tv All the Brown Girls on TV
, Megan Lee Miller / Katie Martin
Sam Bailey lit a cigarette, lost in what Fatimah Asghar later called “stunned silence.” The women do most things together these days—ever since Bailey, 28, wrote and Asghar, 27, directed a new web series—Brown Girls, set in Chicago, where they live. But that January afternoon, they shared a bench outside Sony Studios in Los Angeles. For days, they’d felt a thrill new to those born black (Bailey) or Muslim (Asghar): affirmation. Hollywood executives loved the world the two 20-somethings made, one where no one is white and everyone is “brown”—Spanish-speaking, black, South Asian, queer. Off-white. The same only in that they are different. Emails from HBO, Comedy Central, and TBS started the day Brown Girls went online. Visions of strange new viewers loomed: accountants in Ohio, yoga-addicted housewives, maybe even politicians in Washington.
They hadn’t meant to stray past their tribe—the friends Asghar kept in mind as she wrote or the strangers who could have been her friends, or characters. Like the girls of color on Remezcla, the Latin site that drove the bulk of their views and search traffic from the day their trailer beamed from it like a bat signal. Soon screenings materialized, in London, Spain, the Brooklyn Museum of Art—where brown girls in Hatecopy shirts partied with queer black boys in one of the largest temples to African art in the world. For those primed to get it, the series was “hard to miss,” said Aymar Jean Christian, an academic at Northwestern University, which in part funds the series via the media incubator OpenTV (Beta). Founded by Christian, OpenTV gave birth to the show. “I’ve been studying web series for eight years,” he told me, “and I strain to think of a web series that got as much press.” Twitter, a measure of what people care about right this second, registered the interest, too. On premiere day, #browngirls was high enough to be seen by anyone glancing at the site’s trending hashtags.
Miles from the gloom of Chicago, Asghar and Bailey were confused. Because the country is confused. Americans are preparing for different eventualities. The president is promising a border wall, even as the nation’s biggest networks pour cash into Telemundo and Univision. This year and last, Atlanta and Insecure and Moonlight and Moana moved the spotlight away from white characters and writers, and eyes and hearts and wallets moved, too. On Rotten Tomatoes, another good scale of popular interest, those four productions together total just shy of a perfect score, at 396 percent. The nation’s heartbeat holds the quick pulses of those brown girls and black boys, and executives tried to match fare to that pace. Others, famously, could not keep up. Kendall Jenner walked into the wrong role—a would-be protester who breaks ranks to bond with cops over a Pepsi. The ad failed; hashtags flew the wrong way. Soda wound up looking more dated than ever before.
This month, HBO announced a deal with Asghar and Bailey to develop Brown Girls into a series. The decision exceeded expectations. HBO is orders of magnitude edgier than Pepsi, but even so, Brown Girls is a tricky sell: The two lead characters, Leila and Patricia, are Pakistani American and African American; there are no white people; there are a lot of gay folks; and lurking under every party scene and friend montage lies a dark premise—things really might not work out. Diversity may be good business for HBO today, but creators still answer to the whims of tomorrow’s market. “We know historically that the mainstream loses interest in us,” Christian told me. Every trend is a product of market factors. The rise of cable meant white flight from network TV and an era of black sitcoms in the 1990s. As prestige TV took off in the last decade, networks made another transformation, bringing in dramas starring people of color (like the shows Asghar binges on: Scandal, Quantico, How To Get Away With Murder). HBO’s standalone streaming service, HBO Now, launched to tap into viewers who don’t have a cable subscription, prepping for a future when everyone is “untethered,” as Christian put it. HBO Now’s flagship show, Insecure, makes a bid for black viewers who fall into that demographic.
“Man, I fucking love people of color.”
Relying on the market to guarantee relevancy can of course go against you. Consider, for instance, the other Brown Girls, a pilot in the works under the same name written by two women—one desi, one Iranian. Directed for network TV by Mark Cendrowski, a Big Bang Theory alum, the show’s premise sounds almost like a joke about how out of step Hollywood is. Indeed, the plot lifts an actual joke: It is a real version of the fake Indian sitcom in Master of None, a retread of Perfect Strangers, only with an Indian character from India and one from America. So far, the duplicate name hasn’t been an issue. This other production may yet be an innovative hit, but Asghar frets over the perilous premise, which to her mind is a likely victim of the network mismanagement she has so far been spared. “It’s sad, because he’s going to be fine,” she said, about Cendrowski. If the show does come in for criticism, Asghar fears, it would likely fall heaviest on the women who wrote the show and the desi actors on screen.
