Disclaimer: I don’t own the pictures.
How will I remember January 2016? A month of nostalgia with the “High School Musical” 10th year anniversary and “X-Files” comeback? Or a month of frustration over some comments the #OscarsSowhite triggered in France? Today, the nominees for the Cesars (our equivalent of the Oscars) were announced. Will there be a real discussion about the lack of inclusion in the French movie industry?
Although discussions have been a lot about cinema these days, what about TV fiction? And more specifically what about TV teen and YA fiction? Why, you may ask. Because internalizing stereotypes start from the moment we’re old enough to be aware of our existence. Regardless if you consider the genre cheesy and uncool, these shows illustrate this period of life we, as human beings, all go through. It’s a time in life shaping our outlook on the world and figuring out where we fit in a society preaching an equality it doesn’t extend to all. Many believe cinema is an art and TV fiction isn’t, but TV fiction is important. A movie is something you watch in one setting and you’re supposed to go outside of your home to see it. A TV show is something you watch at home and it’s a story that unfolds on a regular basis, sometimes for several years. Watching TV fiction is based on the fact that you make the choice to come back day after day or week after week to know how the story ends. Sure, streaming service today makes it easy to watch your shows and movies whenever and wherever you want, but TV watching is based on “a ritual” that becomes a part of your schedule, if you want it to.
Shows like “Happy Days”, “Beverly Hills 90210”, “Friends, “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer” are a part of my TV pop culture knowledge in terms of teen and YA fiction, but they don ‘t give me this warm feeling I get whenever I see a gif or a meme from the 80’s-90’s US teen/family-centric shows. These Black sitcoms made me realize that fictional characters looking like my family, like my classmates or like people I saw in the street could exist too without being shown only in a negative light. I will only talk about my teen viewer experience in France as a someone born on a Caribbean island, because this is what I know, but going deeper through intersectionality would also highlight more precisely how the cis/white-centric French system of representation affects also specific narratives about other minorities. As a tool to create, break, reinforce stereotypes about individuals living within a society, TV fiction also alienates us and, prevents us from being seen as legitimate enough to bring valuable contributions to French mainstream culture.
Growing up in France in the 90’s means that my generation got the opportunity to be exposed to many North American shows with a predominant Black cast. Although dubbing can never provide a perfect translation, these fictions still gave me a perspective on life that French TV never gave me. Storylines about discrimination and racism helped me put into words socioeconomic dynamics that I, living on the left side of the Atlantic Ocean, was too young to fully comprehend but have to deal with now that I’m living on the right side and experiencing what adults had warned me about back then. The stories considered worth being told by these TV shows weren’t all one-dimensional, sad and depressing. Having a crush on someone, stressing over school could make cry of laughter. Steve Urkel’s “did I do that?”, the Carlton dance, Moesha’s braids or Tia and Tamera’s “go home, Roger” are references that speak to me. Lydia Grant’s speech in the opening credits of “Fame” (thanks to countless re-runs) got me thinking about the self-discipline required to become a dancer (talent is useless if you don’t rehearse), “A Different World” got me wondering about college life. Yes, some stereotypes were there, but these shows introduced me to diversity in the representation of a Black character.
On the other hand, here’s what French teen TV shows introduced me to: characters of African descent cannot lead a show on their own, they cannot belong to French middle and upper class and, they must deal with a cultural clash because of a so-called incompatibility between their parents’ lifestyle and “mainstream” French lifestyle at some extent. Regardless of what one may think of their quality, the two biggest high school-centric shows in the early 90’s were: “Premiers Baisers (First Kisses)” and “Seconde B (Sophomore Year – B)”. See pictures above. The former was about a middle-class all-white group of high schoolers living in Paris, the latter was about a group of high schoolers living in the banlieue, the low-income suburbs, of Paris. The first one was criticized for being too cheesy and not dealing with real-life struggles. The second one was criticized for being too straightforward about said struggles. To be fair, both shows talked about issues like unemployment, rape, drug abuse, safe sex. They just had a different approach and didn’t highlight them in the same way. Maybe the “Seconde B” banlieue setting made it easier to create storylines around issues like religion, racism because these teenagers were the ones who didn’t just see the oppressive system. They were the ones who directly experienced it because of what they looked like and where they lived. Still, it didn’t prevent them from upholding universal values like love and friendship as much as the “Premiers Baisers” teenagers did. With Greg Germain going down in the history of French TV as Dr. Alpha, the first Black doctor on prime time with the TV show “Médecins de Nuit (Doctors on-call at night)” (1978 – 1986), I can’t help but wonder how his teen years would have been pictured. How would a child from the Caribbean manage to become a doctor in Paris in the 70’s? Better yet, how the story of his children, teenagers in the 90’s, would have been told? Nonspoiler alert: even back then, we didn’t all grow up wanting to be rappers or athletes just because we’re Afrodescendants.
