Netflix has a troubling problem with its biracial characters
In a viral clip from Netflix’s Gilmore Women wannabe Ginny & Georgia, high-school sophomore Ginny (Antonia Gentry) enters into a battle with her partner Hunter (Mason Temple). The clip initially circled around on Twitter due to the fact that of its stilted, uncomfortable discussion, as the 2 trade extremely particular, pointed insults at each other concerning their races.
Within the context of the program, the characters are arguing about the various methods they’ve grappled with being biracial. Ginny implicates half-Taiwanese Hunter of gaining from the design minority stereotype, while Hunter informs her she’s hardly in touch with her own Blackness. They go back and forth on who experiences more bigotry, till Hunter lastly exclaims, “Oppression Olympics: Let’s go!”
The scene now has actually been dissected for the origins and specific unfairness of its racial stereotypes. However it sticks out to me in specific due to the fact that of how it stresses a strangely regular trope surrounding biracial characters that Netflix keeps playing into. Both the characters are biracial, but while Hunter lives with both parents, Ginny’s Black father is largely out of the picture, and she lives with her white mother. That makes her yet another mixed-race Netflix protagonist who’s being raised by a single white parent.
It feels like there are more stories centered around mixed-race people now than ever, and certainly more than I had when I was growing up. I’m not alone in noticing the trend. As a biracial individual, I absolutely struggle with imposter syndrome in regards to my own identity. Simultaneously not white and not Asian enough — according to my own internal conflict and the voices of those, both people I’ve met and strangers on the internet, who decide I don’t have a claim on either identity — I often pause on demographic surveys that don’t have an option for multi-racial, or even “other.” The narrow view of ethnicity in most conversations about race leaves me wondering which part of myself I’ll have to deny in any given setting. Netflix’s interest in mixed-race characters felt validating, until I noticed the pattern they were falling into.
Netflix keeps making stories with biracial protagonists, but with a persistent caveat. Across multiple Netflix originals, such as the To All the Boys movies, Ginny & Georgia, The Main Event, and The Baby-Sitters Club, single white parents raise mixed-race children. The parent of color is either dead before the start of the story, or initially absent from the protagonist’s life.
The “growing up, I rarely saw people like me on screen” narrative may seem old at this point, but it was particularly true in this case. It wasn’t just that I didn’t see myself in films and on TV. I never saw families like my own, stories about people from different backgrounds coming together. Across greater media, mixed-race characters are sometimes around, but without much discussion of their family. Usually, they’re either biracial due to the fact that the actor portraying them happens to be mixed-race, like Rashida Jones in Parks and Recreation, or their identities are used as “gotcha” plot twists. (Hello Spider-Man: Homecoming and Detective Pikachu.)
Stories about mixed-race characters rarely center around families. That lack of representation in general ends up making the recurring Netflix-specific trope of completely removing the parent of color all the more jarring. These movies and shows wind up viewing race through a very white lens, diluting the experience of being a mixed-race person to only one, limited facet.
Some of these Netflix originals integrate race more than others, though they certainly don’t all do so with the same finesse. To All the Boys and its sequels have a slightly more thoughtful interrogation of hopeless romantic Lara Jean (Lana Condor) trying to connect with her culture without her Korean mother in the picture, though that subplot isn’t a central part of the story. Lara Jean wears a hanbok for a family gathering in the second movie, and she flits around Korea in the beginning of the third, for instance. Sometimes she muses about how much she misses her mom. But her exploration of her background never goes much deeper.
A fluffy rom-com trilogy isn’t necessarily required to include an interrogation of racial identity. Lara Jean has warm feelings toward her mother and her Korean side. Her father makes an effort to keep in touch with her mother’s family and traditions. It never becomes a point of contention in Lara Jean’s life, however that makes sense because the story isn’t about her identity, it’s about her love life. The virtue of Lara Jean being a mixed-race protagonist at the center of a romantic comedy is already notable. To All the Boys and its sequels are perhaps the least grating example of this trope, helped in part by the fact that the book series comes from Korean author Jenny Han. The films could certainly do better (for one, Lana Condor isn’t biracial or Korean), but they’re largely inoffensive, and they give Lara Jean some character depth.
