself.

Photo credit: Warner Bros./DC

Upkins said that the inclusion of the Chief and the addition of Brave Rock’s characterizations “debunks all excuses” for other films when it comes to a lack of proper representation.

“It shows that you can have Native characters in supporting and leading roles and still have a successful film,” he said. “Any claims to the contrary are dead on arrival.”

You don’t often see Native or people of color during that time period [of Wonder Woman] so it’s sad to say but it’s kind of groundbreaking which is positive but also sad that this type of portrayal is still rare in the 21st century,” he said.

Davis also hopes the film will lead to more casting that accurately portrays the character’s background instead of erasing it.

“…[A]sk [actors] how they can bring their life experience into the role,” she said. “People not only want to see themselves reflected but people both other ethnic/religious background are receptive and interested in seeing new talented faces.”

“I would hope that it would open up another door to not necessarily cast …It’s frustrating, and I know that several people have said this, not just Native Americans…[people] are getting frustrated by roles that are created and they want that character to have a specific look, they have to be Caucasian, this, that or the other,” said Capadona. “The most recent example of someone who is breaking down those barriers is Ava DuVernay’s casting in A Wrinkle in Time. When I was growing up and I read that book, I thought in my mind—because that’s the way everyone portrayed the character to me—that Meg Wallace was a character that should have been white, and here in the film she’s going to be biracial. It’s wonderful the way she’s done that. She’s cast a rainbow of other characters.”

With it being 2017, said Capadona, proper representation and staying away from the “Noble Native” stereotype shouldn’t be an issue. But she hopes accuracy in representation comes “sooner rather than later.”

“I’m just hoping other people will take the hint and do what Patty has done and create more roles and more opportunities for the actors and actresses to enrich these stories they want to tell,” she said.

The roles Capadona, Davis, and Upkins want to see the most involve Native characters living outside of the stereotype.

“I want to see them in the same type of roles that white counterparts have, from playing a bad guy to a hero, to love interest to just being a nuanced human with flaws in all genres,” said Davis.

Upkins said he’d love to see “[q]ueer male leads in speculative fiction.” Capadona said she’d love to have Native characters in all walks of life.

“I would love to see, because I love science-fiction, maybe some science-fiction elements added to a Native American story. I’d love to see a Native American actor or actress play a scientist, somebody who’s beyond the geologist or archeologist—somebody that’s actually doing astrophysics and going into space. We’ve had Native American astronauts; it’d be wonderful to see those kind of characters,” she said. “It’d be wonderful to see a Native American love story on the screen or even interracial, but not something that’s this tragic thing where it’s “My father doesn’t approve of you, I’m going to shame my family because I’m marrying you.” Just something beyond those typical things. Something off the reservation—there are middle class Native Americans in this country. Everybody isn’t on the reservation and dealing with reservation politics and poverty. Something that’s uplifting and showing people as multifaceted.”

“We’re starting to see more facets of Native American culture and I think the role of the chief is starting to turn the gemstone to see those different facets, but we still have a lot of turning to do and I’m really hoping this is the start.”♦

Wonder Woman comes to DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 19. 

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Ruby Rhod and Bubble: Blackness in “The Fifth Element” and “Valerian”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is coming out this month, and upon seeing Rihanna as the alluring dancer Bubble in the various trailers, I knew there was something to discuss, particularly how Bubble relates to another black character in a Luc Besson sci-fi film, Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod.

How so? You might be saying. Well, from where I’m sitting, having two characters who are at a crossroads between Afrofuturistic empowerment and reductive racial stereotypes begs to be written about. Clearly, these two characters are talking to each other, and deciphering their conversation is one that involves parsing through how blackness, black queerness, and black sexuality are constantly put at war against each other in Western society. These two characters embody that tug of war between ownership and exploitation.

With that said, let’s get into it.

Ruby as a statement—and condemnation—on black queerness

As a character, Ruby Rhod is an absolute conundrum. To put it bluntly, he’s the most singular character in The Fifth Element and certainly one of the most singular in sci-fi films as a whole. As Drew Mackie from UnicornBooty wrote, Ruby Rhod is “a queer-coded character the likes of whom audiences likely hadn’t seen before in a mainstream ‘popcorn’ movie—and by and large haven’t seen since.”

Ben Child for the Guardian breaks Ruby’s character down into even more detail:

“Decked out in extravagant Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits, and spending most of the movie either squealing in high-camp horror at the sight of aliens taking over a luxury intergalactic cruise ship or luring fluttery-eyed space vixens into virtual orgasms merely by his presence, Rhod is a character whose rejection of gender norms is so elevated that they seem to have arrived through a wormhole from the year 3000, never mind 2263 (The Fifth Element’s ostensible time frame). At one point Tucker chooses to be called ‘Miss’ Ruby, and yet there is a definite hint of phallicism in that rock star surname. Moreover, Rhod appears to be the very definition of red-blooded masculinity. Is it any wonder that Prince was the model for the role, with Tucker only recruited once it became clear the purple one was not going to sign on the dotted line?”

