Looking around the Eisner & Lubin Auditorium at New York University this past Wednesday evening was a pretty heartwarming thing. The air was electric. I was surrounded by around 200 or so people, most of whom were women of color, excitedly chatting, catching up, connecting, and finding places to sit. We were all there to see the same thing: Brown Girls.
Brown Girls (not to be confused with the upcoming Freeform show) is a new webseries about two twenty-something best friends living in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago and trying to, as they say, figure it all out. It stars Nabila Hossain as Leila, a South Asian writer coming to terms with her queerness, and Sonia Denis as Patricia, a black musician coming to terms with commitment whether it’s with boys or her job. It’s hilarious, it’s moving, and it’s exactly what groundbreaking media looks like. A second season is already on the way.
Believe me when I say you’ve never seen anything like Brown Girls. Let’s be real: these flawed characters who tangle with their identities in such a nuanced and relatable way through their mistakes and flaws simply do not exist in mainstream media.
I chatted with Brown Girls creator and writer Fatimah Asghar about the show, the positive response it has been getting, and creating a defiant and relatable queer Muslim character in the age of Trump.
So Brown Girls has been getting a lot of positive press and people really seem to like it. What do you think about it resonates with people?
I think that it’s partially because people don’t get to see themselves on TV or even in webseries a lot.
To see a story that has people of color who are from different backgrounds, have all different body shapes, I think that really moves a lot of people. People are also really excited to see the story of this friendship—it is a slice of their friendships with people, so I think that that’s what people are responding to.
I think in mainstream media, women characters of color are so bound to various character tropes that they don’t really have a lot of space to be flawed. But Leila and Patricia are definitely flawed—what was the importance of bringing that realistic aspect to them?
I think you’re right. Every time there is especially a woman of color on TV, it kind of falls into two camps. They’re either these powerhouses that are superwomen and unstoppable or they’re totally messed up. I really wanted to make characters that are like my friends. You have people who are trying to get their lives together and they don’t know why they do some of the things they do. Like, they don’t know why they send home a dude that they hooked up with, and then get really upset that they see him with someone else.
These are all things that actions that are deeply, deeply, deeply relatable because you’re not always one hundred percent in touch with yourself all the time. You make decisions that you’re like, "I don’t know why I did that. This is really hypocritical." I think that’s the thing! Women of color are not allowed to be hypocritical on TV a lot and I think that every single woman is hypocritical and does things that don’t add up. It’s really fun to show that and still create characters that are lovable but are deeply, deeply flawed.
I noticed that there are um, no white people in this show. Was that a conscious decision?
I definitely consciously did that. I wrote it to be completely people of color and this community. In film and movies, it’s usually the reverse and it’s all white, and they’re never questioned. What I really wanted to do was like no, we’re going to take it the other way, and make it all people of color and that is totally fine.
You started writing this back in 2015. Does today’s political climate and context change the way you look at the show?
I think in an era where a Muslim ban can happen, shows like this are incredibly important. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character like Leila on TV and I think that in terms of being queer and Muslim, drinking and doing that stuff, it’s important to know that there are Muslim people who are like that and are not super hard to find. I think that changes what it means to be Muslim in the mainstream kind of sense and I think that’s really great.
What for you is the takeaway message for Brown Girls? And is there a different message for the straight white dudes that watch it as opposed to queer women of color?
Yeah, I think that I want brown queer women to feel seen and to connect to the story. I think so often especially when you talk about identity, it can get so wrapped up in the struggle of the identity and not always celebrate the joy of that identity. I think that it’s really lovely to be able to be in a room with people or see people who look like you and be like we’re here we exist and we’re all together.
Also I think this happens every time they add a person of color to something like Star Wars, and there’s a backlash saying, ‘That’s not relatable instantly!’
And I just feel like that is a total lie. A lot of people I know who are white love this project because they say the stuff on TV doesn’t reflect their lived lives either. Literally not seeing any person of color, they’re like, ‘That’s not my life,’ and I think that that’s what I hope shows like this can create.