In this op-ed, writer Tayo Bero breaks down the "Black Girl Bestie" trope in television and explains how it aides in the erasure of Black characters overall.
When Netflix announced I Am Not Okay With This, the latest addition to its growing roster of projects focused on the lives of young people, early critics expressed initial skepticism about yet another show about the coming of age for a regular white girl™.
But for me, it’s not about this particular white girl or any others for that matter. It’s about the girl who’s not positioned as your “everyday teenage girl,” the one who’s slightly left of center in the frame, the one who appears to be indispensable but remains somehow invisible.
The Black Girl Bestie.
Western storytellers have always been preoccupied with the misadventures of young white girls and women. Films like the timeless teen comedy 16 Candles or last year’s wildly successful adaptation of a certain Louisa May Alcott classic, Little Women, this is well-trodden literary and cinematic ground. But what’s also not new is the Black girl who is often by her side in that story.
Take Tracie Thoms’s character, Lily, in The Devil Wears Prada. Or Merrin Dungey, who played best friend to Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow in ABC’s Alias. There’s also Lisa Nicole Carson, playing the best friend to Ally McBeal’s title character. Or who can forget Aisha Tyler, who after a successful run as the first (and eventually one of the only) Black cast members on Friends, was cast as Jennifer Love Hewitt’s best friend in the paranormal drama The Ghost Whisperer? And despite strong performances across the board, these figures often exist merely to prop up the main characters as they navigate life in 3D — going through puberty, grappling with difficult relationships, dealing with death and grief, understanding who they are — while these Black girls’ lives remain flat and hollow compared to the complex lives and experiences that their white best friends are afforded.
Many ’90s babies like me will vaguely remember Angela Moore (played by Trina McGee) from Boy Meets World. Best friend to Topanga, the show’s female protagonist, she was always a reliable source of wisdom, comfort, and unwavering loyalty. Angela’s description on a Boy Meets World fan website reads in part that she was “practical, sentimental, intelligent, and compassionate. She was shown to look at problems in a well-thought-out point of view and usually tried to keep her own emotions aside. [She] was one of the more mature members of the group of friends, at times more mature than Topanga. She was also shown to be a greatly supportive person and often strived to make her friends meet their full potential.”
This girl didn’t stand a chance. Despite being cast as the same high school age as the show’s protagonists, she is set up to be the voice of strength and reason while they explore the ups and downs of teenage love.
More recent teen dramas have offered a little more complexity to their Black female supporting characters. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Rosalind Walker (played by Jaz Sinclair) had her own unique story arc involving a family member, which ended up being a major sub-plotline in the first season. But this hasn’t always been the norm. And more often than not, Black Girl Besties are saddled with the task of offering comfort, wisdom, and guidance to the story's main character, often without any consideration for their own growth and well-being along the way.
Does anyone even still remember what Angela's storyline was, other than dating Shawn Hunter?
Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This though, provided a pleasant reprieve from this trope, and delicately subverts the BGB dynamic. The show positions Dina, who is best friend to the show’s protagonist Sydney, as the object of Sydney’s desire, and not just one of the vehicles through which she figures herself out. In the show, you see Sydney navigate newly discovered telekinetic powers, the death of her father, and of course, a budding infatuation with her best friend. In many ways, Sydney’s BGB doesn’t exist to help move her story along; she is the story.
And this is not to say that Black women can’t be best friends with white women — this is an obvious reality — or that those relationships shouldn't be depicted onscreen. But when told in this way, these TV shows and movies become more than just an innocuous reflection of everyday social reality.
The Black Girl Bestie character, especially in young adult content, paints a very specific and damaging picture of the role that Black girls are “supposed to” occupy both in friendship dynamics and in the larger world. More and more, these roles also seem to be an easy way for studios to check off their diversity box, without having to center the experiences of these Black characters or truly engage with their stories in a nuanced way.
Young Black girls should be able to see themselves represented, and not just as a function of someone else’s growth or story.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue