By V.C. Turner
(A/N: My thoughts and opinions are my own and are not a reflection of the opinions of my employer. This post was originally posted on my Tumblr page.)
I’ve always been the type of person that judges people not just by what they say, but also by what they do. People’s actions show you more about who they are (or who they are pretending to be) than anything else does.
When I thought about writing this, I asked myself if I considered Julie Plec a racist based on my interpretations of how she treats persons of color on her shows, most notably The Vampire Diaries.
I think that if you call someone a racist, you better back it up because the label can stick, regardless of whether or not it’s true. So before I use that term – before I even go there, it needs to be understood that there are at least two kinds of racists in this world. The ones that know they are racist (many of them proud of it in fact), and exhibit behaviors to systematically keep an entire ethnic group of people from upward mobility in any and all aspects of life.
Then there are the racists that feel they are doing nothing wrong by their actions. They view the world through a lens that is shaped by their own experiences, never seeing beyond the white picket fence in their yards. They are the ones that don’t know the impact of their ignorance and discrimination. They are the ones that talk to you about all of their black friends as of they used affirmative action as part of their selection process in creating a social life.
The thing is, if you have to validate your actions by saying: “Hey, I have black friends,” or “Hey, my best friend is black,” then you are in denial about yourself.
The truth is, that Hollywood is one of the most racist, prejudiced and discriminatory entities in America. Their reach goes far beyond California and New York. It goes into every household with a television and every movie theater with seats.
They don’t just reflect public opinion. They can also shape it.
I’m no entertainment historian, but I do know that characters of color have historically been written as the best friend, the victim, the sacrificial lamb, the servant, etc. These are not characters. These are stereotypes. They were included in the story so that producers and show runners could say that they have diverse casting procedures. They don’t fully understand one thing: You can’t diversify a cast without showing the diversity within that character. You don’t pick a human like you’d pick a crayon: just because they are the color you need to fill in the picture.
I’m no entertainment insider, but I do know a little something about writing. What I can tell you is that a character is much more than a shell of a person with little depth beyond the written words they are speaking. A character has a complete story. A character has a history, a present, and the potential for a future.
For years, Hollywood cast black women as servants to the beautiful white women that were gracious enough to employ them. We wore scarves around our heads and aprons around our waists. We had a quick wit, but little intellect. We joked. We rolled our eyes. We played nursemaid to spoiled children that abused us and played jokes on us. We nursed people to back to health without the gratitude we deserved. Our families were never shown because it meant nothing to the story.
As time passed, we turned into the prostitutes that got arrested. We were the gum-chewing girls with attitude that threw out one-liners because the writers didn’t have anything else for us to say. We became the angry mothers that were harsh to our children or had no control over them. We were the victims of the crime.
We were ignored.
We then became the best friend whose own life meant nothing because we were faithfully devoted to the beautiful blonde or brunette that had the love interest, the family, the character development and the storyline that none of us were ever allowed to possess. We became the background voices in someone else’s song.
The reason we didn’t date was because no one was “good enough” for us. We were told we were placed on a pedestal when in reality, we were put up on a shelf like a library book: only to be taken out when needed.
Or perhaps we didn’t date because they just didn’t know how to write a black boy who wasn’t the perpetrator of a crime. Put us with a white man? No. If so, he couldn’t be handsome or desirable by the white female lead.
Mute our beauty because we can’t be seen as attractive to anyone. That would mean we were competing for affection against the pretty blonde or brunette lead in the show. Dress us in less than fashionable clothes. Remove our make up. Stick us in the background. Take a picture and point to us so you can say: “Hey look, there’s a black girl there – See, we have one on the show.”
Don’t allow us to have a career, or goals, or a future that includes anything other than serving the white girl standing next to us. The story isn’t about us because you don’t know how to write us. Because you don’t know us. Because you have always and will always see us as filler. We are a checkbox in the “You’re not a racist if…,” questionnaire.
Now let’s look at Bonnie Bennett’s treatment as a character on The Vampire Diaries and examine if Hollywood is really doing her and other people of color on the show justice.
First of all, Bonnie is the only person of color left on the show. Bonnie’s grandmother and father are dead. Her mother was turned into a vampire by Damon (aka used as a plot device) to save the Salvatores and other vampires. Now she is missing from the show, as is Lucy, the cousin that showed up on one episode and never returned. Then there is Luca and his father Dr. Martin, who were killed in Season 2, as was their sister Greta (Damon snapped her neck). Zach’s pregnant girlfriend was murdered (by Damon). Jesse (who fell for Caroline and not Bonnie), was also killed. The list goes on, but you get the picture. If you’re black, you don’t stay on the show unless you’re there to die or disappear.