Ruby is a fascinating character to dissect because, whether Besson or Tucker realized it, Ruby’s at the center of the intersections of black queerness, black masculinity, and the influence of black American culture on mainstream pop culture.

The thing that’s the most apparent about Ruby, aside from being black, is that he’s most definitely a representation of queerness. I’m specifically using that term because as a character, Ruby doesn’t seem to define himself as straight or gay. While he overtly makes references to heterosexual sex, what with his seduction of the spaceship’s stewardesses, his spectacular rose-lined outfit, eye makeup, and tinted lip gloss suggests he’s subtly giving his time at the opera with Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas date-like undertones instead of merely a PR opportunity with a contest winner.

Speaking of his clothes, Ruby’s costumes directly reflect his gender-bending and sexually fluid sensibilities. Ruby doesn’t wear mere garments. He wears statements. His leopard print unitard exaggerate the feminine collars of the 1950s while also defining his very masculine bulge. His aforementioned opera outfit veers even more into feminine territory.

Ruby is at once a shining moment of Hollywood’s progressiveness and Hollywood’s tight grip on queer stereotypes.

Saeed Jones wrote for Lambda Literary about the push-and-pull effect he gets from Ruby, one of his favorite characters from the film.

“When I was a teenager obsessed with The Fifth Element, I was devoted to the idea that Ruby Rhod was a gay character who gets to take part in saving the universe. Except Ruby isn’t gay. I didn’t know about the phrase ‘gender bending’ at the time and had no schema for an effeminate male character who has sex with more women in the film than the macho protagonist. Ruby was a kind of man I thought would only be possible light years into the future: funny, black, attractive, fierce, and—most importantly—alive by the end of the movie.”

Yet, Ruby falls into many tropes that intersect with both the obsession of showing “black buffoonery” and “girly” gay men. Ruby’s blend of machismo and femininity is what gives the character power in the scenes where he’s in control. But it’s when the action starts that Ruby’s power dissolves into frantic screams worthy of a fainting couch. He becomes the worst type of damsel-in-distress—one who cowers behind the man, lacking the fortitude to use calm or logic in tense situations.

In one way, it’s daring that The Fifth Element even dared to show a black man—usually thought of as a lumbering, menacing powerhouse—as a lithe, vulnerable character taking on a traditionally femme role. However, that point could have been made more solidly if Ruby didn’t segue into eye-bulges and wacked-out facial expressions that are only reserved for the most buffoonish of black buffoons in media.

As much as Ruby uplifts the narrative of black queerness in the media, he also does just as much to cement a view of gay culture that has been traditionally held by a lot of people in the black community—that being gay or in any way an non-traditional male is the mark of a defective man. A lot of that view is based in a very limited view of Christianity, but the real root seems to be from the black man’s struggle to reclaim and express his masculinity in the first place.

David A. Love wrote in a 2012 opinion piece for The Grio that the traditional black aversion to homosexuality stems from slavery.

“Voices in the black community, particularly black gay men, point to black male insecurity as a root cause of black homophobia. And that insecurity comes directly from slavery. Since then, black men have struggled to get beyond this emasculation and redefine their image. It is for that reason that machismo traditionally has been highly valued among black people, and homosexuality viewed as a threat to black masculinity.”

Ruby plays into that perception of viewing black queerness as a threat—by acting in a cartoonish, stereotypical and racially-charged fashion, Ruby acts as an avatar for the very fears insecure black men have about black male homosexuality. Those fears aren’t crystalized more than when Ruby literally hides in fear behind Korben, the white male secure in his sexuality enough to take charge and lead the scared Ruby to safety.

To go back to Jones’ Lambda Literary article:

“Ruby Rhod troubles me. He explodes into the narrative, black, loud, and out of nowhere. Like the standard Magical Negro, he is functional in service of the film’s white heroes but has little to know story of his own. We know nothing about him except that he’s hilarious, really loud, and sexually promiscuous. When you set aside his costume choices, he’s really not that different from most black comic characters. In fact, he’s almost offensive…I’d rather not think about it.”

