Nostalgia inspires some of our best films and shows, paying homage to a previous generation and wistfully recalling fond memories of songs, styles, and, for some, youth. There is, however, a fine line between nostalgia that calls on memories of sounds, hairstyles, and bright clothes oddly paired, and nostalgia that pines for a time that was better…for some.
The Netflix series I Am Not Okay with This relies heavily on nostalgia that resides specifically in the white gaze, wherein Black people are erased except when used to emphasize a behavior or action stereotypically rooted in Black culture. The teens in shows like I Am Not Okay with This exist in their “vanilla suburbs,” recalling a peaceful, beautiful past that is mythical. It presents this idealism by heavy-handedly invoking suburban nostalgia from white films, where there were few intruders in sight.
This propagation of the ’80s as a time of wonder is damaging. Many Black kids and kids of color did not experience this idyllic setting (nor many white kids) and most aspects that did exist for white families came at the expense of Black families. Black lives were used to uplift white lives and Black culture was mined for white appropriation. To present this as an ideal time is to motivate a present day recreation of it—to return to swaths of erasure, stereotypes, and tokenism, where Black bodies are relegated to sidekicks (like in the case of I Am Not Okay with This‘s Black character Dina).
In the opening scene of I Am Not Okay with This, a teen girl in blood-soaked formal attire walks down a dimly lit street, bloodied dog tags jangling around her neck. This harkens back to Carrie White leaving her prom, drenched in blood and soaked in shock, in the 1976 film Carrie, based on the horror novel by Stephen King. The film Carrie employs Blackness via the white gaze, as in the scene between Billy and Chris joyriding in a car while “Heatwave” by Martha & The Vandellas plays. Black people are erased except when their art is used by white characters having fun at the expense of their idea of Black stereotypes.
Another reference in I Am Not Okay with This is John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, a film once again from white teen perspectives as they grow up in a suburban setting. The movie brings in blues music while the students are getting high and Brian jokingly says “Chicks cannot hold they smoke. That’s what it is,” in a Black voice; however, they are seen as innocent and, thanks to the blues music, cool. Meanwhile, during this time in the ’80s, the war on drugs was raging in marginalized urban communities.
Yet a third reference, Pretty in Pink features a white girl who doesn’t fit in and has a friend who adores her, Duckie, whom she often treats as disposable. This parallels Syd and Stan of I Am Not Okay with This in this current iteration of white alternative angst. Furthering this, Duckie also has a scene where he dances to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” If you want to show how cool or problematic a character is, simply add a splash of Blackness. Other than that, we get no acknowledgment. We are used for stereotypes, appropriation, subject of white gaze, or a combination of all the above.
The films above are all classics, yet current shows and films could improve upon where they went wrong by not participating in the same white exclusionary gaze that either uses Black people or Black stereotypes to make a point. A person can be cool or bad without distilling Blackness through a white gaze.
Style, music, art appreciation and reverence is one thing, but the love I Am Not Okay with This shows is for a period in time that is viewed nostalgically only for some. Many outside this select group do not share those experiences. For them, rural or urban, the ’80s was a time fraught with poverty, drugs, and violence. When we watch a Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club, it is with a surprise and wistfulness that this world actually exists for some. If this is popular and common, what does that say about life experiences out of this narrow view?
Another issue with I Am Not Okay with This is the supporting character, Dina, the stereotype of the Black best friend to the lead Syd. She is subject to the white gaze via Syd, who needs her both emotionally and physically. Dina does not exist as her own individual, but as a repository for Syd. Dina also exists in a tug of war match between two white gazes vying for domination: Syd’s and Dina’s boyfriend, Brad. While an argument could be made that we don’t see much of Dina sans Syd because Syd is the lead, why then do we see moments of Stan sans Syd? Even when characters interact, we see a few from the perspective of that specific character. Syd, as the lead, interacts with her mom, brother and friends, Stan with his dad, and Brad stewing with a friend in the cafeteria then again before the dance. Yet Dina doesn’t have the same attention.
Dina exists throughout the series only by her connection to Syd particularly, and Brad secondarily. She is not a whole character outside of those two. Her scenes are literally tied to the white gazes around her and how she is perceived by them; for Syd, it’s a friend and love interest, and for Brad it’s a sexual partner, but both still relegate her to the position of object. Her dialogue is Syd- or Brad-related, with nothing outside of it to make her more than a cutout.
Throwing in a token may appear to alleviate a white saturated series; however tokenism is just like the one Black employee in a job. It does not remove issues with inclusion, diversity and equality but instead hinders it because tokens were created to counter those issues to continue control and oppression. It’s the equivalent of the sentiment that Obama was president, ergo racism is dead.
Despite cries for diversity, it seems that we are inevitably the cat chasing its tail. For every gain from a Dear White People or Astronomy Club, we are given an I Am Not Okay with This. It’s not as though shows with Black people as the main characters didn’t exist. We had Family Matters, A Different World, and The Jeffersons, and Eddie Murphy dominated the big screen with his comedic antics. Unfortunately, movies especially now seem to be rooted in Black people’s history as it relates to past and present trauma. We have Harriet and Queen & Slim and others that demonstrate a need for society, when they see Black people, to only see them suffering.
Black people are more than their suffering. Like any human being, we laugh, cry, experience love and heartache, so why not create films and shows that demonstrate all that? Black people are not in the world simply to play the best friend in a white person’s narrative. There have been enough shows and movies with white nostalgia. It’s long past time to see stories from other perspectives. Give us a movie with a group of Black women (queer, cis, trans) who have weekly club meetings where they watch and discuss K-dramas or anime while navigating the challenges and joys in their lives.
To keep accepting shows like I Am Not Okay with This as entertainment not only increases the likelihood that we will, once again, have only shows and films that deal with white experiences, but also pushes this false narrative of a utopian time onto future generations (while education abets it by misrepresenting history and its’ impact on particular demographics). It’s 2020 and yet these types of shows and films continue to be produced, despite resistance.
Featured Image: Netflix