In a viral clip from Netflix’s Gilmore Girls wannabe Ginny & Georgia, high-school sophomore Ginny (Antonia Gentry) gets into a fight with her boyfriend Hunter (Mason Temple). The clip originally circled on Twitter because of its stilted, awkward dialogue, as the two trade highly specific, pointed insults at each other regarding their race.
Within the context of the show, the characters are arguing about the different ways in which they’ve grappled with being biracial. Ginny accuses half-Taiwanese Hunter of benefiting from the model minority stereotype, while Hunter tells her she’s barely in touch with her own Blackness. They go back and forth on who experiences more racism, until Hunter finally exclaims, “Oppression Olympics: Let’s go!”
The scene now has been dissected for the origins and particular unfairness of its racial stereotypes. But it stands out to me in particular because of how it emphasizes an oddly frequent trope regarding biracial characters, a trope that Netflix keeps playing into. Both the characters are biracial, but while Hunter lives with both parents, Ginny’s Black father is largely out of the picture; she lives with her white mother. That makes her yet another mixed-race Netflix protagonist who’s being raised by a single white parent.
It feels like there are more stories centered around mixed-race people now than ever before, and certainly more than I had when I was growing up. I’m not alone in noticing the trend. As a biracial individual, I absolutely struggle with impostor syndrome with regard to my own identity. Simultaneously not white enough and not Asian enough — according to my own internal conflict and to the voices of those, both people I’ve met and strangers on the internet, who decide I don’t have a claim on either identity — I often pause on demographic surveys that don’t have an option for multiracial, or even “other.” The narrow view of ethnicity in most conversations about race leaves me wondering which part of myself I’ll have to deny in any given setting. Netflix’s interest in mixed-race characters felt validating, until I noticed the pattern the streaming service has been falling into.
Netflix keeps making stories with biracial protagonists, but with a persistent caveat. Across multiple Netflix originals, such as Ginny & Georgia, the To All the Boys movies, The Main Event, and The Baby-Sitters Club, single white parents raise mixed-race children. The parent of color is either dead before the start of the story, or initially absent from the protagonist’s life.
The “growing up, I rarely saw people like me on screen” narrative may seem old at this point, but it was particularly true in this respect. It wasn’t just that I didn’t see myself in films or on TV; I never saw families like my own, stories about people from different backgrounds coming together. Across greater media, mixed-race characters are sometimes around, but without much discussion of their family background. Usually, they’re either biracial because the actor portraying them happens to be mixed-race, like Rashida Jones in Parks and Recreation, or because their identities are used as “gotcha” plot twists. (Hello, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Detective Pikachu.)
Stories about mixed-race characters are rarely centered around families. That lack of representation in general makes the recurring Netflix-specific trope of removing the parent of color all the more jarring. These movies and shows end up viewing race through a very white lens, diluting the experience of being a mixed-race person to only one, limited facet.
Some of these Netflix originals integrate race more than others, though they certainly don’t all do so with the same finesse. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its sequels have a slightly more thoughtful interrogation of hopeless romantic Lara Jean (Lana Condor) trying to connect with her culture without her Korean mother in the picture, although that subplot isn’t a central part of the story. Lara Jean wears a hanbok for a family gathering in the second movie, and she flits around Korea in the beginning of the third, for instance. Sometimes she muses about how much she misses her mom. But her exploration of her background never goes much deeper.
A fluffy rom-com trilogy isn’t necessarily required to include an interrogation of racial identity. Lara Jean has warm feelings toward her mother and her Korean side. Her father makes an effort to keep in touch with her mother’s family and traditions. It never becomes a point of contention in Lara Jean’s life, but that makes sense because the story isn’t about her identity; it’s about her love life. The virtue of Lara Jean being a mixed-race protagonist at the center of a romantic comedy is already notable. To All the Boys and its sequels are perhaps the least grating example of this trope, helped in part by the fact that the book series comes from Korean author Jenny Han. The films could certainly do better (for one, Lana Condor isn’t biracial or Korean), but they’re largely inoffensive, and they give Lara Jean some character depth.