Even with that said, Tucker’s performance is one that makes Ruby one of the standouts from The Fifth Element. He’s vivacious, fun, and electric. Tucker takes Ruby seriously as an actor and channels Prince and Michael Jackson into the role, showing that Tucker gets what Ruby’s about. Speaking of Prince, Prince himself was supposed to play Ruby, but couldn’t do to prior tour commitments. If we look at how Prince played The Kid in Purple Rain and Christopher Tracy in Under the Cherry Moon, you have to wonder how Ruby’s gender and sexual explorations would have been played. Would Prince have challenged Besson about Ruby’s reactions to the first sight of danger or would he have gone along with Besson’s vision? I’m not a psychic or a mind reader, but I feel like Prince would have taken it upon himself to Jedi Mind Trick Besson into letting him rewrite the character into someone much more aware and much more willing to punch a bad guy in the face.

How Ruby Rhod gives possible clues to Bubble’s characterization

As of writing this post, we haven’t seen Valerian, so we don’t know much about Bubble. It also seems like she’s not in the original 1960s French comic books, so we don’t even have canon to draw from. But there are some things we can glean from the trailer from how Ruby Rhod was characterized in The Fifth Element.

Firstly, we see that there’s still the theme of blackness relating to entertainment in some way. Ruby’s claim to fame was being the universe’s most popular radio show host. Bubble’s claim to fame is being what outlets such as Billboard described as an “alien stripper,” but what other outlets have described as an “entertainer.” The idea seems to be that in Besson’s future, blackness is frequently tethered to—or defined by—the objectification and maybe even exploitation that comes with celebrity.

Both Ruby and Bubble are definitely cornerstones in their own universe’s cultures, and for that they are both exalted and exploited for things folks always expect black people to be good at—making music, dancing, and being sexual. They’re both enigmatic people and cariactures of our society’s incessant obsession with the black body, black sexuality, and black talent.

To further illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’ll use one of France’s most famous entertainers, Josephine Baker, as an example. She comes to mind for me because of the fact that eroticism featured heavily in her dance performances. Racial commentary also featured heavily—she often had a push-and-pull between exploiting racial stereotypes and subverting them in her acts. Her most famous act, in which she’s nude except for some sandals, necklaces, and her banana skirt, portrays knowledge of the hyper-sexual black “native” woman stereotype. She uses this stereotype to her advantage, but still, it showcases the Western obsession with the black body. In her acts, Baker becomes less of a dancer and more of an object, funneling all of Western society’s sexual fantasies about blackness into her performances.

Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production “Un Vent de Folie” (Public Domain)

Just from the trailers, Bubble seems to be a character at that same intersection. The only caveat is that it’s unclear just how much power she has over her own sexuality. In that respect, Ruby is more like Baker than Bubble is; we do see Ruby use his sexual prowess to his advantage (and, strangely enough, Ruby’s leopard suit brings up an animalism that is also apparent in Baker’s costumes).

How much can we expect to learn about Bubble in Valerian if we still don’t know a lot about Ruby 20 years after The Fifth Element’s release? I would say we should expect to learn nothing except that she’ll more than likely be defined by her singing and dancing talent, her sexuality—not only as an exotic dancer, but as a black woman, a race of women who have always been objectified and defined solely by sexual stereotypes. In fact, to use Jones’ words, having Bubble as a black woman whose main purpose for the film is to be used for her body is “almost offensive.” If Ruby was defined by stereotypes and not by motivations, it makes sense to expect that Bubble will also be a poorly-defined character.

However, I could be wrong. Like I wrote above, we haven’t seen the film yet. But if you’re going to see Valerian, take special care of how you view Bubble.  At the very least, make sure to take care of her in your mind the same way many take care of Ruby Rhod.

Being Latinx in Hollywood: Media creators talk representation

Latinx representation in Hollywood is something that seems to be suspiciously under the radar, even though it’s highly important, as the Latinx identity is one that is diverse and multifaceted. Despite characters like Sofia Vergara’s Gloria in ABC’s Modern Family and the casts of Lifetime’s Devious Maids and TNT’s Queen of the South existing in the media, there’s still more that needs to be done in Hollywood, such as focusing more on darker-skinned tones, racial diversity, and whitewashing. For every Gloria onscreen, there’s only one April Sexton, Yaya DaCosta’s Afro-Brazilian role on NBC’s Chicago Med, or Carla Espinosa, Judy Reyes’ proud Dominican character on NBC’s Scrubs. Even the roles like Vergara’s role—which is a “sexy Latina” stereotype—need work in order to exist outside of the stereotypes that have been wrongly attached to Latinx characters and actors.

