How HBO’s ‘Betty’ Finds Authenticity in Its Inspirational Tale of Interracial Friendship

     July 22, 2020

betty-ardelia-dede-lovelace-rachelle-vinberg-moonbear-jalyssa-jules-lorenzo-breanna-brenn-lorenzo-slice[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Season 1 of Betty.]

There’s a scene in the last episode of Betty, HBO’s recently renewed love letter to New York City, that when I think about it, my heart flutters and my tear ducts quiver. It is, in a way, unspectacular, featuring Honeybear (Moonbear) dancing ostensibly by herself on a rooftop, the sun setting over the city around her. But in another way, this scene is both a dream and premonition.

Much has been written about Betty’s fictionalized depiction of real-life girl gang & skate collective Skate Kitchen, from which the show’s feature-length predecessor derived its name. Directed by Crystal Moselle, Skate Kitchen (2018) can be summed up as a coming of age story focusing on Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) as she struggles to come into herself as an athlete, woman, and person her family doesn’t quite understand and her friends sometimes disapprove of. Though it’s both beautifully filmed and heart-wrenchingly sincere, the original film suffers for the tendency to cast its Black characters (particularly Black women) as secondary devices in aid of the white (albeit, Latinx) protagonist’s development.

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Image via HBO

Betty is better for the adaptation, rewinding the story to bring the girls together as individuals on an even playing field, each with their own unique storylines and opportunities for development. Which is to say, its characters feel like actual people, and those people are fucking cool.

Both the show and movie were marketed as depicting the tribulations that come alongside being a girl in a male-dominated sport. While this is true to an extent, it’s a perspective that still tends to center masculinity where the show’s treatment just… doesn’t. There’s something so joyful, so real in this story because the story is actually about the girls themselves; not the-girls-in-relation-to-the-boys. Which is not to say the boys are absent — they’re just peripheral.

Betty is about skateboarding, yes, but at its center, it’s really about the possibilities of friendship to heal and grow all the individuals involved. Its tagline, “Find Your People,” invites us into their world, where the “effortless cool” used to describe the group isn’t actually all that effortless. While there’s a definite carefree quality to the warm, hazy shots of hair billowing in wind, the drawl of wheels on gravel, the languidness of bodies-in-motion, all of the characters are grappling with themselves, and sometimes each other, in ways that are very real.

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Image via HBO

Kirt (Nina Moran) is a hopeless flirt with a short temper; Indigo (Ajani Russell) lives in Soho and gets a $350 per week allowance but nevertheless feels compelled to sell weed on the side; Janay (Dede Lovelace) struggles to process a #MeToo situation and the highly questionable behavior of her ex-boyfriend-turned-best friend, Donald (Caleb Eberhardt); Camille may be the most seasoned as a skater, but she’s still looking for approval, and affection, from the boys.

But Honeybear is the real heart-gem of this show.

Honeybear doesn’t like labels. She’s quiet and shy and also wears her shirts open, tits out (her nipples tastefully covered by an endless litany of colorful pasties). This choice is evidence of her commitment to body positivity and the desexualizing of femme/feminine bodies — but it’s just a decision she makes. She “like(s) anime and horror films,” and, as a filmmaker, likes that “people say things to the camera that they’d never say to your face.” She’s dark-skinned. Adorns her afro with patterned scarves. Struggles to balance her family’s expectations of her with her own expectations of herself. She is both a dream and a premonition.

Of all the ways colorism makes itself known, it’s perhaps most easily pointed to onscreen, where the paper bag test has functioned as a method of gatekeeping, denying dark-skinned Black folks access to space and opportunity. As is the case in every American industry, film, television, and fashion have all been, and continue to be, guilty of pigeonholing Black women into roles and projects which are actively violent to them via racist and reductive depictions. This is a truth the show both illustrates and critiques within Indigo’s storyline where, as a lighter-skinned Black woman, she’s granted entrance to certain rooms but is promptly disgusted by what she finds there.

Meanwhile, Honeybear spits in the face of all that.

