The Tragedy of Under-Representation

Sometimes we pass off the average for outstanding, simply because we can’t bear to admit that one of few films centred on POCs that year isn’t actually that good. Such is the tragedy of under-representation.

 
 All images by  @sophiebansal

All images by @sophiebansal

 

*Disclaimer/Spoiler Alert: The words below may be construed as negative towards the movie Girls Trip. It is my humble opinion which you need not care about and/or share.


Let. People. Enjoy. Things.

Or, no?

I watched the trailer for Girls Trip and thought to myself, ‘YES BLACK JESUS, COME THROUGH WITH THE REPRESENTATION’. I wasn’t ready. My friends and I decide to make an evening of it, all excited about watching women like us just kickin’ it. I knew I was going to like it because I was ready to watch four black women enjoying themselves. And,  as an accomplished master of enjoyment, and black woman, I fully related to snippets in the trailer. So we sat down to watch.

We watched Ryan, Sasha, Lisa and Dina get into all sorts of shenanigans starting and ending with the affirmation of sisterhood and personal growth. Each woman embodies very distinct character traits, but they all neatly slot into the ‘Flossy Posse’ –  and when they get together, there is a steady supply of joy. With a running time of 122 minutes, Girls Trip did a full cycle of emotional reunions, embarrassing moments, casual sex, financial troubles, emotional breakdowns, and momentous confessions. I loved watching them tease one another; I loved watching them look out for each other; I loved watching them try to convince Ryan that her man deserved to be back in his father’s house – hellfire. I even loved Dina’s outburst that resulted in them being kicked out of a 5-star hotel. But my loving it didn’t actually make it good.


I watched the trailer for Girls Trip and thought to myself, ‘YES BLACK JESUS, COME THROUGH WITH THE REPRESENTATION!’

Girls Trip had moments of brilliance that I could get behind, but those moments were few and far between. Take Ryan’s deeply problematic relationship as an example. Ryan is married to an ex-athlete, Stewart Pierce. He’s retired and makes a new career of being Ryan’s doting and dutiful husband. They make a compelling act, spreading the gospel of ‘healthy marriages’. They are fine, really (barring Stewart being wildly unfaithful and emotionally manipulative.) Her friends catch wind of his infidelities, and they are incensed. Dina physically attacks him; Lisa looks on in contempt; and Sasha tries to contain any media backlash; lest the whole world find out the marriage is a sham. All this, coupled with the fact Ryan knew about his affair the entire time, makes for a storyline ripe for intriguing character development. Instead, viewers are stuck with an almost endless back and forth between husband and wife, wife and agent, wife and friends, the couple and the world, which culminates in nothing but the pregnancy of Stewart’s ‘other woman’, and Ryan’s epiphany on live television. The resolution takes too long.

Each of these four women seems unique in her struggles, fears, and joys. Yet we rarely get to see this unfold beyond the superficial. We did, however, get to see Dina pee on a crowd of people in solidarity with Sasha, so I guess it’s fine? After having sat down for two hours, I would have loved for Girls Trip to encompass more storylines outside of Sasha and her monster of a husband. Instead, I arrived at the heart-wrenching conclusion that it just wasn’t good enough.

 
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We were stuck with the archetypes so often portrayed in chick flicks; our characters represent the usual uptight mother figure, the larger black woman with the world on her shoulders, the loud and brash one who’s always joking, and the significantly more successful one in the group who secretly hates her life. This is not exciting or remotely original.

Let’s take Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character Lisa as another example. She’s a divorced single mother of two, very much focused on caring for her children (and rightfully so). Her character development consisted of her outfit choices being mocked and being routinely reminded that she needed to ‘get some dick.’ We don’t actually get to know Lisa outside the confines of how she dresses and the last time she had sex. It would have been interesting to see more dialogue pertaining to who she actually is on an individual level. This also applies to Dina, played by Tiffany Haddish. Aside from watching her roast every single one of her friends, and square up to people, as viewers, we get to know very little about her. Yes, she’s hilarious, outrageous, and inappropriate, and we probably all have that one friend– the joker of the group. But that joker friend is also a person. The character Dina wasn’t believable because she wasn’t well written. We’re allowed one vulnerable moment from her throughout the duration of the film, yet it wasn’t even a glimpse into her other character traits; it seemed like she was just one big joke made up of many little ones.  


We were stuck with the archetypes so often portrayed in chick flicks. This is not exciting or remotely original.

This brings me to the crux of the matter. It was hard for me to unpack the film, because I feared that I wouldn’t actually rate it highly – and I felt that I needed to rate it highly. Ultimately I couldn’t (for reasons explained above), but I would have thrown hands hearing criticism from someone else, someone who wasn’t a black woman, or even an African-American woman. Such is the tragedy of under-representation. You come to accept, at best, mediocre content, and at worst, straight-up trash. I find myself torn between pointing out areas of improvement that are colossal and letting people enjoy things –  that is, not critiquing it with the same lens and intellect I usually apply to other pieces of content I engage with.

For me, Girls Trip wasn't good enough, but I do understand why people loved it. It was feel-good, often cringe-worthy romantic comedy injected with drama: perfect for a night out with your girls. But I wanted more. I want us to want more, and demand more, so we don’t fall into the trap of accepting material that’s just okay, and lauding it as ground-breaking, revolutionary or amazing. Of course it’s hard. When you rarely see yourself, anything becomes enough. But thankfully we’re entering an age of options, and it’s a better time for visibility in both television and film. We’ve seen things like Insecure and The Incredible Jessica James showing multi-dimensional characters who also happen to be women of colour. Let’s also not forget the classics like Girlfriends and Soulfood, pioneers in the combination of representation and sheer brilliance. We’re past the point of accepting mere visibility. Quality must also come into play. So enjoy things, but don’t be afraid to want more.


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Ayoade Bamgboye