Two of the latest instances of Hollywood’s failure at Latinx representation are X-Men Sunspot and Dr. Cecilia Reyes. The Afro-Latinx characters, which will be part of the new X-Men film The New Mutants, will be played by Henry Zaga and Alice Braga. Zaga is Brazilian, but he isn’t black or biracial, which removes much of the context from Sunspot’s character, as his characterization stems from the racial issues he’s had to face as a biracial Afro-Brazilian. Alternatively, Braga is Afro-Latina, but being light-skinned, she’s able to exhibit a privilege that the original, darker-skinned actress up for the role, Rosario Dawson, can’t. Again, it takes an important piece away from a character that is not just Puerto Rican, but defined by her place in the African Diaspora.

Throughout this year, I spoke with several Latinx creators about how they feel about Hollywood’s Latinx representation and what can be done to make it better. This is a longform piece, so I’ll break this up into several sections:

The roles afforded to Latinx actors in Hollywood

Diego Luna in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (Lionsgate)

Latinx actors, like many POC actors, are offered less than their fair share of meaningful roles. When they are offered roles, they’re often racist.

“When Latinx actors do get roles, I feel they’re oftentimes stereotypes,” wrote Desiree Rodriguez, Editorial Assistant for Lion Forge sci-fi comic book Catalyst Prime and writer for Women on Comics and The Nerds of Color, in an email interview. “The Spicy Latina, the Buffoon, the Tough Chick Who Dies, the Sexual Exotic Fantasy, the Drug Dealer, the Gangster, and so on.

“…What I find frustrating is when Latinx actors do get roles, it’s a struggle and they are locked into stereotypes,” said Rodriguez. “I’m a huge fan of Diego Luna, but the first role I saw him in he played a Cuban – when he is Mexican – man who was basically the exotic fantasy for the white female lead in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. This isn’t even getting into how Afro-Latinxs, Asian-Latinxs, and other mixed raced Latinxs are barred from roles because they don’t fit Hollywood’s pre-packaged idea of what being Latinx looks like.”

“I think currently, while we are seeing more visibility, the current roles that are offered or available to Latinos are the role of a servant position, like a maid or something that falls in line with the stereotypes people have about Latinos, like maybe a sidekick or a criminal,” said Janel Martinez, founder and editor-in-chief of Ain’t I Latina, a site celebrating Afro-Latinas and Afro-Latinx culture.

“For example, in Orange is the New Black, a lot of people were hyped about the fact that there was a great representation of Latinas in the actual show, which is awesome, but when you look on the flipside of that, this is a show about women in jail,” she said. “Also, Devious Maids, [co-produced by Eva Longoria], it’s a full cast of Latinas, two of them identifying as Afro-Latina, and they were maids. I think people are seeing the visibility, people are excited to be able to say if you’re watching the show, you’re seeing our representation…but I think it’s still in a very limited scope. I find that it’s not just a Carrie Bradshaw or just someone who happens to be a Latina but maybe they’re the magazine editor in the movie. Their identity, while it’s important, isn’t in line with stereotypes and then manifested in the character that they essentially embody.”

“Typically, I see lots of immigrant, day laborers and criminal roles going to Latinx actors,” wrote Gerry Maravilla, Head of Crowdfunding at Seed and Spark and writer-director of Cross, in an email interview. “I think this comes from often lack of interaction on behalf of writers and filmmakers with Latinx people in the real world. As such, they rely on what they’ve already seen in films or what they see from the vantage point of their more insulated experience.”

“By ‘insulated,’ I don’t mean that they live secluded or antisocial lives, but rather the lives they lead don’t actually include Latinx people in any meaningful way,” he said. “Instead, they see the Latinx peoples working in roles like day laborers or think about Latinx gang culture because of its coverage in the media.”

I think the most important thing to remember about stereotypes is how detrimental they are to Latinx actors who are trying to be cast in roles that are meaningful [as well as] to creators and consumers as a whole,” said Kimberly Hoyos, filmmaker and creator of The Light Leaks, a website designed to support, educate and empower female and gender non-conforming filmmakers. “As a Latina creator, I’m not going to write a character that I wouldn’t personally maybe want to act as. I wouldn’t create someone who is my ethnicity that doesn’t represent something larger as a whole. As a consumer growing up, that’s what I would see, maids and…anything that was oversexualized or overcriminalized. I think that in part pushed me to be a creator so I would be in charge of what was being produced.

Amy Novondo, singer and actor, said that several people she knows are frustrated with the lack of quality roles.

“[Hollywood] thinks of that over-dramatized telenovela atmosphere and [they think that] Latinos are only capable of that kind of acting their minds,” she said. “I know a couple of Latinos who are really mad about this because we barely get a chance to get into the audition room and when we do, we’re stereotyped right out of the box. It’s like, come on—I want a little more than that.”

Dascha Polanco in Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Why have these stereotypes stayed around, and why have they kept their power? The answers lie in the pervasiveness of media itself, wrote Rodriguez.

