Is ‘Modern Love’ Only for White Women?

The omission of women of color as love interests in the new Amazon series is more than an oversight

Credit: Amazon Studios

TThe Amazon Prime series Modern Love (based on the popular eponymous New York Times column) was released on October 17. White women gushed on social media, saying the show made them cry, and that these depictions of love were so moving, so beautifully human, so modern.

After watching the show, I cried too—longer and harder than I care to admit. But I cried because, as a Black woman, the show made me feel anything but romantic. With its total exclusion of Black, brown, and Indigenous women as love interests, I felt invisible and dehumanized. Modern Love was incredibly traumatizing to watch, reminding me of all the gendered violence and dismissal I’ve faced in my life.

Not one woman of color was a love interest. Instead, they fulfilled support roles for White women and men of color. If one were to take Modern Love’s word for it, women of color in New York City don’t experience romance or desire. They’re merely therapists, domestic workers, and ever-patient maternal friends.

The exclusion of women of color in this series is so blatant that it can only be intentional. Even in the intro, old black-and-white pictures of happy lovers are contrasted with vibrant, colorful, modern-day snapshots of romance. Plenty of Black women, with their elegant midcentury hairdos and wide smiles, are featured in the old pictures. But in the present-day pictures, Black women are nowhere to be found. One can imagine them waiting patiently outside the frame, facilitating love for others but understanding that they themselves have no place in this brave new world.

Credit: Amazon Studios

But in Modern Love, men of color are afforded a ticket to modernity that women of color are not. In the show, men of color — two Black men, one Indian man, and one Japanese man — are all shown either in love, falling in love, or trying to fall in love with White people. This is far from the only film where men of color ignore or discard women of color as romantic partners.

The exclusion of women of color in this series is so blatant that it can only be intentional.

In the movie The Big Sick, a Desi man (Kumail Nanjiani) rejects the South Asian women his mother wants him to marry in favor of a White woman. He even burns the pictures of these Desi women, presenting the ashes to his White girlfriend as a sick sign of devotion. Reviewing this film, Aisha Mirza writes, “It’s sad that straight men of color and White women insist on using the fallacy of depoliticized love as a way to enact White supremacist and patriarchal violence and to further the erasure and abuses of women of color.”

This dynamic is reflected off-screen as well. A 2012 study published in Sociology of Education showed that boys of color in predominantly White schools have an easier time assimilating because they are able to access “coolness” in ways that girls of color are not. Often, they attain this social status and desired interracial contact by denigrating the girls of color around them.

DDani Kwateng-Clark, culture and entertainment director at Teen Vogue, recently tweeted, “Being a Black woman is a constant balance of being highly visible [and] yet constantly overlooked.”

Even though Black and brown women are completely overlooked in Modern Love, the series still seizes the opportunity to capitalize on them, not just as mammy figures but also as sexualized tropes. The only woman in the series who could possibly be considered a woman of color — the White-presenting Yasmin, played by French Algerian actress Sofia Boutella — is proof of this.

Her White male love interest is mostly drawn to her beauty, her exoticness, and her sex appeal. She’s the only female character who appears seminude. Due to a mishap during a sexual encounter, she spends nearly the entire episode covered in blood. Her personality flaw is being addicted to the sexual attention of men, actively seeking it out wherever she goes. None of the other White women are hypersexualized in this way — not even the woman whose unplanned pregnancy and shitty boyfriend mark her journey toward single motherhood or the homeless woman who has to give up her baby for adoption. These are characters who would certainly be demonized, sexualized, or shamed if they were women of color, but instead they are offered the empathy and humanization that everyone deserves but so few receive.

From the Orientalist fetishization of Middle Eastern women to tropes of the sexually submissive Asian woman, the feisty Latina woman, and the “fast” Black girl, these hypersexualized stereotypes directly contribute to the gendered violence women of color face. According to the organization End Rape on Campus, “While 80% of rapes are reported by White women, women of color are more likely to be assaulted.” Among women of color, Indigenous women experience the highest rates of sexual violence, while 60% of Black girls experience sexual assault before their 18th birthday. For all racial groups, these numbers drastically increase for trans women and nonbinary people, who are also excluded from the cisgender and mostly heteronomative narratives in Modern Love.