OpenTV exists partly to test what happens when people of color nurture work by other people of color. “Everything is data,” Christian told me. He is collecting metrics on each OpenTV program—numbers from Twitter, web statistics, and development deals—to see how and if they can survive in the American media landscape. Brown Girls is thus a sort of freak, born in a test tube but also in conditions arguably more organic than in Hollywood, where the bottom line influences every artistic choice. Perhaps that’s why Asghar and Bailey heard warnings en route to Los Angeles. “People told us all kinds of things,” Asghar told me. “Like, ‘You already made Brown Girls. Nobody’s going to want that. They’re just going to want to have you in the Rolodex. These are all general meetings’ … blah, blah, blah.”
Instead, life actually worked out. Their time in Hollywood reads as a dream of frictionless peace between people of color, who Asghar and Bailey say “rode hard” for the show. This wasn’t some Pepsi meeting. Nor was it the experience that reportedly met Issa Rae, in the early stages of developing Insecure. (One network angled to make it Awkward Indian Boy, another wanted to cast a lighter-skinned actress, and a third rejected a list of dream writing hires—mostly people of color—due to their lack of formal experience.) Everyone in the room seemed to get where Asghar and Bailey were coming from. “She was called a ‘baby creator,’” Bailey told me, smirking at Asghar. “But like, in a good way. They came in being like, ‘This is dope and we want to protect you. We want to help you.’” The agreement they reached suggests a continuity of vision—their test-tube baby will walk, not inspire some slicker creation. The plot picks up where the series left off, with producer roles for Bailey and Asghar. (No actors are yet signed on.)
Sitting on the bench that day under the L.A. sun, Asghar broke the stunned silence. “Man,” she said to Bailey, “I fucking love people of color.”
Bailey and Asghar met in Chicago after college, but they act like childhood friends, finishing each other’s thoughts and nodding in agreement in an automatic way that suggests they’ve been through every idea together in private. In May, we sat down in a café in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The pair shot one of the show’s pivotal scenes here: Patricia meets her mom at the café, setting the audience up for the final act in the last episode of the season, when she asks her mom for financial help. Patricia lost her waitressing job and “doesn’t want to burden her mom, but she has to,” Bailey said.
The scene contrasts with one from that other show about post-college women, a comic emblem of the Gen Y condition: when Hannah Horvath’s parents cut her off in the pilot episode of Girls. Like Hannah, Patricia is caught between a fantasy sold from childhood and hard economic realities. Patricia can’t stomach the degradations of her day job, but she needs money to make it as a musician. Yet, unlike Hannah, Patricia’s ask feels somber, weighed down by stakes the Horvaths seem exempt from. You get the sense that Patricia’s mom is straining to help and that failing to repay her tempts real consequences. The scene moves slowly. Patricia wears a tank top and has her dreadlocks half up. She’s on the phone; she sounds stressed and a little sad. “I didn’t plan on getting fired,” she says. Patricia is played by the stand-up comedian Sonia Denis, a natural when there’s a foil at hand. Against a phone, her acting isn’t as persuasive. And yet, the scene moves with the energy of the symbolic. The camera pans around the bedroom in a life we haven’t seen before: of a black Chicago art kid. There’s a photo of Drake, a poster for an art event in Pilsen, a mini keyboard, beer cans, a book on the contemporary black director Steve McQueen, photographs of black friends and family, and an aspirational photo of an elegant, natural-haired model.
Brown Girls has been compared a lot with Lena Dunham’s Girls. The most striking counterpoint is accidental: Bailey and Asghar’s innovation of casting no white characters. Most of the crew is of color, too. Girls was famously criticized for its blithe presentation of an all-white world. Asghar never watched the show; Bailey only lasted a few episodes. She was living in New York, fresh out of theater school, and the trailer spoke to her: Bailey saw Dunham’s Hannah hovering over a couch waiting to be lubed up and recognized the bad hookups she and her friends had with theater boys. She excitedly watched an episode but was disappointed. A world of white girls didn’t track with what she knew of life in big cities or artistic communities. “I was like, ‘This is so not us,’” Bailey said. The conversation around the lack of people of color on Girls bothered her, too. “It seemed there was this aggression when people asked … a real defensiveness that really turned me off from the series,” she said. “I stopped watching like two episodes in.”
Bailey and Asghar’s Brown Girls shares some genetic material with shows like Girls or Broad City—all revolve around young women in quasi-romantic friend-love trying to make it in the world. The final scene in Brown Girls even looks like a Broad City closer, centered on the two mains beside each other on the couch, essentially pillow-talking, without needing to make eye contact. “It’s great that these shows exist,” Asghar told me of Girls and Broad City, but “I haven’t seen them, in part because I don’t think they’re marketed to me.”