“Media has a lot of power. The images we see, coupled with the words we read or we hear imprint on us however subtly,” she wrote. “It’s something of an irony that the Latin Lover trope can be attributed to Rudolph Valentino’s – a white Italian man – performance in 1921’s The Sheik, while stereotypes like The Domestic – where Latinx characters are gardeners, maids, etc – are perpetrated by popular, well known Latinx actors like Jennifer Lopez. And in Lopez’s case, we have an instance where Hollywood shows how deeply entrenched it is with its discomfort and ignorance dealing with the Latinx identity.”

Rodriguez references The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan, which exhibit Lopez in two roles that reinforce racial and ethnic hierarchies.

“In The Wedding Planner, Lopez plays an Italian woman who is, for all intents and purposes, highly successful and comfortably well off. In Maid in Manhattan, Lopez plays a Latina woman who works as a maid in an expensive hotel, just scraping by as a single mom, and only finds success after she falls in love with a white man,” she wrote. “This creates a distorted image. As an Italian woman, Lopez’s character is an independent and successful career woman who eventually finds love. As a Latina woman, Lopez’s character is a single mom (enforcing the idea that Latino men are absentee fathers/bad family men), working as a maid until a rich white man “saves” her; then and only then does she find success.”

“This is, perhaps, a cynical viewing of what are two separate, and admittedly tropey romantic comedies. But again, media has power. Consciously or not, there’s a negative message to be had in the fact that Lopez’s Latina identity was erased in favor of an Italian one in The Wedding Planner,” she wrote. “By erasing our Latinx identities in favor of white ones, either by erasing the very existence of our Latinx identities or whitewashing them with white actors, media contributes to misinformation about what being Latinx is. Who we are as a collective culture and people – which is highly diverse and layered. Yet these stereotypes are upheld by this continued enforcement of ignorance and whitewashing.”

“[Stereotyping is] very, very detrimental and limiting because when you think of Latin America, we’re talking about over 20 countries and yes, we’re talking about Spanish [as a language] there are other languages [as well]…so I will say that when it comes down to not just representation, but inclusion in Hollywood, a person has to be invested in learning about the culture because there’s so many different moving parts,” said Martinez. “You can be Latino, Latina, Latinx, but you can be black, you can be Asian, you can be white and Latino. There has to be a great understanding of the culture.”

“…I think the work that is needed to really depict a Latino hasn’t been done and I think, specifically, when it comes to the representation, a lot of times they don’t even specify the nationality of the Latino [character]. …[Viewers] don’t even know if this person is Ecuadorian or Puerto Rican or if they’re from Honduras or Nicaragua or wherever because whoever wrote the role[.]”

Martinez also talked about how the different languages, slang words, and other cultural identifiers that make up Latin America aren’t taken seriously as characterization tools.

“When we see the portrayals on our screen, those things are not necessarily taken into account,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a strong grasp on what it means to be Latino, either Latino in America or Latino abroad.”

Jennifer Lopez and Tyler Posey in Maid in Manhattan (Columbia/TriStar)

Hoyos said that stereotypes are at their most insidious when people don’t even recognize them as such.

“I think the most dangerous thing about stereotypes is that to the untrained eye, they’re not seen as anything negative…To the average viewer, if they see one crime movie with Latinx as they gang members or the thugs, they may not even call that movie racist,” she said. “They might be like, ‘Oh, other movies do that.’ It becomes a normalized thing, and I think that’s why need to educate ourselves as a whole. I think a lot of that goes to correcting others when we see problematic media as a whole.”

Maravilla echoes this point by examining the news’ portrayal of Latinx Americans.

“I think these stereotypes originate from a similar place as the kind of roles that go to Latinx actors. They come from an isolated or insulated experience from Latinx people that prevents them from seeing or understanding them as complex, three-dimensional people,” he wrote. “When you look at other films, Latinx people are often criminals, immigrants, blue-collar people, and when they look at news coverage, this is also typically our depiction.”

“As filmmakers try to balance telling an engaging and affective story, it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of making a narrative work at a story level, he wrote. “Because their focus or interest isn’t necessarily on accurate cultural representation, they rely on stereotypes to satisfy their story needs, but end up not fully realizing (and in some cases just not caring) about the harm these stereotypes are doing.”

Next: Whitewashing and brownface in Hollywood

“Riverdale” recap: Now, a warning

Pictured (Front L-R): Tiera Skovbye as Polly Cooper, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, (Back L-): Nathalie Boltt as Penelope Blossom, Hayley Law as Valerie, Asha Bromfield as Melody, Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, and Madelaine Petsch as Cheryl Blossom — (Dean Buscher/The CW)

Riverdale Season 1 | Episode 8 | “The Outsiders” | Aired March 30, 2017

AAAAAUUUUGGGHHH!!!!