But instead of navigating an exploration of racial identity that sees her Blackness as a burden, or something negative that has to be “overcome,” the show chooses to explore the racial dynamics of the group through Kirt, the whitest member of the crew. While the actors have undeniable chemistry, a result of the authenticity of their friendships, one of the show’s major narrative arcs begins at the end of episode 3, “Happy Birthday, Tyler,” and involves Kirt being put in “time out,” after her aggressive and reckless behavior puts the rest of the girls at extreme risk.

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Image via HBO

When Janay confronts Yvette, Donald’s accuser, Kirt predictably escalates the situation and ends up throwing her board through a window. Sirens pull up and the group scuffles. In the chaos, Camille is elbowed in the face and when Honeybear helps her up, she tries to pull her along to run. Visibly dismayed, Honeybear exclaims, “I can’t! You know what happens when we run from the cops.”

Considering current events, we should all by now be keenly aware of the danger involved when cops are set upon Black folks. This is directly addressed in the show’s context with a subtlety that renders it disturbingly banal.

Her resolution smacks of the type of preparation Black children regularly receive from parents desperate to prevent their kids’ names from becoming another hashtag. As the cops start hassling them, Camille pleads, “they didn’t do anything! Please, they didn’t do anything!” to no avail.

Episode 4, “The Tombs,” finds the three sitting in jail, Janay and Camille bickering between themselves while Indigo and Kirt make moves on the outside. It’s obvious that Honeybear isn’t well, the most overtly affected by the arrest and stress of jail, but neither of the other girls are quite equipped to help her cope. Once free, they immediately confront a highly incredulous Kirt about her behavior.

“Okay, I got away, I’m sorry I’m lucky,” Kirt exclaims, to which Honeybear retorts, “No, you’re white.”

When the group affirms that yes, they’d prefer she be the one to get arrested being that she was the one to “go from 0 to 100,” Kirt refuses to accept responsibility and storms off in a huff. She eventually tries to make amends with an offering of shrooms, but Janay, Indigo, and Honeybear hold their ground. They don’t expend energy trying to educate her — they simply refuse to accept a mediocre non-apology. Especially as Janay is clearly going through it, realizing her swift defense of Donald was miscalculated, and possibly a way of protecting herself from facing a difficult truth.

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Image via HBO

Episode 5, “Perstephanie,” shows the whole crew coming to important realizations, making difficult decisions, and really relying on one another. Kirt finally receives the message to reflect on herself, does so, and, with the help of her pet rat and some shrooms, eventually figures out her mistake on her own.

This episode should be considered Important Representation for White People (particularly white women)(more particularly, queer white women)(also Black men) because as much as Black girls need to see themselves and their stories reflected back to them, white girls also need to unsee themselves as perpetual victims and recognize the very real and lasting harm they are capable of inflicting, regardless of their good intentions.

These storylines exhibit how representation all on its own is not enough. Diversity is not enough. Folks love human stories because they are reflective; meant to show us how we relate to one another. But when every story centers whiteness, or is spurned from a white imagination, how actual can that representation be?

Betty’s success is undoubtedly informed by the partnership established between Moselle and the actors (who are all actual skaters and athletes), but also between the actors themselves and their community. Through the show, they’ve created one of the most honest portrayals of friendship I personally have ever seen, while modeling what it means to do the work of decentering oneself and learning to center the needs of those who need differently.

And Honeybear isn’t perfect. She makes mistakes and struggles, just like Kirt and Camille and Indigo and Janay. Their relationships to one another are complicated because relationships between women are complicated. What makes them aspirational is the fresh air of their self-reflexivity; how they handle their struggles with a type of clumsy grace that gives new definition to the word charm, but is also just extraordinarily human. They try and they fail, and they apologize with sincerity and try again.

It’s this capacity on behalf of all the characters that really earns the season’s close: the all-girl skate sesh and those epic long takes of them, soaring through the city to overtake the skatepark (i.e. the world) — a queer multiracial vision of utopia.

A future which sees Honeybear, happy and in love, dancing her own song at the top of the world.

Betty Season 1 is streaming now on HBO and HBO Max, and has been renewed for a Season 2.

Television