Netflix has been trying to diversify their list of series and films to become more inclusive, which has resurfaced interesting conversations within minority communities about the ways in which POC characters are depicted. Over the summer, the homepage of Netflix was updated by adding a ‘Black Lives Matter’ category. Although temporary, the category propelled Black storytelling in ways which reassure me that the misrepresentation we have become so accustomed to is slowly being erased. In their collection of African series comes the South African teen drama Blood & Water. The narrative follows high school student Puleng Khumalo who sets out to find her sister who was abducted as a baby. True to the teenage coming of age genre, the story also includes love interests, friendship falling outs and even explores familial issues.
Although I found the series’ characterisation and plotline captivating, and at times hilarious, I felt that the representation within the series was something to behold. Not only was the cast predominantly Black, but the actors were also all actually South African. A common flaw within Black representation in media is the shelving of African actors. Most filmmakers choose an American or a British actor who can mimic an “African” accent, which always sounds somewhat like a form of mockery. This series voided that convention and gave real South Africans the role of South Africans. It sounds self-explanatory but to me, it is worth acclaiming. I unintentionally watched the whole series with my younger sister — the-perks-of-quarantine — and I ended up viewing our Netflix sessions as an experiment on how a young Black girl would react to seeing an abundance of young Black women on screen.
I reflected on my own relationship with TV as I was growing up, and the lack of true relation I had to characters I watched as a girl became increasingly apparent. Even if I watched a series in which a character was similar to me in personality, they never quite looked like me. I remember the show, Hannah Montana being the staple of Disney Channel’s golden years and I adored Lily (Emily Osment). But of course, my lack of blue eyes and blonde hair meant I didn’t quite fit the quota for being like her. In fact, I always avoided dressing up for Halloween because of the fear that my White classmates would make it their mission to mention that I was Black so my costume “didn’t count”. At that age, it was a nightmare for me. Hyperbole much? Maybe, but as I watched my sister spoilt for choice on which character she related to the most, I felt relieved; I was glad she felt seen.
The only Black girl I recall from Hannah Montana was Ashley who was part of the antagonist duo of the show. She was rude, mean, and as an audience member, I hated her. But if I were to ever try to choose a character in the series who was most like myself I had no choice but to associate with her because, well, she looked like me. Black girls were often given the role of the sassy sidekick who didn’t even deserve any character depth and were usually present purely for the protagonist’s benefit. Contrastingly, in Blood & Water, each and every Black girl is written out constructively and unaligned with any stereotypes. This is not to say that every character is likeable, just that every character is given a voice. This was different from the series’ that I experienced watching whilst I was growing up.
I always find it ignorant when people claim the media is a detached and independent world from the one we can actually touch. Although film and TV exist independently, they are a direct reflection of our society and they have grand effects on audiences. My sister only confirmed this for me. She was captivated by the whole series and frequently mentioned how much she liked the characters’ hair, recognising that she too could have the same braids if she wanted to. Hair is undoubtedly a big aspect of Black identity and seeing it represented unabashedly restores any love lost for your natural hair or the plethora of Black hairstyles which are unique to Type-4 hair.
In writing this I am not claiming that positive representations of Black women did not exist during my childhood. I am instead exploring the disadvantages that were placed upon young Black girls through the meagre amount of said positive representations. From my own relationship with TV, I vividly recall refusing to go to school and eventually college with my natural afro and tearfully straightening my hair. This wasn’t a result of vanity or just teenage angst, but the media I consumed almost imprinted in me a beauty standard which I convinced myself embodied femininity. Blood & Water and consequently my little sister’s reaction reminded me that although there is still a long way to go, our fight is making a difference. Representation drastically alters self-perception and because of this power representation matters.