Yes, this is how I feel right now about Riverdale, and all of that got bottled up and compacted into this particular episode. Yes, Polly had her baby shower, she’s moved in with the Blossoms, Archie and Betty found out that Jughead’s dad is a Serpent, Kevin’s Serpent boyfriend Joaquin is having second thoughts about deceiving him, etc., etc. Now, let’s get to what really needs to be discussed: JUST WHERE IS THIS SHOW HEADING?! 

I feel like this show is treating us like how Lisle Von Rhuman treated Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes HerRiverdale is teasing us with a show beyond our wildest imaginations–inclusion, diversity, a fresh take on Archie and the gang, etc.–and it gives us what we think we want. But then, it comes back to us and says, “Now, a warning.” To which we say, like Madeline, “NOW a warning?!” For us, that warning would have been that the show would begin to lose its way and forget what made its characters great and, indeed, avatars for those who didn’t feel included in their everyday lives.

First of all, I feel like, and have always felt like, Riverdale has the potential to be amazing. There’s so much raw stuff inherent in the Archie Comics canon and it’s so frustrating to see how little the show is using what it could use. Instead, it’s pulling from every kind of pop culture reference from the past 30 years to show it’s “smart” and “edgy” and “hip.” And yet, it still comes off as dated and try-hard.

I think Emily Nussbaum hit the nail on the head in her review of the show for The New Yorker, “Archie’s and Veronica’s Misconceived Return to Riverdale,” in which she eviscerates the show for the reasons presented above. To quote her:

“…[S]even episodes in, it’s devolved into dull cosplay bracketed by bogus profundity. Betty and Veronica don kink-wear and roofie Chuck Clayton, a slut-shaming football player. The girls’ tart-tongued gay bestie, Kevin (a character from the new version of the comic strip), seduces a bi-curious Moose. Archie, when not working out shirtless, pursues a songwriting career. “Your songs,” a critical music professor sneers at him. “They’re juvenile. They’re repetitive.” That’s true of ‘Riverdale,’ too, but the show clearly knows it and doesn’t care. Every time a plot feels corny or prurient or preachy, there’s an acknowledgment in the dialogue. It gets exhausting, like hanging out with someone who keeps saying, ‘God, I’m such a nightmare!'”

It’s like the show desperately wants to prove that it’s new and fresh. “This isn’t your mom’s Archie!” is what it wants to say. But it’s consistently showing that it’s a a show that doesn’t realize that teenagers, in general, don’t talk in decades-old references, which makes it seem like this is a show actually for older Archie fans who recognize all of these references from their own childhoods. As Nussbaum said, the show brings up Lolita, Rebel without a Cause, Wild Things, Gossip Girl, Beverly Hills 90210, Pretty in Pink, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill, and plenty of others they off-handedly mention in snarky asides. Like, what do you actually want to be, show! Are you for the young kids or are you for 30-year-olds? Make up your mind!

I have been growing frustrated by the plot becoming a spinning-of-the-wheels type situation. Jason’s killer is no closer to being found, and clues seem to keep simultaneously popping up and disappearing at the same doggone time. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll even be shocked when I find out who the killer is because I’m just so bored with the whole procedural element. Again with the references, with the murder mystery itself, the show is trying to be Twin Peaks, another reference for someone much older than the target audience. But, if the show is trying to pull a Twin Peaks-ian surrealist-fest, then when are we actually going to get into the surrealism? Again, Archie Comics has tons of surrealist moments, and that’s not even counting the amount of side-universes they have. Surrealism could come in the form of simply introducing Sabrina, a teen witch who often wants to use her powers for good, but usually ends up messing things up and has to right everything back to how it was. Sabrina could come into town, learn about the murder mystery and, after becoming friends with Cheryl and learning of her sadness, reverse time so that Jason is still alive. That could also be a good opportunity to introduce Afterlife with Archie at this moment, since Jason would be, in a way, undead. There’s your second season.

Or, the show could become a true deconstruction of the idea of classic Americana, something it was billed as being but hasn’t truly delivered on yet. Instead of having Jughead tell us that’s what the show is every week in his voice overs, we could actually see some depth of character and real explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and anything else that could use a thorough prodding. I’d say that if Riverdale wanted to take notes from a show doing that right now, it’d be Atlanta. This show, like Riverdale, uses the backdrop of a well-known city to explore the underpinnings of American society and culture, and it does so in a specific, tailored way. It doesn’t have to prove to the audience that it’s “edgy”–it shows its edginess in each episode by delivering on its synopsis each week.

