Overnight sensation Netflix series You delights in the subversion of tropes. Toeing the line between a dark comedy, romantic comedy and thriller, it prides itself on playing with clichés we have become so accustomed to; when part-time bookstore clerk/full time creep Joe Goldberg is trapped in the bathtub of his none-the-wiser crush, it’s a scene not out of place in a chick-flick – or a police report.
But halfway through my binge, I realised there was a trope even this show was unable to turn on its head. At one point in You, Joe stops his stalking of Guinevere Beck (the object of his perverse obsession) and moves on to a short and intense fling with Karen Minty, played by black actress Natalie Paul. It didn’t take long for him and Beck to start an affair, much to my relief, as I didn’t want a coil on Karen’s head harmed. But strangely, I knew there was no real threat against Karen. Joe had gone to sick lengths to be with Beck, as well as his ex-girlfriend Candace – breaking and entering properties and committing literal murder for both – but it was immediately clear this would not be the case with Karen. Only the women he “loved” in his terrible, twisted way were in any real danger. In Karen’s case, Joe couldn’t even be bothered to steal her knickers – she was yet another one of television's “disposable black girlfriends”. And while it’s a big win in her specific plot, it’s not usually a very favourable role.
The inclusion of a “black best friend” character was once a surefire way to inject sassiness into a sitcom, dodging any meaningful questions about the representation of black women with a walking, neck-rolling quota filler. But, in recent years, it has been swiftly retired as far too obviously problematic for a new generation of increasingly scrutinised shows.
It is clear that newly “woke” writers’ rooms are hesitant to cast black women as plucky bit parts that solely speak in affirmations and shade, but in the current climate they can’t leave us out entirely. So, rather than make a concerted effort to integrate black women into the fold as fully formed characters, “black best friend” roles are increasingly rewritten as slightly more well-rounded, engaging black love interests, who disappear at the whim of indecisive male characters.
Whether it is as a sassy best friend, a wise-cracking receptionist or a Jim Crow-era maid, black women in film and TV must be hired in another capacity than the help
Part of this fad is probably in part to redress the prevailing myth that black women are undesirable, as well as a need to ensure TV shows are diverse. So, attempts to kill two birds with one clunky, malformed stone has led to the introduction of the “disposable black girlfriend” – a race-bent, gender-specific version of the “disposable fiancée” or “romantic false lead” tropes, described by TV Tropes as “the love interest's love interest; the person brought in, either for an episode or an arc, to date the one that the main character (or just a character) is in love with”. When they’re introduced, you almost know they won’t be a meaningful love match by virtue of them being black. It’s nothing particularly new – Charlie Wheeler, the paleontology professor in Friends, dated Joey for a few episodes and then Ross for a few more, but we knew deep down she wouldn’t end up with either. Her departure leads Ross to his true ever-after, Rachel.
But there has been a resurgence of the trope recently. These women are introduced as one-offs, but are never “The One”. They are usually very pretty, likeable and funny, but somehow lacking an “it” that their often-dysfunctional white love rival possesses. Shows include them to sate fans’ want for diversity and also to subvert the idea that black female characters are introduced as perma bridesmaids instead of the bride. Except they are still never the bride. Their aims are immediately undermined by only casting black women to provide the kick up the ass needed for white female characters and male characters to find their own true love.
Take the otherwise excellent The Good Place. In its most recent season, the show introduced introduced Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Simone Garnett, a black Australian neuroscientist with a killer smile, wicked sense of humour and hair from an afro-inspo Pinterest board. When it became clear that she was playing the love interest of her co-worker, Chidi, audiences rejoiced – black couples on screen are rare and, frankly, Chidi and Eleanor as a couple somehow appear less natural than the flying shrimp from season one. But a few episodes later, Chidi conveniently revealed he’d simply gone off her and the season ended with him rekindling his romance with Eleanor, in part because of Simone’s painless, ultimately unexplained side-stepping out of the way for their true love.
In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, black character Heather has a brief relationship with Greg. Both wry, sarcastic and pretty hot, they were arguably pretty well suited. But Heather’s want for something more substantial helped Greg realise he still has feelings for their mutual friend, the show’s protagonist, Rebecca Bunch. Ever the understanding black best friend to both, Heather takes the rejection in her stride, quite literally demanding him to follow his heart, which unsurprisingly did not lead to her. Meanwhile, fans of Master Of None made brief acquaintance with bubbly Brit Sara (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a black woman Dev meets at a restaurant in Italy and spends a cutesy day of ice-cream-eating and bike-riding with. As they depart, she gives Dev her number and they plan their next meeting, but he gets his phone stolen and never finds it. That evening, he writes an email to Rachel, his ex-girlfriend.
There is a marked difference between diversity and inclusion that these TV shows continue to illustrate. Black women are not magical negresses, whose sole aim is to help characters realise who they are and who they are supposed to be with. While casting is the first step, we must move beyond only adding black women to shows as plot-furthering devices for others’ character arcs. Whether it is as a sassy best friend, a wise-cracking receptionist or a Jim Crow-era maid, black women in film and TV must be hired in another capacity than the help.