(… I can’t believe I just mangled a Dowson poem for a title. Why Dowson, of all poets? They should take away my English degree before I even finish it. I should probably stop appropriating nineteenth century English poetry for my blog post titles in general. However:)
From 2003 to 2005, there was a British television show called Girls in Love, which is, alas, not about what you think it’s about. It was based on a set of Jacqueline Wilson novels about three teenage best friends, Ellie, Magda, and Nadine, who are all desperate to find the perfect boyfriends. (Ahem.) Ellie is played by Olivia Hallinan, of Sugar Rush fame (a show which is about what you thought Girls in Love was going to be about!), who is one of my very favourite actors. The thing is, in the books, Ellie is fat and has glasses and frizzy hair. Hallinan’s Ellie is on the skinny side, has eyes framed by bucketloads of mascara rather than specs, and has the sleekest hair you’ve ever seen. Magda (Zaraah Abrahams), meanwhile, is white in the books, and I think we’re meant to read her as black in the series – Abrahams is of Iraqi, Barbadian, and Jamaican descent*. The Wilson fans? Have been quite annoyed by all this.
Now, I don’t think adaptations need to be totally faithful to the books, whatever that means. I think that trying to be totally faithful does the source material, the difference between media, and the story some disservice. I’m interested as to what particular changes expose about the ways in which marginalised characteristics exist in popular culture.
Now, I can’t really recall much from the one Ellie book I read back in the day, but I really like Magda in the series. I don’t think the series suffers for having a constant non-white character in it; I frankly find TV shows set in environments with non-white populations in which non-white characters are extras, if present at all, creepy. (I see you there, Are You Being Served?, with your stock black extra in series nine.) (I’ve been watching a lot of television these holidays, can you tell?) Ellie, on the other hand? Well, Hallinan does a charming job, as in every role I’ve seen her in, but a disservice was done to frizzy-haired glasses-wearing young ladies – hi! – everywhere when one more decision was made that a heroine of that description couldn’t be had. We need fat girls in prominent roles, because fat girls need representin’, too.
There was a thread at Bitch Magazine the other day on my friend Dorian’s post in which we were having a discussion about Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series. Apparently, prior to the white Emma Watson’s casting in the films, many people read Hermione as black. Now, I never had, because I am used to novels making non-white characters really explicitly non-white, while we’re left to assume all the other characters are white by default. I think it’s really cool that this interpretation is breaking that, and I wonder what we would have done with a black Hermione on screen.
Changes in adaptations can expand what we read in the books, and expand our ideas of what a character can be, just as easily as they can act to squash difference. I’d find Girls in Love quite off-putting if I was being expected to swallow a monochromatic England – which is not to say that there aren’t any non-white characters in the books, I can’t recall, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of diversity in the TV series in any case. I like that there are loads of non-white characters in Harry Potter, even if they are mostly silent in the books and films both. As for Are You Being Served?, it’s full of racist jokes, so I really wouldn’t even try unless you’re willing to take the genuinely funny with a big dose of sad.
I think it particularly important to think this stuff through with adaptations of children’s media in particular. Girls in Love could have been a really important show in different ways if we’d had the kind of Ellie we had in the books. If we move toward the default body types and expected characteristics, we’re losing out on allowing children to recognise themselves in the media they are consuming. And if young people’s media is as often about helping them through the troubles of childhood and adolescence as it claims to be, well, being able to identify themselves in those characters would help, as would challenging normativity.
*I’m only a few episodes in, and so far no one has said a word about Magda’s background. I wanted to differentiate between her character’s background and Abrahams’ own as I’m conscious of not repeating the erasure of one part of an actor’s background in favour of another. I’m particularly thinking of Abrahams’ countrywoman and fellow actor Freema Agyeman, who is best known for playing a black character on Doctor Who, and whose Iranian ancestry doesn’t seem to exist for a lot of the general public.