When I was around 6 years old or so, my mom made it a point to buy me a black girl doll. She took to me to the toy store and feverishly scanned the endless rows of white girl dolls until she happened upon the one brown-faced doll that I could call my own. She yanked it off the shelf immediately before another mother also seeking a toy that looked even remotely like her impressionable daughter snatched it up. That’s how it is when it comes to young black and brown girls and the desire to see themselves reflected, even in the face of a plastic doll—it’s desperate, disappointing, and too often futile.
That same yearning for representation carries over to the screen, where this year, for the first time in a long while, we’ll see a plethora of black girl characters leading major films and TV series. This resurgence of young black and brown leading ladies, a throwback to the days of TGIF on ABC, will find these actresses at the center of a movement spurred in part by social media, where the distance between audience demand and Hollywood has become far easier to bridge. They’ll be discussed and at the very least supported in a way they hadn’t been before—not only for their performances but their social impact in today’s world.
Just last year, the inspiring documentary Step spotlighted young girls struggling to navigate Black Lives Matter and their college dreams. And in March, young black and brown bookworms will witness A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay’s hungrily anticipated big-screen adaptation of Madeleine L’Engel’s young adult sci-fi novel. Its preview images alone have whet the appetites of so many young audiences. They boast a narrative that has a 14-year-old black female heroine (Storm Reid) who travels through space and time! She’s not the token black girl. She’s not the black best friend. And she doesn’t represent three of the most popular Hollywood tropes when it comes to black female characters: the love interest who doesn’t exist beyond that purpose, the tortured or oppressed victim, or the punchline. The movie is about her, starring her, and relies on her.
Wrinkle may be the most prominent big-screen title starring a young black female lead this year, but there are other smaller films on the way which also focus on the experiences of black girls. The Hate U Give, a big screen adaptation of Angie Thomas’ novel, puts 19-year-old actress and outspoken activist Amandla Stenberg in the lead role as a teen who witnesses and testifies about a police shooting. Her co-star Dominique Fishback will also star in her own vehicle, Night Comes On—premiering in January at Sundance—which sees her as an 18-year-old recently released from juvenile detention, who goes on a journey with her younger sister and tries to escape her demons.
There are also a number of small-screen projects debuting this year that center young black protagonists, some of whom are sorely needed fresh faces. Zoey Johnson (played by Yara Shahidi) is now headlining her own show Grown-ish, the Black-ish spinoff in which she reprises her too-cool-for-school character who’s moved on to college à la Lisa Bonet when she went from The Cosby Show to A Different World. And for streaming audiences, there will be Netflix’s coming-of-age comedy On My Block, which centers four teenage leads navigating the throes of adolescence and high school, among them newcomer Sierra Capri as Monse Finnie.
This dominance of young black and brown female talent is especially refreshing to see given that teen-oriented film and TV has remained very white for nearly two decades. We had Raven-Symoné on the Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven, which wrapped up in 2010 and centered her as a quirky San Francisco teen with psychic powers. But her show stood largely on its own in a sea of white teen shows of the time, including The Secret Life of an American Teenager, Zoey 101, Lizzie McGuire, Hannah Montana, and iCarly. If you were a white teen girl, your choices were limitless.
Though there have been a few exceptions in the 21st century (Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee and Adepero Oduye in Pariah come to mind), black teen girls were largely offered only young white protagonists to identify with onscreen; heroines who were omnipresent at the Teen Choice Awards, dominated the Disney Channel, and were idolized on magazine covers. For an uncomfortably long time, black girls were starved for representation, as Hollywood ignored them and decided that their white peers should act as universal heroines for all audiences. It’s a formula Hollywood refused to let go of—even as those young female stars have turned into adults with young girls of their own.
What is most tragic about this trend is that in the ’80s and ’90s, black girls were popping up everywhere onscreen. Family Matters’ Laura Winslow (Kelly Shanygne Williams) was every teen boy’s crush in the ’90s. That same decade, Ashley Banks (Tatiana M. Ali) on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air held it down for the awkward, smart, preppy rich black girls on the West Coast. Brandy Norwood proved that young black girls could dominate both the recording studio and the small screen on her own wildly successful sitcom Moesha. Twins Tia and Tamara Mowry tag-teamed audiences on Sister, Sister. And Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies) shattered token black girl stereotypes on the high school sitcom Saved by the Bell. In the ’80s, The Cosby Show starred three It Girls: Rudy, Denise, and Vanessa Huxtable (Keisha Knight Pulliam, Lisa Bonet, and Tempestt Bledsoe). And little Tootie (Kim Fields) on The Facts of Life made her mark, like Lisa Turtle, on an otherwise very white show.
The big screen proved scarce in both the quantity and quality of roles for young black girls. But in the ’90s we did have Zelda Harris, who carried Spike Lee’s Crooklyn so heartbreakingly as its heroine Troy; Lauryn Hill, whose voice first astounded us as Rita Watson in Sister Act 2; and the unforgettable Jurnee Smollett and Meagan Good as Eve and Cisely Batiste in the criminally underrated genre film Eve’s Bayou. We had it pretty good. Not great, but we had choices. Now, finally, we have a few again.
Whether this rebirth in 2018 will be yet another fleeting moment in Hollywood history remains to be seen. But in this social media age, in which Hollywood is interrogated on a regular basis, audiences will not tolerate this being a mere trending topic. Young black girls deserve the opportunity to see characters who look like them and share their experiences across genres, platforms, and narratives—not just sometimes but every single day. It’s not simply a matter of representation; it’s also about validation. And right now, that is more important than ever.