Representation has ballooned as a 21st-century buzzword, especially in the entertainment industry, as those of us who grew up seeing little of ourselves on screens grow to demand more of those who create cultural moments (and rightly so, at that). The struggles of teenagerhood combined with digitalisation’s slow, onward march online is characterised by constant engagement. It didn’t just create millennials who can’t afford rent, but a generation of overlooked creatives who were able to carve niches well before their time.
Most of us share in the collective memories of the 2000s as years of carefree evenings playing out, ice cream vans and obnoxiously fat school uniform ties. I’ll admit that my own rose-tinted glasses are strongly dyed, probably because I envy a time before the weight of the world settled on my shoulders. Times of less responsibility and understanding little of the adult world are a gentle throwback to real bliss. Ignorant bliss, but still, bliss. School dinners vs packed lunches and WWE’s Smackdown vs Raw were all I understood of conflict, set aside from still images of Iraq on BBC News at Six which I quickly became desensitised to.
On television (or tele, it’s true name), Black British representation was somewhat patchy, but nonetheless authentic and varied. Iconic faces from a range of channels and timing slots; from Makosi from Big Brother (whose iconic motorboating session in the hot tub taught me just as much as Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging) to Kerching’s Taj Lewis (MCM forever) and Waterloo Road’s chaotic cast that readied me for the drama of secondary school. Seeing what I imagined as older versions of myself on television meant that I felt I would not only just exist in the future, but live with worth and still have the same shocking memories. Tracy Beaker takes the biscuit, of all. Not only Tracy, herself, but Crash, Ben, Duke, Chantal Wellard and Elaine the Pain. This may sound like nostalgia for chaotic renegades, and it absolutely is. Without care, characters relationships with a younger me allowed me to flower in the most destructive and authentic way possible in the confidence that there wasn’t one way to be a black girl, to have friends, to navigate personal relationships. Ultimately, seeing yourself in others creates a relatability that cannot be commodified.
Later came Noel Clarke’s pioneering of Kidulthood which brought the gritty inner city to screens, foreshadowing Channel 4’s infamous Top Boy (yet more great television, I love great tele). The depth of themes explored from Deacon’s light-hearted comedy to violence and poverty held a realistic mirror up to much of the London we remember. Followed on by the likes of Misfits (more great television), the Black British contribution to culture may be uneven, but our share is infallible.
Teenage television, in general, was pivotal for telling our experiences of bad decisions, including the usual drugs, sex and drama. But in the Black British context, it brought us into the mainstream without compromising the core of our identities, without whitewashing us. As the last cultural moment before we all headed online to consume media, sitting down on the sofa between the 8-10pm slot was a focal time zone at which most of us transcended whatever was going on at home and became one and the same.
In no way was the representation we were afforded complete or all-encompassing, but nostalgic throwbacks are useful for judging how far we’ve come, or haven’t. Although representation isn’t the be an end of all self-esteem, in the moments when our lives are reduced to superficial qualities, it is the insurance that many people won’t admit they look to.
Although I’m a sucker for teenage romance, it would be a warm embrace for such shows and characters to make a comeback. Yet, the increasing dominance of streaming services like Netflix enable our stories to be weaved with those across the globe. Yet many of our own Black British actors are still forced to make the Atlantic leap in order to land promising roles abroad, before returning home. From Idris Elba to Daniel Kaluuya, the UK is far from a post-racial haven. This leaves the state of teenage television somewhat fractured, as there isn’t always much here for our own. Although some glory days are behind us, it’s unclear what, and where, the future holds for us as an audience. It’s most likely somewhere online, but the old soapbox might be going away for good.
(I do really miss Clyde from the Sarah Jane Adventures and Crash from Tracy Beaker, though.)