Representation matters. For so many vital reasons, we, the people, need to see ourselves fully reflected on screen. And actors need to be given the opportunity to be that representation for us and for themselves. This is true for women of all colors, ages, shapes and sizes, full stop.
That being said, as much as the deck is stacked against the women of Hollywood in general — cough, absurd amount of beloved movies that fail the Bechdel test, cough — it is without a doubt even more stacked against women of color. It’s something I’ve long realized in an abstract sense, but it wasn’t until recently that I started feeling it in a much more tangible way.
When re-watching New Girl for the fourth or fifth time, something started to niggle at me. As I continued to watch, I realized that Cece — an Indian-American woman — and Winston, a Black man, stand out from the rest of the cast, and not in a good way. When I compare the way their characters were handled compared to the other (read: white) actors in the ensemble, the math doesn’t add up. Not only does it take them longer to get their own A-plots and story arcs, but also their characters seem inconsistently written and at times underbaked.
Winston’s lack of development made him something of a late bloomer when it comes to pulling his weight in the ensemble. But at least he was given the chance to grow as part of his own journey over the course of the seasons, unlike Cece. Don’t get me wrong — Cece as a person absolutely changes for the better over the course of the show. But Cece as a functioning adult backslides so hard it’s amazing she doesn’t panic moonwalk her way out of the series.
(New Girl Spoilers Below)
Ceke Parekh is a strong, guarded, confident, ballsy and enviably unapologetic woman. She cherishes her family, her culture, and her people’s traditions. And to be fair, I have to give props to the show for handling this aspect of her character really well. She is a stunningly beautiful model, a hard-to-impress cynic, a protective mama bear and a ride-or-die friend. She never really feels like just the “sassy non-white best friend” archetype, due mostly to the efforts of actress Hannah Simone.
Honestly, seeing how indomitable Cece is in season one just drives home how far her character falls as the show progresses. By season seven, it has become painfully apparent that Cece has almost zero agency. She’s treated like some exotic Barbie waiting in the wings until the overlords decide what outfit they want to try her in next.
Most of her life-altering decisions are suggested, pushed, wheedled or flat-out proclaimed by others. At one point, she realizes aloud her modeling career is coming to an end (a career she only had in the first place because she was discovered at a young age, not because she sought it out), so her friend Nick offers her a bartending gig on the spot.
She starts bartending, something she’s terrible at and has virtually no interest in. Then, she just keeps plugging along until she again wonders aloud where her life is going and a different male friend says he sees her going back to school. He and another male friend help bankroll her attendance at a local community college, only to take it too far when they try to dictate what her major should be. Thankfully, at this point she stands up for herself and makes it clear they don’t own her future.
This hint of progress doesn’t last long, however. At one point later on, Cece uses her modeling background to help a new coworker break into the biz. She’s a natural at managing him, which is proven multiple times over the course of the episode. Yet, despite how blindingly obvious her own aptitude is, she doesn’t realize that this is the next natural evolution of her career.
Nope, the life-changing revelation that she should start her own agency is instead declared by — you guessed it — her male friends. Once that’s decided for her, Cece’s friends with zero industry background go out to recruit her first models and her husband, Schmidt, names her business, then builds and decorates her home office.
Toward the end of the show’s run, Cece has a daughter with Schmidt and becomes a mom. Something you think would be of particular importance to her given her character-defining struggles with infertility earlier on. Back in season two, having a kid means so much to her that she breaks up with her then-boyfriend, dismisses Schmidt as not being serious enough despite her feelings for him, and agrees to let her mom matchmake her with total strangers.
Yet when she finally does have a child, she is barely part of the equation. In the final season, it becomes a running joke that Cece is continuously shoved out of the way so that Cece’s white best friend can make all of the parenting decisions with Cece’s white husband. All of the people around Cece are doing this because they love her, and want what’s best for her and her child, not because they want to do her harm. But does that make it better, or worse?
I would probably be inclined to be more forgiving if this type of casual racism wasn’t so common and so frequently hand-waved away. It goes beyond Cece and New Girl, unfortunately. This is a disturbing and way too common issue nowadays. We are so often directly or indirectly portrayed as lacking, somehow, as opposed to our white counterparts. That is, when we’re not out-and-out killed off to further their stories, a la Missandei.
It’s not just within the realm of TV, either. I’m talking about the messed up way non-white women are depicted across the board to this very day. Look at Meghan Markle and the openly racist ways the media compares her to the paragon of white royalty, Duchess Kate. Look at Kamala Harris, recently named Biden’s VP pick and now targeted with ugly, offensive birther conspiracy theories like Barack Obama was before her.
Or Halle Bailey, who caused quite a stir when she was cast as Ariel in the upcoming live-action reboot of The Little Mermaid. Or Zendaya, the most recent actress to portray MJ for the MCU, who was subjected to so much hate and vitriol that my man Stan Lee felt the need to speak up and say he approved her casting. Like Kelly Marie Tran. Serena Williams. Candice Patton. And. Far. Too. Many. Names. For. Me. To. List.
These women of color have been harassed for, oh, any number of reasons that all essentially boil down to them not being white. You could try and make the argument that race isn’t the defining factor here. But then I see people losing their damn minds and proclaiming it’s an insult to the original Little Mermaid because a make-believe ginger fish is now going to be played by a young Black woman.
Yeah. It makes the “wait, racism? What racism? DAMN LIBERAL SNOWFLAKES” counter-argument that much harder to swallow. Matters are further complicated because racism isn’t always loud and obvious, like when bigoted culos who lead very fulfilling lives yell about mermaids.
Racism also manifests in less visible but no less effective ways — subtly unequal playing fields, fewer viable opportunities and more stereotypical roles for women of color. Its creeping, toxic imprint tiptoeing across our screens is apparent even in fan-favorite shows like New Girl. Clearly, it’s past time for us to put in the work to actually elevate our non-white women. Starting with Hollywood.
Because Cece deserved better, Meghan deserved better, #RoseTicoDeservedBetter and so do we all.