Conversely, Ginny & Georgia is focused on the disconnect between a mother and her daughter, so Ginny’s conflicted feelings about her race make more thematic sense. She navigates her overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class town as one of the few students of color in her high school. Her father does eventually appear later in the show to send her into a further existential spiral, but he’s absent for the majority of the series. And that entire plotline is bogged down by the jumbled Jenga tower of all the other storylines crammed into Ginny & Georgia — and by that now-infamous episode where Ginny and Hunter go head to head primarily so the writers can break them up, and she can get with her other love interest.
Stories about people trying to connect with the background of an absent parent are important: Learning more about your identity is an inherent part of coming-of-age narratives, and adding the nuance of race could bring forth compelling stories. But that assumes those stories are being explored with cultural specificity and insight. So why is the parent who’s present always the white one?
Like many other mixed-race individuals, I often grappled with not being “enough” of either of my racial backgrounds. But coming from a high school with few Asian students, teachers, or administrators, it often manifested as me not feeling Asian enough to differentiate myself from my white classmates. Because of how white-passing I appear, many of my peers assume that I’m white. Some would even go so far as to deny it when I clarified to them, telling me that I didn’t “count” as someone with Asian heritage simply because of my physical appearance. It took a long time for me to internalize that the whiteness around me was not necessarily the norm, and that I shouldn’t constantly have to view myself from that vantage point.
These movies and shows, however, repeatedly emphasize biraciality from a white viewpoint. Which wouldn’t be so exasperating if there were other stories to balance out that perspective. But as it stands, with so few other examples to counteract the white-centric point of view, these movies and shows end up accentuating the idea that a mixed-race identity can only be processed in relation to whiteness. And that’s not even touching on the lack of stories about mixed-race families where no one is white at all.
Narratives focused on race aren’t the only ones where the writers remove the parent of color. In fact, that choice comes off as a different sort of weird in cases where the character’s race doesn’t really make a difference. In Netflix’s version of The Baby-Sitters Club, shy Mary Anne (Malia Baker), whose whole schtick in the books was having an overprotective widower father, is now biracial. Her dad is white, and her dead mother was Black. In WWE and Netflix’s joint kid flick The Main Event, aspiring young wrestler Leo (Seth Carr) deals with his Black mother abandoning his family prior to the start of the story, leaving his overworked white father looking after him. Neither of those stories really interrogate the race of their main characters, aside from a passing mention that Mary Anne’s father doesn’t know how to do her hair. So why is it the parent of color who is out of the picture, when the story would make just as much sense if the white parent had disappeared?
On their own, these movies and shows don’t do anything particularly egregious. Certainly, making these characters biracial instead of white by default is a step forward in diversity. But it’s strange how few shows and movies actually show both parents of multiracial kids, and how often they leave out what could be another character of color in the narrative.
One possible explanation is that white creators try to make stories without crossing any cultural boundaries: If the protagonists are half-white, then surely white showrunners and directors can tell their stories, too. But repeat the same trope too much, and Netflix as a whole risks playing into stereotypes of irresponsible and absent people of color abandoning the stalwart white parent who sticks around for the sake of the child.
There is no universal description to fit every biracial person’s relationship to their parents, but I would hazard to say that navigating already tricky parent-child relationships gets all the more complicated when you factor in different races. My relationships with both of my parents are special and unique, each colored by the inherent fact that I experience the world differently than either of them. But both of them are important to me. Both of them represent parts of me. It’s not just my relationship with my white father that makes me worthwhile, even if movies and TV would imply otherwise.
Of course, not every mixed-race person out there has the luxury of having both parents around. Then again, despite what these stories would have you think, not every mixed-race person with a single parent is raised by a white parent, either. But in the current Netflix world, that’s the norm and the expectation.
Stories about mixed-race people should continue to be told. Those characters should continue to be leads in romantic comedies, coming-of-age dramedies, kid fantasies, and all the more. Netflix creators aren’t intentionally removing the parent of color from their biracial narratives, but they could stand to intentionally consider what, if anything, that adds to their stories going forward — and what kinds of important stories they aren’t telling when they keep telling this one over and over.