Second, Julie Plec said herself that she thought Bonnie’s story was over at the end of Season 5, and that her character should have remained dead. Let me tell you this Julie Plec: a story can’t be over if you never bothered to tell it in the first place. Bonnie barely had any relationship with her parents. She had no one love or protect or sacrifice for her after her grandmother died helping the beloved Salvatores. She has had no character development beyond changing the person for whom she gives her life.
She died at the end of two seasons in a row – one trying to bring Jeremy back and the second to while bringing everyone else back.
Bonnie’s song is repeated over and over again. That’s not a story. It’s a Hollywood tradition played out over six seasons. She is the best friend whose beauty is muted in order to allow her white counterparts to shine. She is the servant, being called upon only to provide spells or kill villains. Don’t tell me she’s strong when spells make her nose bleed, when she is defeated by every foe she has faced, and when she falls unconscious from exhaustion by doing magic. Liv, in her first season as a beautiful full-lipped blonde witch, can stop a car on the highway just by raising her hand. Bonnie struggles with her magic. Again, make the black girl weak; she’s a victim that doesn’t get saved, but she must make sure everyone else is okay.
She cannot date, and if she does, it can’t be anyone desirable to another female lead on the show. Bonnie had one boyfriend who cheated on her. Elena and Caroline had multiple love interests and love triangles. Mute her beauty. Bonnie isn’t allowed to be desirable. Bonnie is never called beautiful by anyone, yet even villains stop in their tracks make sure to compliment Elena and Caroline.
Bonnie cannot have a career. Elena wants to be a doctor. We see demonstrations of her intellect during her internship at the hospital. Caroline wants to be in theater. We hear her sing and audition for parts. We have no idea what Bonnie wants to do with her life and why: because her life doesn’t matter to the producers. She’s there to fill a quota not a functional role on the series. She’s there to be the servant. She’s there to be the stereotype. When she does have a plot line, you can be sure she will suffer and no one will come to her aid, yet the Calvary is called in when Elena or Caroline need help. She is there to move the plot, not be a part of it.
Interviews about Season 7 only confirm that Bonnie’s story will continue to be about everyone else except herself. Julie Plec has stated that Bonnie is going to feel guilty because she has her life and Elena doesn’t get to live hers. Damon is going to blame her for Elena not being around. Can we just appreciate the irony of Elena not voluntarily sacrificing herself for Bonnie after Bonnie has done so much for her? And to top it off, the writers are going to make Bonnie the one to feel guilty – after being the servant all this time. After being back in Mystic Falls with no one to love her – again.
I guess Bonnie Bennett is becoming just another sad part of Hollywood’s long tradition of treating black women as friends, victims and servants. It’s sickening, disappointing and insulting to all black women.
Here’s a news flash: There are plenty of smart, beautiful, talented, incredible black women in this country. They can be professionals. They can be artists. They can strap on a gun to be a cop (Abby Mills and Jenny Mills – in Fox’s Sleepy Hollow) or pick up a briefcase and be a lawyer (Annalise Keating – ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder), or take on Washington politicians as well as assassins (Olivia Pope – ABC’s Scandal). These women are complex characters, not servants to their co-stars.
If you want to do Bonnie justice – if you really want to tell her story, then take the time to write a story for her. Take the time to develop her character beyond being a slave (yes I said slave) to everyone else. Take the time to get to know her as a human being with feelings beyond guilt and blind devotion. Give her a love interest worthy of her and desirable on a larger scale: someone that respects her and would protect her.
Stop perpetuating a Hollywood tradition of prejudice. Bonnie deserves better, as does the actress who plays her, Kat Graham, and the fans that support her.
Stop teaching young black women that they are nothing more than the rag that makes the real treasure shine. Because the truth is: we can shine too.
(By the way: this blog was written by a professional black woman with a husband, two children, plenty of friends, and a career. I graduated college with honors and I hold two Bachelors Degrees (one in English and one in Psychology), one Masters Degree (Rehabilitation Counseling), and I have a full-time job. I also write TVD Fan Fiction in my spare time. Get the picture? There’s more to me, and millions of other women of color, than being a stereotype.)
So, is Julie Plec a racist? I don’t know her heart. I can’t tell you. What I can say is that Bonnie’s character is following in line with a long Hollywood tradition – and it’s not a good one.