If any place needed a deconstruction, it would be a fictional town like Riverdale, which has stood as a the center for clean-cut “American” life, which usually means white life. With much of the cast race-bent, this would have been a great opportunity to see just how destructive and soul-wrenching it can be to live in a town in which you’re the minority (which, in turn, provides context for the larger conversation about living in a country which still harbors racism against you). We could see how some folks in the football stands might be surprised to see Reggie as the captain of the team. Or, there could be some townspeople who resent that Mayor McCoy won over the white candidate (something the character actually brings up in an episode). Or, we could get more insight into the life of Moose, who doesn’t yet have the courage to live his life as an out gay young man due to fear, pressure to be “manly” or what have you. We definitely could have used Chuck, Josie, and Trev to explore life for black kids in a majority-white town.

Pictured (L-R): Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, KJ Apa as Archie Andrews, and Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge (Dean Buscher/The CW)

I write about this in my piece for Ebony, “Riverdale’s Woke Report Card: Does the Drama Get Its Black Characters Right?”. I give the show a passing grade, ultimately, but I still write about how the show really needs to do better by its black characters.

“Out of the Pussycats, Josie is the one who has been given the most screen time; Valerie has only just now started coming up the ranks, but only because of her relationship with Archie. Meanwhile, Melody still hasn’t spoken more than two words during the run of the series and Pop Tate and Mr. Weatherbee may have been racebent, but they also don’t say much either—and in the case of Pop Tate specifically, nothing at all. Pop Tate is a conundrum; even though it’s great to see more representation on screen, it’s also puzzling as to why he has to be characterized as a silent, kindly butler of sorts, even though he’s the owner of the teen hangout, The Chocklit Shoppe. Basically, Riverdale’s Pop Tate reminds me too much of Uncle Ben, and I don’t like it.”

The show proved my point once again by making Valerie merely a sounding board for Archie this episode. She had three lines, and not one of them was about her point of view or her opinion on the matter of Archie’s dad being driven to near bankruptcy. Instead, her lines were there just so Archie could say he was going to go after the Serpents, as well as to give the appearance that they’re in a loving, stable relationship (which we see in the previews for next week that that might not be the case after all). The next time we see Valerie, she and Melody are at Polly’s baby shower, saying nothing.

If the show wants to be actually inclusive, the least it could do is not make its brown and black characters set dressing or talking props. The most it could do is not create a problematic plotpoint of a black boy in handcuffs at the mercy of a white girl who is acting out a revenge fantasy. 

Also for diversity, the show could do well to actually eliminate Bughead and reinstate Jughead as an aromatic, asexual boy, since that’s what he actually is.

Comics Alliance’s Andrew Wheeler wrote “Jughead, Bughead, and the Need for Asexual & Aromantic Heroes in Comics” to point out just how demoralizing Riverdale‘s asexual erasure is (and how it flies in the face of their “inclusion” standpoint).

Wheeler interviewed colorist Sigi Ironmonger  (a grey-asexual nonbinary trans-man); webcomic creator Sarah “Neila” Elkins, (romantic asexual), webcomic creator Jayelle Anderson (demisexual) and literature student LuciAce (aroace) about their opinions on Jughead in the comics and in Riverdale. They mentioned how important it is to have asexual representation in the media, especially for young kids still figuring out who they are. As Elkins said:

“To me it’s important because, growing up, I didn’t know it was a possibility to be asexual. I thought there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t interested in the idea of having sex like other girls my age. Friends called me a ‘prude.’ These were good friends of mine, friends who were also queer, that didn’t know that asexuality is a queer identity. Even among the ‘weird kids’ I was the odd one out.

I think if there was more representation (or any) of asexual and aromantic characters in comics as well as other books aimed at young readers, and other media, that my friends, and myself, would have known I wasn’t broken or weird. I didn’t learn about asexuality as an orientation until I was out of college. I stumbled across it online and thought, “Oh, wow! That’s what I am! This makes so much sense!” I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that, so I write asexual characters in my stuff. I hope to write something in the future, be it a comic or a novel, that’s aimed at younger readers.”

They also discussed how disheartening it was to see Jughead and Betty actually become an item, erasing the canonical asexuality the character had before (and, as far as I’m concerned, has always had). To quote Ironmonger, Elkins, Anderson and LuciAce:

Ironmonger: “Honestly, as soon as I heard about the erasure, I’ve steered clear of the show, so I can’t speak of the storyline at all. I don’t watch a lot of TV as it is and I don’t feel like prioritizing something like that, you know? I don’t really understand a decision like that and I can’t stand shoe-horned relationships of any kind but especially at the expense of LGBTQ+ ones.”