Simultaneously excluding and hypersexualizing women of color on-screen reflects how we’re treated off-screen. Modern Love is a cog in a wheel of oppressive depictions of women of color that cause real harm by presenting us as unworthy of love and nonviolent desire, instead positing that White women are the sole authorities, recipients, and providers of love.

TThe episode that hit me the hardest was “Take Me As I Am, However I Am,” a story of a White woman named Lexi (Anne Hathaway) whose attempted romance with a Black man, Jeff (Gary Carr), shows her she must find a way to address her bipolar disorder to attain both romantic and platonic love. She hides her illness from everyone, and yet she is afforded chance after chance in her romantic and professional life. When she misses weeks of work, she still has a job. When she’s distant and controlling toward Jeff, he still wants to form a connection. When her boss — a Black woman — is finally forced to fire Lexi, she still drops professional commitments to listen and care for Lexi after she finally admits that she is bipolar, eventually becoming her close friend.

These are all concessions that society says shouldn’t be made for Black women like me. Due to a genetic inheritance of mental illness and being molested by a family member at age four, I’ve struggled with mental health for my entire life. I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t mentally ill, and I certainly can’t remember a time when the fact that I was deserving of love and second chances was depicted on-screen.

The movies and TV shows I watched growing up — so steeped in heteronormativity, patriarchal violence, and White supremacy — merely reinforced these feelings of shame and unworthiness.

Black mentally ill women like me are often shown in human cages, in deep poverty, discarded by society. They’re not shown as highly intelligent and beautifully manic, as Anne Hathaway’s character is depicted. They don’t get to dance through grocery store aisles in high fashion, catching the eye of successful Black men who want to marry them because of their joie de vivre. They’re not called Rita Hayworths, they’re called crackheads.

In her Medium article “Struggle Love Is Not a Badge of Honor,” Arah Iloabugichukwu writes that Black women “are consistently told that we should ask for little and accept less… And we’re regularly told that the things we desire are out of reach, out of touch, or simply out of our league.”

I was taught that because of my race, gender, illness, and trauma, I was worth less and deserved less. I didn’t know what love was, because in addition to being abused, I was rarely given the opportunity to see a Black woman as the recipient of healthy love. The movies and TV shows I watched growing up — so steeped in heteronormativity, patriarchal violence, and White supremacy — merely reinforced these feelings of shame and unworthiness. It hurts to see the empathy that I so desperately needed at my lowest freely extended toward White women in Modern Love.

AsAs an anthology, the show could have been inclusive of Black and brown women and trans and nonbinary people. Instead, the exclusion sends a violent and deliberate message: that we don’t belong in modernity.

Modernity is usually meant to evoke concepts of egalitarianism and justice. However, the pursuit of modernity is fertile ground for violent racism, because it relies on the concept that certain things must be eliminated to make way for something better. In Modern Love, women of color, trans women of color, and nonbinary people are the things that must be eliminated. We are not allowed to replace or compete with White, thin, cisgender, heterosexual, conventionally beautiful women as romantic interests. We are useful only for facilitating their romantic pursuits.

In Modern Love, women of color are mere relics from a time when anti-miscegenation laws and discrimination prevented men of color from being with the apparent true objects of their desire: White women. We’re vestigial organs. We’re the baby mamas you were once forced to stay with; we are the arranged marriages you once complied with; we are the ones you fucked at 2 a.m. when the White girls’ fathers were waiting by the door with shotguns. But in modernity, there is no need for us, because White women are finally there, finally ready to give and receive abundant love.

The late Toni Morrison said, “Don’t beg anybody for anything, especially love.” But while it’s easy to see us Black women confronting the way we are portrayed in stories about love, romance, sex, and marriage as begging for love, the truth is much more complicated. Excluding us, demonizing us, hypersexualizing us in these narratives doesn’t simply make us sad—it has devastating consequences on our physical and mental health, our financial burdens, and our risk of violence. We’re not simply crying into our pillows at night, waiting for a prince to come save us. We’re asking this society to see us, to see our worth, to acknowledge the harm it does to us on a daily basis. We’re asking men of color and White women to be the allies they constantly purport to be.

We are not begging for love. We are begging for our lives.

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