Sydney’s new high school sucks. Sydney has a crush on her best friend Dina, but she’d rather date a white fuckboi. Her dad committed suicide and her mom won’t talk to her. Everything sucks. Also, on the side, she has uncontrollable telekinetic superpowers that land her in some deep waters.
Does she sound familiar?
Her protagonist woes, which read like a sad mixture of Eleven (Stranger Things), Alyssa (The End of the F***ing World) and Carrie, deserve another retelling dressed in the increasingly mind-numbing 80s package because she is, indeed, another self-described “boring, 17-year-old white girl.”
(At least she’s self-aware this time?)
The above plot is from the show I Am Not Okay With This, a currently streaming Netflix adaptation of a graphic novel by Charles Forsman of the same name. With its producers and directors plucked directly from Stranger Things and The End of the F***ing World respectively, the show reads like an unnecessary lovechild aimed to cash out on the trendy aesthetic of nostalgia and teenage angst with sprinkles of sci-fi and the supernatural. For example, the main cast members Sophia Lillis and Wyatt Oleff recently appeared in It. (Oleff is literally playing a character of the same name. These things, unfortunately, cannot be made up.)
In response to the release of the initial trailer, Netflix received backlash from Twitter users who pointed out the lack of originality and diversity in these seemingly recycled plots.
The “token black best friend” refers to Sydney’s bestie Dina, the other bubbly new girl played by Sofia Bryant, who appears to be the only person of color in the main cast. Withstanding her worrying tokenality, Dina is framed solely as the cool, adoring object of affection in Sydney’s eyes (she never gets a scene without Sydney’s pining glances during the seven minute preview of the first episode). Major props to the interracial LGBTQ+ representation in this potential lesbian power couple. But the snippets and trailers set the mood: even if Dina scrapes up a subplot and character arc of her own, her nice girl aura isn’t quirky and important enough to be in the main spotlight.
Another part of the discourse centers around Bryant and the casting directors’ forever obsession with making their casts just the “right” smidge of diverse with light-skinned black actors and actresses. To make it very clear, I’m not attacking Bryant, (or Zendaya or Amandla Stenberg, you get the idea), but I am pointing out the hypocrisy in using the same three people to represent the wide spectrum of blackness. It’s a pity that you, Hollywood, repeatedly use them as your UNO reverse cards against any hellfire over the issue of tokenality.
It isn’t helpful to complain and cancel everything every time Netflix stumbles. In recent years, the streaming giant hasn’t always shelved the black characters (even the tokens) to the side. For example, the second season of The End of the F***ing World spends the entire first episode mapping out the backstory of Bonnie (played by Naomi Ackie) and her struggles with abandonment and abusive relationships. Sex Education, a hilarious and heartwarming show, finds Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) navigating between homophobia, immigrant parents and difficulties with his messy, yet painfully realistic relationships with the colorful cast of main characters. Generally, steps are taken in the right direction.
While poking at I Am Not Okay With This might appear like an overrighteous move, Sydney’s stark declaration of calling herself a “boring” white girl poked at something deep within my entertainment-loving Chinese-American nerves.
What a privilege, I thought, that instead of fawning over the one-in-a-million Crazy Rich Asians or To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, I could one day roll my eyes at the abundance of boring Asian-American protagonists flooding my screens.