In the 2000’s, US shows were still the “diversity” reference, even for French medias themselves. Although I had already been glad to watch the first French Black secret agent Léa Parker portrayed by Sonia Rolland leading the eponymous show from 2004 to 2006, imagine how happy I was in 2007 when public network France 2 launched teen series “Foudre”. It took place mostly in New Caledonia with Alice portrayed by Joséphine Jobert. It got cancelled in 2011, but it will remain as the first French teen show led by a Black female character (and if there was one before her, I never heard about it). Okay, I admit it was definitely not the writing nor the twists or character development that kept me interested. If it weren’t for these actresses being French and lead characters I had never seen on my small screen and I had been longing for such a long time, I’m not sure I would have remembered these shows 10+ years later.
In 2014, French rapper Soprano released his 4th solo album titled “Cosmopolitanie”. One of the tracks, “Fresh Prince” (a/n: he uses the English expression), mentions US pop culture references that you can easily spot in the music video, even without understanding the lyrics.
The video has now more than 62 million views. The intro scene is a parody of a barbershop scene in “Coming To America”. The barber played by TV host Cyril Hanouna swears he had many famous clients such as Johnny Hallyday (French rock singer active since the 60’s), Michael Jackson, James Brown, Bob Marley and Conchita Wurst. I’m not sure children who were born in the late 90’s or early 2000’s would relate to Kriss Kross, “Coming To America”, the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and Biggie in the way we, the 80’s and 90’s babies, do. I can assume they would understand the references to Brad Pitt, Kim Kardashian, Pharell, “The Wire” Barksdale and Stringer Bell, Michel Polnareff (French pop singer active since the mid-60’s), Eto’o (Cameroonian footballer) and Fab Barbershop (located in Marseille, South of France). What I’m sure of is that it would be very difficult for them to name at least one French non-white teen character created in the past thirty years with the same cultural impact on their generation like Will had on ours.
I know. French people enjoy glorifying US fiction while criticizing French fiction. Truth is, French teen tv shows have always tried to portray “diversity” ever since the 60’s. And not just in a negative way. So even without going back as far, and regardless of acting skills/scripts, why is it so easy for us to remember Will, Moesha and not Nadia, Kader, Jimmy, Alice, Eva, Lola, Raphaël, Tara and Ben? Chances are, if you’re French, you probably don’t know which shows I’m referring to. Don’t get me wrong, though. This too-short list is more of a reminder of what is lacking in French TV than an example of real new paradigms about family, young love and teenage/YAhood in France… At the end of the day, this is what it’s about: the struggle to build common positive references when you’re constantly reminded that you should perceive yourself as “the other”.
In 6-episode French TV show “10%” broadcast last fall, Stefi Celma portrayed Sophia Leprince, the receptionist of one of the biggest celebrity management agencies in Paris. However, her dream is to become an actress. The only audition her agent-soon-to-be-boyfriend finds her is for a movie in which she’s expected to be a hip-hop dancer because she’s Black. Sophia is no dancer and ends up crashing her audition by trying to show her acting, although she was asked to dance. Yes, it was a funny scene, but the situation itself wasn’t. This is the industry quick to claim its powerlessness or colorblindness about the lack of minorities representation, while using the very few actors who manage to get the same stereotyped roles as a justification to say the industry is a meritocracy fair to all.
Fiction set firm limits and endless possibilities. Yet, how can multidimensional adult characters be created if child/teen characters are already limited to the standards constructed in the colonial imaginary? The adult you are is defined by all the experiences you went through since you were born. How can you create a character breaking stereotypes if you don’t take into consideration what its pattern of life could have been? At the end of the day, multidimensional representation is not just about us or for us. It’s also about deconstructing the myths that those who perceive us as “the other” have about us and mostly about themselves.
I just wish I had more diverse teen characters in my memories, teen characters that I could have grown up to be a French Khadidja and Maxine (Living Single), a French Joan and a French Lynn (Girlfriends). I want my little sister to watch TV and find a cool French Breanna (One on One), a French genius like Chyna (A.N.T Farm) or a French Taylor (High School Musical) or a French K.C (KC Undercover). As for male characters, I really don’t know who to name because positive male teen figures are hard to come across in fiction, but clearly Black teen boys aren’t all JUST about sports and music or dance. And they’re not all criminals. And not all of them support misogynoir.
There is a long way to go, and it can’t all be done in one day. And what I mentioned above isn’t the only problem. But TV? It’s time to get it moving. #dobetter.