Conversely, Ginny & Georgia is focused on the disconnect between a mother and her daughter, so Ginny’s conflicted feelings about her race make more thematic sense. She navigates her overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class town as one of the few students of color in her high school. Her father does eventually appear later in the show to send her into a further existential spiral, but he’s absent for the majority of the series. And that entire plotline is bogged down by the jumbling Jenga tower of all the other storylines crammed into Ginny & Georgia, and by that now-infamous episode where Ginny and Hunter go head-to-head, primarily so the writers can break them up, and she can get with her other love interest.
Stories about individuals trying to connect with the race of an absent parent are important: Learning more about your identity is an inherent part of coming-of-age narratives, and adding the nuance of race could bring forth compelling stories. But that assumes those stories are being explored with cultural specificity and insight. So why is the present parent always the white one?
Like many other mixed-race individuals, I often grappled with not being “enough” of either of my racial backgrounds. But coming from a high school with few Asian students, teachers, or administrators, it often manifested as me not feeling Asian enough to differentiate myself from my white peers. Because of how white-passing I appear, many of my peers assume that I’m white. Some would even go so far as to deny it when I clarified to them, telling me that I didn’t “count” as someone with Asian heritage simply because of my physical appearance. It took a long time for me to internalize that the whiteness around me was not necessarily the norm, and that I shouldn’t constantly have to view myself from that vantage point.
These movies and shows, however, repeatedly emphasize biraciality from a white viewpoint. Which wouldn’t be so exasperating if there were other stories to balance out that perspective. But as it stands, with so few other examples to counteract the white-centric point of view, these movies and shows end up accentuating the idea that a mixed-race identity can only be processed in relation to whiteness. And that’s not even touching on the lack of stories about mixed-race families where no one is white at all.
Narratives focused on race aren’t the only ones where the writers remove the parent of color. In fact, that choice comes off as a different sort of weird in cases where the character’s race doesn’t really make a difference. In Netflix’s version of The Baby-Sitters Club, shy Mary Anne (Malia Baker), whose whole schtick in the books was having an overprotective widower father, is now biracial. Her dad is white, and her dead mother is Black. In WWE and Netflix’s joint kid flick The Main Event, aspiring young wrestler Leo (Seth Carr) deals with his Black mother abandoning his family prior to the start of the story, leaving his overworked white father looking after him. Neither of those stories really interrogate the race of their main characters, aside from a passing mention that Mary Anne’s father doesn’t know how to do her hair. So why is it the parent of color who is out of the picture, when the story would make just as much sense if the white parent had disappeared?
On their own, these movies and shows don’t do anything particularly egregious. Certainly, making these characters biracial instead of white by default is a step forward in diversity. But it’s strange how few shows and movies actually show both moms and dads of multiracial kids, and how often they remove what could be another character of color in the narrative.
One possible explanation is that white creators try to make stories without crossing any cultural boundaries: if the protagonists are half-white, then surely white showrunners and directors can tell their stories, too. But repeat the same trope too much, and Netflix as a whole risks playing into stereotypes of irresponsible and absent people of color abandoning the stalwart white parent who remains behind for the sake of the child.
There is no universal description to fit every biracial person’s relationship to their parents, but I would hazard to say that navigating already-tricky parent-child relationships gets all the more complicated when you factor in different races. My relationships with my parents both are special and unique, each colored by the inherent fact that I experience the world differently than both of them. But both of them are important to me. Both of them represent parts of me. It’s not just my relationship with my white daddy that makes me worthwhile, even if movies and TV would imply otherwise.
Of course, not every mixed-race person out there has the luxury of having both parents around. Then again, despite what these stories would have you think, not every mixed-race person with a single moms and dad is raised by a white parent, either. But in the current Netflix world, that’s the norm and expectation. Stories about mixed-race individuals should continue to be told. They should continue to be leads in romantic comedies, coming-of-age dramedies, kid fantasies, and all the more. Netflix creators aren’t intentionally removing the parent of color from their biracial narratives, however they might stand to intentionally consider what, if anything that adds to their stories going forward — and what kinds of important stories they aren’t informing when they keep informing this one over and over.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.