From ‘Gossip Girl’ to ‘Bel-Air,’ Black Opulence Has Taken Over TV

Gossip Girl The Sex Lives of College Girls Run the World Black Opulence on TV
Gossip Girl: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max; Run the World: Cara Howe/Starz; Sex Lives of College Girls: HBO Max

Jordan Alexander was completely oblivious to how many few faces similar to hers were on “Gossip Girl,” the mid-aughts spectacle that dared to wonder what the children of New York’s upper echelon got up to after school.

The original CW series revealed in six juicy seasons that these extracurriculars included under-age debauchery at Butter, finessing your way into the Ivy League and perfecting the Machiavellian art of sabotage while wearing a lot of headbands. However, it did not show many Black characters joining in on the iconic fashion or the petty predicaments caused by Kristen Bell’s tattling voiceovers at the start of every episode.

“I was so completely unaware that there was such a lack of representation while watching because I was so used to seeing that — an all-white cast,” says Alexander, who stars in HBO Max’s reboot of the series as protagonist Julien Calloway, a mixed-race, affluent prep-schooler juggling her influencer aspirations while attempting to stay connected to the people she loves. Except for the gravitational pull of drama that both of show’s “It girls” share, Alexander’s Julien is nothing like Blake Lively’s Serena van der Woodsen, the blonde bombshell of the source material. She’s also not the only person of color in this new cohort of young adults tearing up Manhattan — Evan Mock, Zión Moreno, Savannah Lee Smith, Whitney Peak and Grace Duah also star.

“It’s so exciting to feel like I have my allies on set, in a sense. We’re able to give each other a nod that we know what we’re experiencing, and we have each other to bounce that off one another. It’s so reassuring,” she tells Variety. “There has been an effort on the show to carry that representation — not just talent but also on the crew side. It’s so nice to see Black people all over the set, and that’s how it should be.”

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HBO Max’s “The Gilded Age” depicts the Black elite in the 1880s. Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

Alexander is one of the many Black on-camera movers and shakers of the latest trend in television, which normalizes the depiction of Black affluence. HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” and HBO Max’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” as well as OWN’s “The Kings of Napa,” Starz’s “Run the World,” Peacock’s “Bel-Air” and Prime Video’s “Harlem” are among a slew of shows that depict well-to-do Black families and women, successful and thriving. Decades after “The Cosby Show,” “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and years after “Black-ish” came on the scene, these narratives of Black elites, entrepreneurs and opulence deserve more spots on-screen as well for more authentic and full-bodied representation.

In “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” tropes are constantly being turned on their heads. The foursome comprising Leighton (Reneé Rapp), Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), Bela (Amrit Kaur) and Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) is more flawed than fabulous, but it is delightfully gratifying to see the friends revel in each other’s strengths and clumsily navigate young adulthood with hilarity, grace and cringe. The heartwarming show is also notable because the pals subvert expectations — the tweedy Barbie is chasing skirts, the student worker is white, the Indian teen loves to gab about sex and the Black athlete didn’t get into college solely on her athletic prowess.

Scott is particularly grateful to play Whitney because she’s getting to be a part of something that she hasn’t seen much of on TV: Black, upper-to-middle class women such as herself, who did not traditionally “fit” the mold of the Black characters.

“What I like most about Whitney’s existence as a Black affluent person, other than the fact that her background steers away from ‘trauma porn,’ is the casual nature of her being Black and rich,” Scott says. “Black doesn’t look or sound or act one way, and for a while, I honestly feel like TV got trapped into this thing of showing that Black always felt and sounded one way, but that doesn’t reflect reality.

“I used to ask myself, ‘OK, I don’t see myself in movies and television, but I am still Black, so how do I exist in this space?’ But the truth is that you just exist. There’s nothing to do, prove or dispel. Existing is enough. The Black experience can be anything, and Black excellence doesn’t have to be the topic of conversation every time they speak.”

Scott always felt more drawn to Disney Channel classics such as “Sister, Sister” or “That’s So Raven” — shows on which the Black characters didn’t talk about financial successes or struggles. In “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” Whitney’s mother, Evette (Sherri Shepherd) is a U.S. senator from Washington. While Whitney got into the fictitious liberal arts college Essex both because she could afford it and because of her soccer skills, her economic status is not a primary trait of her character. Her wealth, as Scott describes it, is “understated,” which the actor appreciates.

Amber Stevens West, who coincidentally also appears on-cam- era as a Whitney on Starz’s “Run the World,” thinks it’s important that success for Black people is normalized.

“I hang out with my friends, and we are all well-educated and worldly,” she says. “We have our own homes, and that’s my normal. I think that’s a lot of people’s normal, too. We weren’t seeing that on TV. Why, if that’s something normal for many of us, is it not being represented?”

She feels proud to be on one of the shows that is taking the lead on presenting Blackness with more robustness than ever before.

“There’s been this ongoing trend in Hollywood that has gone on for at least 100 years where our pain and our trauma are constantly being exploited,” her “Run the World” co-star Corbin Reid adds. “When do you get to see Black people being celebrated? It’s typically one type of Black person, from one type of Black neighborhood or one socio-economic background. And we’re just so varied as a people!”

Reid continues that there are Black nerds, fashionistas, doctors and athletes — and all deserve to have their stories told.

Janine Sherman Barrois, creator and showrunner of OWN’s “The Kings of Napa,” a soapy, succulent drama about a vineyard-owning Black family in Napa Valley, notes that along with ensuring that Black individuals are portrayed with more nuance on television — be they affluent or not — she wanted to emphasize the little-known history of Black land ownership in the United States, and how obstacles have not deterred Black folks from wanting a slice of the American pie.

“Oftentimes we are shown on TV as being at the center of violence, or by only climbing the ladder through means of drug dealing or things like that, so I wanted to do a show that was aspirational about an influential African American family with, of course, drama, but also handling the complexities of siblings running a business, re-investing their money to start wine labels and owning a vineyard,” she says.

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Peacock’s “Bel-Air” avoids all tropes about Black wealth. Tyler Golden/Peacock

Much like “Gossip Girl,” the team behind “Bel-Air” were tasked with reimagining the beloved “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fairy tale steeped less in funky windbreakers and made-for- the-laugh-track quotable lines. Instead, they aimed for a more dramatic version relatable to Gen Z, a creative risk that paid off with 8 million tuning into Peacock.

Though showrunners T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson were bas- ing the series on the same rich, preppy and conservative Banks family of the vibrant ’90s sitcom, they felt it was important to show that “Black excellence,” or the high level of achievement, success or ability of a Black person to ascend above systemic barriers to romanticized ideals of great- ness, doesn’t always have to “look” a certain way on television, nor should it be unchallenged.

“We felt it was important to show that just because a Black family had achieved some money and influence, it didn’t mean they’ve forgotten their roots,” Newson says, pointing to the African American and African art on the walls of the Banks’ residence in “Bel-Air.”

“We wanted to move past the old notion that being rich and Black means that you have to be a sell-out,” Newson adds. “We also wanted to say that just because you’re rich and Black in America, that does not mean that you don’t have issues. Our approach was to tell this story without falling into any of the old tropes about what Black wealth means.”

Deviating from the comedy format of the original allowed the duo to ground their characters as best they could in reality and how “Black excellence” is not without its sacrifices nor its fatigue. “Carlton [Olly Sholotan] brings this idea that while privilege is better than ‘the struggle,’ it isn’t without hardships. He is someone born into wealth who is still dealing with anxiety about being Black and ‘exceptional’ in this environment,” Newson says.

Season 2 of “Bel-Air” will convey how these characters shake off the expectations of Black excellence that they feel they’ve been trapped by.

When Sonja Warfield was writ- ing for “Will & Grace” in the early aughts, she was the only person of color in the entire production, save for an occasional guest actor of color. Two decades later and she’s co-writing HBO Max’s decadent period drama “The Gilded Age,” alongside “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, calling the shots on how the slow-burn series should depict not only the white upper crust of New York in the 1880s but also the Black elite of the era.

“Most period pieces about Black people in America are narratives about their enslavement, post-enslavement, trauma and racial terror,” Warfield says. Instead, the writers steered the lens away from poverty to a story seldom told on-screen. “Black people held legislative offices in Congress and statehouses. Black people were business owners. Howard University had graduating Black doctors. Our full experience has been short shafted on television, film and history. We’re left with indelible images that only portray part of the Black experience, and it’s usually the dehumanizing part.”

Warfield wanted to foment change and introduce audiences to other aspects of the Black experience, to highlight the fully human tapestry of a community and a people that are neither a monolith nor homogenous enough to be relegated to worn-out stereotypes.

“We need to have more Black filmmakers, writers, executives, and POC behind the scenes to tell original, authentic stories from our point of view,” Warfield says, acknowledging that the success of shows like her own, as well as “Black-ish” and “Bel-Air,” are evidence that there is an appetite for untold stories about Black people.

Denée Benton, who portrays aspiring Black investigative advocacy journalist Peggy Scott in “The Gilded Age,” notes that characters like Peggy are crucial for democratizing Black representation, simply because she reveals a truth: Black affluence is not a modern phenomenon.

“The truth is a vital political act of liberation because oppression thrives off of erasure. We, as storytellers, have a unique power and opportunity to fill in the gaps that can often be erased from our mainstream history books,” she says, noting that streaming has opened the doors for many more Black voices to dictate how they want their narratives to be told instead of relying on the big four networks to decide what viewers see and learn about being Black in the U.S.

Tracy Oliver, who starred in the web series “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” and created, wrote and executive produces “Harlem” on Prime Video, was often encouraged to stop writing and pitching ideas for Black women if she wanted to make a living because pre-streaming was a “brutal landscape” for Black writers.

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“Harlem” is a feel-good drama about four ambitious Black women in their 30s. Sarah Shatz/Amazon Prime Video

“We were living in a time when it was commonplace to hear that shows and movies were not commercially viable with a Black lead. It was very bleak and demoralizing,” she says. “I often wondered if I should quit and go to law school since I was still in my 20s and had time to pivot to something else because I wanted to write stories that excited me and were authentic to my experience and my family and friends.”

Oliver took advantage of the shifting tides of television and found a home for a feel-good pro- gram about four ambitious Black girlfriends thriving in Harlem in their 30s. She echoes Benton’s sentiment, but adds that while she’s in awe of the sheer amount of diverse content on-air and that she doesn’t have to compete for a token writing spot in the room, she does want to see more quality control and training for young Black and POC writers as they make their way past the industry’s gates and enter a landscape that is devoted to amplifying subscriber counts and churning out content.

“I want to find a way to enable newer writers to learn more before they’re placed into positions they may not be ready for,” she says.

Newson wants to ensure that the diversification of the Black experience on television is a trend to stay, not just a passing fad. “I think across our lifetime, what happens is that the interest in telling Black stories ebbs and flows, and then there’s suddenly this dearth of Black people on television,” he says.

However, what TV has now that it didn’t have in the “last phase” of this cycle in the ’90s — when Black sitcoms reigned on late-night and primetime — is more people telling stories across economic and educational divides, which Newson hopes will bolster the longevity of this wave of Black content.

While Scott is seeing more women such as herself spot- lighting the Black experience on the silver screen, including Issa Rae and Shonda Rhimes, she wants more to become big names on the production side and for certain topics to get more focus in future projects: “I’d like to see sexuality and gender in conversation within the Black community, and mental health conversations investigated more.”

For the most part, however, she’s hopeful and thinks that now is the time to be Black in Hollywood.

“Blackness isn’t one thing, and it never will be. I think more and more, we’re allowing ourselves to show that in a very casual way, and not in a way that makes it historic, to see a Black person do something that a white person would do on a show,” Scott says, “and I think that is very cool.”