Girls unintentionally set the stage for Brown Girls’ success. “I think it was the strength of the [Brown Girls] trailer, the clarity of the title, and the fact that so many people had been waiting for an intersectional response to [Girls],” Christian said of why Brown Girls landed as loudly as it did. Aside from Remezcla, the trailer yielded headlines on Elle, The Huffington Post, and other mainstream sites, where the pitch was often “Girls for the rest of us.” The level of buzz seemed almost inappropriate. Christian told me the team’s entire press strategy consisted of sending out a few emails prior to the trailer’s drop, hardly a blitz to presage what was to come. He puts their success down to right-place, right-time, right-work-ethic, right-follow-through. “Girls was entering its final season,” Christian said. “[Donald] Trump was winning the election. People were looking for a vision of America that doesn’t center on whiteness. They just hit a nerve.”
“When I talk about feminism, sometimes I feel like being a black woman is cast aside.”
Watching Brown Girls for the first time, I was struck by how pleasantly dated this lauded millennial web series felt. It made me think of the days when my only go-to as a South Asian were movies that played in theaters where they served samosas during the intermissions (and there were always intermissions, even for “white movies”). In the early 1990s, me and my kind took what we could get. Our think-piece-worthy films played on the fringes, in ethnic and occasionally indie movie theaters, where everyone in the audience got their pop-culture news by word of mouth. Like Brown Girls, these productions—like Saving Face, a Chinese American coming-out movie, or Chutney Popcorn, in which an Indian woman falls for a white woman—featured a mingling of melanin counts and sexualities, an early embrace of any and all otherness, before there were hashtags to get everyone else on board. Typically, however, these movies lacked sophistication, were plagued by lame jokes about accents, and made only trepidatious social commentary. (I sometimes wonder if it takes a few generations for South Asian creatives to stop caring what their parents might think.) Still, we filed into the theater, thrilled to see faces and alienation we could relate to on a screen.
These were movies “for the rest of us,” before that phrase could titillate the majority, too, and before the word “intersectionality” had entered the mainstream. The term, coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in the late 1980s, addresses the way that people with multiple marginalized identities—non-English-speaking women of color, for example—can find their particular experiences obscured by an emphasis on one of those identities.
Hollywood continues to struggle with this idea. For example, at a luncheon earlier this year to celebrate women in Hollywood, the former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams said, “When I talk about feminism, sometimes I feel like being a black woman is cast aside.” But Williams’s tablemates seemed to miss her point. “Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman?” asked Salma Hayek. “Find the democracy inside,” urged Shirley MacLaine. Williams tried to point out that to ignore outsides is foolish, that they set the height of your ceiling and the bounds of your fate, whether cops will kill you or hug you, how you feel in line at the bank, what distance you stand from the tracks—because your hair is covered in cloth and you might get pushed. “Wouldn’t it solve it if women just all had each other’s backs in general?” asked the celebrity chef Cat Cora.
No, to go by Crenshaw, or the alienation Girls stoked. “Not only are women of color in fact overlooked, but their exclusion is reinforced when white women speak for and as women,” Crenshaw wrote decades ago, presaging the Girls backlash. The Women’s March demonstrated how this divide among women infiltrates every aspect of American life. “For whom are they marching? Is it only for themselves?” asked the writer Jenna Wortham, invoking the oft-cited statistic that more than half of the country’s white women voted for Trump.
Brown Girls innovates in multiple ways. It centers women of color. It joins them, though they are different colors. And it performs this act of solidarity without seeming to erase the black woman involved. Leila’s trials are not presented as greater than Patricia’s, or even equal exactly, though the two operate as sisters. “Just because they’re people of color doesn’t mean they’re not racist,” Patricia says, in a couch-lounging scene. She’s talking about the managers of the restaurant where she works, explaining to the girls’ friend Victor why she quit. “My family’s racist,” Leila pipes in. We are reminded that there’s no rest for the weary. Brown people are racist, too, against black people. Not avoiding the messy stuff makes the friendship feel real. It’s not moralistic companionship, though its enactment reflects Asghar’s political beliefs. “Solidarity amongst folks of color is kind of the key to all of our collective freedom,” she told me. “Otherwise, we’re just going to have the same type of hierarchical issues.”
“There is a lot of complication between brownness and blackness, and in brownness.”
The show’s vision of femininity is also novel. Matriarchy is taken as a given, as in many dark-skinned parts of the world. Fathers are absent, barely spoken of. Even mothers are not ultimately as important as being a mother to oneself and one’s friends. Leila means well but can’t always be trusted. She burns bridges, blurts out what’s on her mind. Meanwhile, her friends protect her unconditionally, as a parent to a child. As love interests, too, men are irrelevant at best and a punch line at worst. Patricia is the only penis-seeking woman in the Brown Girls corps, and she treats the body part as synecdoche, cleaving her love of it from her love of men. In one scene, she sends a Tinder hookup home with the brisk efficiency of a man dismissing an electrician. The viewer never gets the sense that this is a put-on, that she is feigning nonchalance to hide some buried need. She and Leila really seem to cover their emotional needs, together.
There’s a story told in my home community of the two uncles. They each visited a Rolls Royce dealership in Plano, Texas. They were ignored. Both were millionaires, but the salesmen seemed to think they weren’t good for the money. That’s the sort of shit that bonds you, even if you were born into different castes (which these uncles were). Asghar’s characters are also, to use a saying popular in South Asian circles, “same same, but different.” In America, difference can make you the same.
Particularly if you lived at the margins of the margins, as Asghar did. “Growing up, nobody really knew what I was,” she recalled. “I would wait for the bus stop, and cars would drive by, and everybody would speak Spanish to me … And then September 11th happened.” Suddenly, she was treated differently—by both white people and people of color. “There is a lot of complication between brownness and blackness, and in brownness,” she said. “Brownness is so many things. It is like every race; every one is there. We haven’t figured it out. We don’t have the words necessarily to talk about it. We can be really hyper specific, but then there’s moments where you’re actually just fucking confused for each other all the time. And then, there’s all these hate crimes that you hear about that came from people mistaking someone for someone else and murdering them. And you’re like, Right, that happens.”
In Brown Girls, the interracial harmony seems to come out of a shared isolation. None of the characters are particularly bound to family. Poverty is also a catalyzing energy, separating strangers from kin and binding them together instead.
This dynamic tracks with the real people behind the show. Bailey’s dad was absent; she grew up a latchkey kid in a mixed Chicago neighborhood. Logan Square was “super Puerto Rican and Mexican,” crossed with “blacks and maybe a few other people, like ‘tourists’ in the North side. But I always felt that we kind of took on each other’s shit … because we all kind of felt like we were the same,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why, when I was reading Brown Girls, I wanted to direct it. I was like: ‘I know this. Me and my old relationships, best friends, this is us, this is our relationship.’” In the summer, she’d hang out on the stoop with her BFFs, Ashley Gomez and Selena Cresswell, “trying to get the guys from the gangs to look at us. We dressed a certain way. I remember Ashley’s mom would make my mom tamales, and my mom would make her greens and cornbread, and they would share it.”
Bailey once dreamed of becoming an actress. But she didn’t yet know what pitfalls awaited a black girl. For Bailey, theater had meant “being a slave or maid or like a civil-rights person,” she told me. “White girls don’t have a monopoly on banality and fucking. What that does to you as a young person growing up, it really does break into you. You can only be a hero or a thug.” In 2012, Bailey was cast in her biggest production yet, with a playhouse in Chicago. She was “asked to dress in a slave costume and twerk with a gun,” she said. “The next day, I was looking at my script trying to learn the lines, and I just started crying in this café. I was like, I cannot do this anymore.” The writer was a black woman and the director was a white woman. “They had added [the slave/twerk] after I accepted the play.” She told them she didn’t feel comfortable doing what was asked, but they wouldn’t budge. Bailey quit. She was told: “I’d never work again in Chicago. That I’d be known as the girl who leaves productions.”
Asghar also grew up in the “other” ether. Her parents, physicians from Pakistan, died of illnesses before she was 7. She and her two sisters were shuttled from Staten Island, where she was born, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their legal guardian, a maternal uncle, put them up in a dingy three-bedroom apartment he owned, which they often shared with renters and—always—with roaches. To keep rooms free to rent, Asghar and her sisters shared a bunk bed in a single room. Their uncle supplied rent, internet, and lighting; they covered groceries and other essentials like bus fare on their own. During this time, she met Nabila Hossain, whom Asghar would tap to play Leila. The child of a Pakistani dad and a Bengali mom, Hossain also grew up in low-income housing. She and others like her constituted the alter-community Asghar came to rely on; they all lived outside the glitzy homes of the proper South Asian diaspora.
“I can’t ask artists to collaborate in New York City. They’d be so focused on getting into the industry.”
Brown privilege is an underappreciated phenomenon. Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans in America more often than not arrived with caste and class and degrees on their side, a result of the preferences built into the H1B visa application process. Their homes—the ones Asghar only ever dropped into—reflect these intangible resources, including how kids are raised and what they are taught to prioritize. They also reflect the most insipid prejudices around them: that black people are inferior, gay people are going to hell, whiteness/light-skin is desirable, money comes above all else, life is a race to the top. For Asghar, that world was just as foreign as white America. “Some of our closest friends were all South Asian—but they were all living in Section 8 housing,” she told me. “We all kind of occupied a similar class status. We were able to be friends because we went to the same elementary schools together, but also because we had similar shit. We all had cockroaches in our bag.”
Immigrant communities are some of America’s most stratified, importing biases from homelands and implementing them as seamlessly as if the larger culture were conceived with them in mind. (It haunts me to this day, the memory of a girl left out from our second-gen crowd. She had the signs of low caste: a food-worker’s last name, gray-black skin, half an arm—a souvenir from birth in a poor Indian hospital.) Cambridge itself was “super diverse,” Asghar recalled, full of “immigrants from every place: African immigrants, Asian immigrants, immigrants from South and Central America”—and then there was the Pakistani American crowd. She and her sisters were freaks, “underclass” interlopers in this other world. “We would go to these Pakistani functions,” she said, “and we felt really not a part of the community, and a lot of it was because we were orphans.”
Khadija, the eldest Asghar sister, was 16 when their parents passed away. “She’s been fighting for me and my sister forever, and she was so young, having to take that on.” Fatimah Asghar was thus “a little bit shielded,” the baby. “Khadija was always working. I was not,” she told me. That was Khadija’s gift. She was “very much like, ‘Go do your thing.’” Fatimah hustled in a different way. “I’ve never done an unpaid internship type of thing,” she told me (another departure from the Girls girls). When she and her sisters finally applied to colleges, it was to those in the sweet spot of prestige and cheapness—top schools that admit students on a need-blind basis. At Brown University, on day one, she met Jamila Woods, the musician, who would become her best friend. Their friendship partly inspired the premise of Brown Girls. It was Woods who encouraged Asghar to move to her own hometown of Chicago, a city where “you can live,” Asghar said. Especially as an artist, the terms make sense: “You can find cheap rent. You can live in a co-op. You don’t need to be paying like $800 for an apartment.”
In 2015, the rapper Saba explained to Complex Magazine why he considered Chicago “one of the most revolutionary places in the world right now.” In short: “We want each other to win.” That old moniker that dogs the city—Second City, second to New York, forever the runner-up—in this context propels it forward. Guarantees of success are fewer, the scene isn’t so dense, and so it’s not cutthroat in the way of L.A. or New York. Christian described to me how New York University came banging down his door, but he realized that the robustness of his experiment relies on staying put. “I can’t ask artists to collaborate in New York City,” he told me. “They’d be so focused on getting into the industry.” The strive can limit the striver. That often means losing out on “making work that’s innovative and might get the industry to change.”
The collaborative vibe of Chicago informs Brown Girls—from Asghar’s experience of writing it, to Bailey’s insistence on bringing in Chicago women of color to work behind the scenes. In their pitch to HBO, the pair called their characters “resourcefully fly.” Without trust funds, or even much in the way of loans, they do cool shit and look good doing it. “They’re blue-collar artists,” Bailey said, a phrase she also invokes to describe her own crowd in Chicago.
The concept of “chosen family” is something Asghar loves. “My characters often don’t have family,” she told me. The first scene of Brown Girls establishes this immediately. Leila is in bed with a woman, when an aunty calls to wish her happy Eid. The call distresses Leila, and Hossain displays the manic energy that distinguishes her character, that makes her at once off-putting and loveable. Hossain’s portrayal at times feels almost too real to watch, as if the set were as secure as a post-coital bedroom. She does not hide what might turn off a viewer. Her eyes go too wide and her voice gets too intense. She has no chill. She’s a naked lady with a constant lover, stretch marks out.
The split between blood and love is a negotiation queer people, brown people, so many people know well. You can be yourself in the sack and a stranger around your parents’ table. Leila is chastised by her lover for feigning coldness once the clothes come on, though she’s clearly in love. This thread runs through the first season. Self-denial isn’t new to the outsider’s narrative tradition, but here there is no need for some grand reconciliation of selves. Because the aunties don’t really matter. The home, the family, the nuclear immigrant casing—all that is discarded for a second shell that fits better. Same same, but different.
This article is part of our Beyond Diversity project, which is supported by Open Society Foundations.