Why Black Girls Need "Everything Everything"

On the surface Everything Everything is your typical novel-adapted teen romance film. It’s about an 18-year-old girl named Maddie who falls in love with the mysterious boy next door, despite a medical condition that keeps her confined to her home. It’s a super cute love story that’s bound to be a box office hit. What’s groundbreaking about the film, however, is that unlike many of the young adult films we’ve seen in the past, the protagonist in this film is a black girl.

Though I’m technically no longer a teen, Everything Everything satisfied the lovesick teenybopper that still lives inside me. As an angsty adolescent I was constantly reading teen romance novels in my free time as an escape from my non-existent love life. Yet, as a black girl I often struggled to find myself in these kinds of novels. The film adaptations of books such as The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns were but visual proof that girls who looked like me aren’t typically viewed as fantastically beautiful or mysteriously stunning. In teen novels and films alike, black girls are always the sassy best friends or the forgettable sidekicks. We never get to be the utterly desirable girl next door that some smooth-talking, cute boy falls hopelessly in love with. Everything Everything finally gave us the chance to be that.

Amandla Stenberg, who is the actual definition of carefree, plays the main character, Maddie, in the film. Everything Everything satisfied her “little 14-year-old indie heart,” Amandla said in a Q&A following the movie premiere in Hollywood. Also present at the Q&A was Nicola Yoon, the writer of the book, who talked about her decision to make Maddie’s character biracial. She said, “Maddie looks the way she does because my little girl looks the way she does.” Nicola wrote the story with a biracial protagonist because she wanted her daughter to be able to see herself in literature someday—something she wasn’t afforded when she was a teenager who loved to read. Amandla described her initial reaction to the script during the Q&A, “When I received the email with the script I was like, ‘this looks like something they’re going to want to make with a white girl. Why am I receiving this email?’” However, after reading the book, it became clear that the protagonist was, in fact, a biracial girl. It was primarily the existence of a biracial protagonist in the book that prompted Amandla to accept the role for the film. “We’ve seen young adult teen stories before, but we never get to see it with a black girl in the lead,” she said.

I couldn’t help but snap my fingers in agreement when Amandla spoke of the way Everything Everything highlights the personhood of black girls. “It was important for me to see a character that was a black girl who was a person,” as she so eloquently put it. The presence of a black actress in a role such as this one has huge implications, for black teenage girls. For too long the stories we’ve seen about black women have surrounded slavery, segregation, or some other form of oppression. And while it is extremely important that those stories get told, it is exhausting to only see someone who looks like you portraying those kinds of roles. For teen black girls, especially, it is important to be able to see portrayals of themselves apart from the oppression of their ancestors. To see someone who looks like them simply being. That’s exactly what this film accomplishes. It’s not a movie about a black girl falling in love with a boy, it’s a movie about girl, who just so happens to be black, falling in love with a boy.

Everything Everything is what young black girls have always needed. It reinforces the inherent beauty that black women possess, while acknowledging our inherent humanity. It reminds us that we too, with our kinky hair and dark brown eyes are worthy of the mindless teenage love we’ve all desired at some point in our lives. This kind of media creates visibility for and normalizes the black experience. My hope is that Everything Everything would pave the way for filmmakers to tell similar stories in the future. That the monolithic story-telling we’re too used to seeing would radically shift towards the normalization of diverse experiences. 

Everything Everything is in theaters on May 19th! 

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 11.55.55 AM.png

on being "strong."

 

It’s no secret that being a woman ain’t easy. We walk around, faces beat, dressed to the nines in our high-waisted denim and “The Future is Female” apparel, yet no doubt have boy baggage, suppressed sexist ideologies, and crippling, societal-expectation-induced insecurities buried behind the glittery highlight on our cheek bones. Not to mention, we’re also probably hiding grimaces from period cramps because it’s “un-ladylike” to talk about such things in public. But at the same time we’ve been conditioned to use this natural occurrence as an excuse when intense emotions and our monthly cycle happen to line up. And sure, while there’s some scientific causation between mood swings and menstrual cycles, there’s something lurking deeper behind this phenomenon.

It’s this idea that if you are intensely emotive, then you are weak. You are annoying. You are a mess. You need to “get yourself together.” It’s why we wipe our tears away so quickly if we find ourselves crying in the coffee shop and why we think twice before tweeting something slightly depressing on Twitter. And as a result of developing this retaliation towards necessary sadness, we have deemed ourselves “strong.”

I haven’t texted the problematic boy in a while. Therefore, I am strong.                                           

I held back my tears when the professor challenged my beliefs in class. Therefore, I am strong.

I went out and did something for me today. Therefore, I am strong.

We spend our time doing things that make us feel strong, posting photos on Instagram that make us look strong, and trying our very best to convince the sadness within ourselves that we are strong. However, contrary to what society would have us women folk believe about ourselves, I’d like to propose that this is not real strength.

Because the truth is,

TO BE A WOMAN IN AND OF ITSELF IS A MATTER OF STRENGTH.

Despite the frilly, damsel-in-distress, “you throw like a girl” narrative we been brought up in, it is merely a fact that if you are a woman, you are inherently strong. We wage wars with our bodies on a monthly basis and continually survive them. We hold men in our bosoms and bring them to life. And when those men grow and learn to attack our bodies in word and deed, we develop an armor against those attacks. 

WE DON’T NEED TO CONVINCE OURSELVES THAT WE ARE STRONG BECAUSE WE WERE BORN THAT WAY.  

So, this new idea of “strong” that we’ve cultivated over the centuries is unrealistic and overrated. It asks that women be superhuman, in a sense. That we combat every cancelled dinner date, every hurtful word, and every bad hair day with an iron fist, fleeky eyebrows, and a lipstick-ed grin. This definition of strength breeds the idea that there are strong women and there are weak women. Thus, creating an unnecessary riff between us. So that those of us who manage to “keep it together” feel and look like less of a mess than those of us who appear to be falling apart. And instead of banding together to fight the oppressive ideology that suggests that women must earn their strength, we divide and fight with each other, which only furthers our oppression.  

And since I’m being real with y’all, I just have to admit that I too have ascribed to this false version of strength. I’ve neglected my sadness with coffee for one, bold lipstick, and selfish ambition. When my friends have asked genuine “How are you doing’s?” I’ve given them glittery falsities in return. I’ve bought into the lie that by ignoring my distress I could cure what only prayer and time could heal. But I’m tired y’all. I truly am. I’m tired of picking myself up by bootstraps that are already broken. And I’m tired of denying this God-given strength that is so evidently a part of me.

And so, I am writing this letter to myself and to all you strong women, as a reminder. A reminder that we must not neglect the care of self in the name of “strength.” That tears and heads hung low are not an indication of weakness. Our emotiveness does not rob us of the might embedded in us when we were but dust. Because nothing can do that.

So, cry in the coffee shop. Binge watch Netflix. Write sad poems. Rant on Twitter. And then look in the mirror and call yourself strong.

Because honey, as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what you are.

C.S. 

To be a woman is to Fight

a poem by Chloe Laughlin

Sometimes in the way you fold your napkins

Sometimes in the way you hold tight to tears

Sometimes in the “I don’t know’s” and “I’m sorry’s”

To be a woman is to fight for a place in the world

While pretending there’s no fight at all. 

 

 

 

Special thanks to Shelby Baumgartner for editing my scattered thoughts (-: