You guys, did you hear? Diversity is in! Much like feminism and ALS charities, diversity is one of the hottest trends of 2014, especially on television. But while network execs have been quick to praise their multicultural casts, one disappointing trope has popped up in more than one fall pilot: the Black Best Friend.
Of course, it's impossible to judge a show on a pilot alone — so I'm not writing off upcoming sitcoms like A to Z, Marry Me, Mulaney, Selfie or Bad Judge (in which Kate Walsh not only has a BBF, but also plays the role of White Savior to a young black child) based solely on the seeds of potential BBFs. But I also can't jump on board with any of these freshman comedies until I see how their characters pan out.
First things first, for those of you who aren't familiar with the term, a BBF is a one-dimensional archetype that exists solely to offer emotional support, provide counsel or serve the white lead in whatever fashion they need. A BBF is loyal, undeniably cool and confident beyond belief. A BBF is typically more honest than his or her white counterparts. A BBF isn't afraid to dish out tough love or call you on your bullshit. But BBFs don't do those things because they're mean; BBFs do those because they love you. And because they have no known life outside of you. Oh, and they're wise. Very, very wise.
This isn't to say that all black characters who happen to have white friends on TV are BBFs. A true BBF exists in a vacuum, where a lack of distinguishable identity or goals paints the character as less complex and, ultimately, less human than his or her white counterparts.
So how can this fall's new TV shows avoid BBF syndrome? Here are a few tips and reminders:
1. Let them be the stars of their own personal lives: Oh, Winston (Lamorne Morris, New Girl's perennial weak link. Winston serves no purpose on the Fox comedy other than to add diversity. New Girl tried to combat the character's uselessness by making him weird — like, really weird. But Winston's absurd shenanigans have nothing to do with the real plot of the show. Ever after four seasons as a series regular, if Winston left New Girl, nothing about the show would really change.
So please, don't give us more Winstons. Give us another Gus. Until this spring, Dule Hill starred on Psych as the beloved Burton "Gus" Guster, who was best friends with Shawn Spencer. Yes, Gus was black and Shawn was white. But Gus was no BBF. He was Shawn's partner — sometimes begrudgingly — but he was always Shawn's equal. Gus had a job, goals, dreams, crushes, girlfriends and countless weird and delightful hobbies. Shawn may have seen Gus as his trusty sidekick, but Psych made it clear that Gus was a star in his own right.
2. There's a difference between multiculturalism and tokenism: As Shonda Rhimes has proven, diversity can boost ratings. Of course, now that network execs have seen it happen, there's more risk that adding one or two people of color to a cast might be driven by cash incentives rather than progressive consciousness. But the intent behind the decision to diversify doesn't really matter as long as these characters are treated well and not merely tacked on as an afterthought.
Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and Sleepy Hollow all feature diverse casts where characters aren't defined by their race, yet their race isn't ignored (think: Scandal's Olivia quipping that she felt like the Sally Hemings to Fitz's Thomas Jefferson). And while these shows are steps in the right direction, handing out consolation prizes and praising individual acts of success isn't good enough. We need to constantly demand more from our media when it comes to diversity and the way that minorities are portrayed. We need to stop giving out gold stars so easily and continually raise the bar until the diversity of our country is reflected both onscreen and behind the scenes.
3. Don't be afraid to joke about it: "You can't do race stuff on TV. It's too sensitive," Liz Lemon's hero once warned her on 30 Rock. It was this sort of self-awareness that allowed the NBC series to become the master of transcending the taboo. The show's very premise — a white woman and her white best friend's lives are turned upside down when a black man is hired to work with them — put racial tensions at the forefront of the series, and throughout its run, 30 Rock tackled this complex problem with a light, but direct, touch. From Liz's preoccupation with proving she isn't racist, to Tracy and Toofer's debates about what is and isn't demeaning for black men to do, to Tracy and Jenna's competition to see who has it worse, white women or black men — all of these issues forced viewers to face the racial preconceptions ingrained in society while giving viewers a much-needed release from this tension through laughter.
4. Don't let fear dictate a character: Racial stereotypes aren't a "no fly zone"; it's okay for shows to feature black characters who are outspoken, sassy or wise, as long as that's not how they're defined. Lack of character development isn't a phenomenon that only affects minority characters, but in a television landscape that remains dominated by white faces and heteronormativity, reductive writing is particularly troubling for minorities who rarely get the chance to see themselves positively represented onscreen.
To ban all black characters from being sassy, all Latina characters from being maids or all gay characters from being flamboyant is to say that these identities aren't worth exploring and that their stories aren't worth telling. There is nothing wrong with being an opinionated woman who also happens to be black or a flamboyant man who also happens to be gay. The problem is an entertainment industry that tells minorities that these stereotypes are all they are or can ever be. And to completely avoid racial stereotypes out of fear of being called racist plays into the idea that these people aren't people at all — they're tropes who are ultimately defined by a singular trait.
5. Let them act!: Whether or not you enjoyed the Evil Francie/Allison storyline on Alias, there's no denying it was an incredible opportunity for Merrin Dungey. She got to showcase her range and do so much more than sit there while her best friend cried and ate coffee ice cream (which she doesn't even like so don't even bother asking if she wants any). Of course, it's a huge shame that just as Francie was beginning to move out of the peripheral with her own exciting storylines, she was killed and replaced by Allison. But hey, at least Dungey got to stick around and show off her skills.
So often, BBFs are reduced to just being sounding boards for their white pals. In the pilot for NBC's upcoming comedy Marry Me, the white lead's black best friend literally says she has nothing better to do than wait around for Annie to show up at a party (this, after she already spent an entire afternoon waiting in Annie's closet while Annie cried). Not only is this an example of poor writing — BBF characters are nothing more than a perennial support system — but it sounds exhausting for any actors who play BBFs. How many different ways are there to console a friend or exhibit your tough-love attitude to help them grow, all while you stay static? There are so many talented people of color working in Hollywood right now. Give them a chance to show off what they can do!