Elkins: “I really had my hopes up about that show before it came out. I was so hopeful I know I dismissed friends who said “you know they’re just gonna screw it up, right?” My friends were right. They announced online that Jughead in Riverdale “wouldn’t be asexual” and that he’d “totally want sex” or something like that. It deflated the big hope balloon I had clung onto that we’d finally have some representation on TV in a show aimed at younger viewers. It was crushing. I can’t even bring myself to look at the commercials for the show. Each time I hear the music for them I mute the TV or change the channel.”

Anderson: “Getting rid of this trait in Jughead for the television show just perpetuates the cycle of normalizing often hypersexual behavior that doesn’t fit everyone’s life. Sometimes young people’s only role model are the characters they see on television, so it is important to show that asexuality is a thing, too.”

LuciAce: “I’m really angry about the way they’re handling things. Having aroace representation on TV would have been huge, and instead, they… made him straight? Because apparently there aren’t enough allo straight characters on TV yet. I’ve never seen a character like myself on TV, and I would have been a die-hard fan of the show if they’d kept Jughead aroace and touch-averse like he is in the comics. As it is, the show just makes me furious and sad.”

The show seems to have an understanding of just how offensive Betty and Jughead as an item are, which seems evident in how they are doubling-down on shoving it down our throats (or so it seems, since the episodes have been filmed months before now). Having Jughead and Betty kiss in almost every scene seems and feels unnatural, just like how it felt unnatural when writers would try to give Jughead an interest in girls in certain comic book issues. Jughead’s characterization just isn’t one in which he’s a guy who is interested in the opposite or same sex like that, and that’s perfectly fine and normal. However, the show’s insistence on making him straight and sexual feels like a very 20th century thing to do. If we’re in an age where Kevin Keller can be proudly out as a gay teen, then we should also be in the age where Jughead can be proudly out an asexual aromantic teen. Teens in general, regardless of sexuality, shouldn’t be made to feel like they have to be in a relationship to be normal.

Pictured (L-R): Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper and Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones (Dean Buscher/The CW)

The last grievance I have is about that twist of a plotpoint with Hal Cooper, who apparently forced Alice Cooper to have an abortion. ¿¿Qué??

Why, what when and where did this plotpoint have to come up? Why have we had such little to show for Hal’s characterization until now? I know we had that part where he told Betty that Polly was with the Sisters for whatever dire reason they have, but I wish we had gotten the sense that Hal was a total abusive husband way before now. If that had been built up from the very beginning, that would have been really interesting and it would have given us more reason to try to understand Alice until this very episode. We would already know why she acted like someone driven to desperation–it’s because she’s been brainwashed by her husband’s fruitless demand for perfection from his family.

I guess what I’m getting at ultimately with this point is that for this to be a dramatic show about a murder, there are literally no dramatic stakes coming out of these characters. Yeah, we get it every once and a while, like with Jughead confronting his father and still trying to find some hope in his heart for him, and Cheryl coming to grips with her brother’s death. But the show is quickly losing the plot of both what it wants to say and who these characters are. The reason we have connected with these characters for 50+ years is because of their relatable cores. We all know some hapless goof like Archie, who is a great friend, but is endearingly clumsy (and sometimes emotionally tacky) all other areas of his life. We know someone like Jughead, who is so cool and interesting, yet they’re so enigmatic, you feel you know nothing about them. Veronica is definitely that person that many of us wish we could be–cool, rich, and a boy magnet–while Betty is who we feel we are at the present moment–the girl or boy next door, nice, loyal, but just “regular.” Their strengths and flaws are what make them so much fun, and either you see yourself or you see your best version of yourself in these characters. Right now, I’m not seeing anyone I relate to anymore. I was seeing it at the beginning of Riverdale, but now, as Nussbaum points out, all we’re getting is some great cosplay without the real commitment.

I’ll say that the only person in the main cast who feels like they are with their character in spirit is Cole Sprouse. Not too many of the main cast have read the comic books back to front, but Sprouse has said in many interviews how he studied his source material and, in so many words, came in with a gameplan as to how to approach Jughead from a position that would remain true to the character. However, the show itself is limiting him from actually playing Jughead the way he truly wants to play Jughead, I feel. While the powers that be want Jughead to be a sexual being, Sprouse has been advocating for Jughead to be canonically asexual, as he is in the comics. However, the powers that be aren’t hearing him, and it’s a shame, since not listening to the actor who knows the character is what could actually make this show a whole lot better and definitely a whole lot more interesting.

In short, I hope the show quits trying to prove that “It Goes There” like Degrassi and actually goes there. If this is going to be a teen murder mystery, then by all means, up the murder, up the mystery, and definitely up the characterizations, plots, and respect for the differences in others.