An unfortunate truth within the LGBTQ community is that television shows centered on our lives rarely hit mainstream viewing services. Even in 2021, the renewal of shows like Love, Victor or the reboot of The L Word create substantial buzz. So when Amazon Studios announced their new docuseries, Tampa Baes, it was immediately covered on social media.
I was notified about this show, which focuses on an “it” crowd of lesbians in Tampa Bay, via TikTok. Just hours after the announcement, my “for you” page served up two videos reacting to news of the reality series. Each of the videos were created by users of different races, and I was struck by the contrast between the two.
While a white TikTok user showed the promotional image of the Tampa Baes cast and spoke about the show with nothing but genuine excitement, a Black user showed the same image and expressed dismay at the lack of diversity in the cast. Comments on both videos contained accusations of colorism and read the cast as almost exclusively feminine of center. Some commenters even brought up the paper bag test—a practice in which a person’s skin tone is compared to that of a brown paper bag. Those whose skin is lighter than the bag “pass,” while those whose skin is darker “fail.” Every single woman in the Tampa Baes promotional image looks as though she’d easily “pass” the test.
As much as I hate to judge a book by its cover, I was taken aback by the lack of diversity within the cast. Not only does the promotional cast image reveal a deficit in melanin, it also lacks more androgynous and masculine identities. It’s the same critique I (and many others) had concerning The L Word, The Real L Word, and The L Word: Generation Q. In every mainstream lesbian-centric television show thus far, women with darker shades of skin are never main characters, and butch women, studs, and nonbinary lesbians are rarely, if ever, on screen.
Every member of the lesbian community, no matter her skin tone or gender expression, deserves to see her story on screen. However, when specific groups are cut out time and time again, it makes me wonder: What are these TV shows aiming to accomplish? These skewed representations of the lesbian community are not only a disservice to dark-skinned, androgynous, masculine, butch, nonbinary, fat, and differently abled lesbians who deserve to see themselves represented on shows about their own community, but they are also a disservice to those of us who love them, whether they be our partners, parents, mentors, friends, or neighbors. They’re also a disservice to our history, as women like Stormé DeLarverie, Gladys Bently, Radclyffe Hall, and Audre Lorde have long been a part of the lesbian community. And of course, they’re a disservice to our continued fight for equality, as many of those outside of community “meet” a lesbian for the first time through media.
When it comes to making media centering minorities, content creators have to be aware that the shows they create educate as much as they entertain. In the same way that RuPaul’s Drag Race introduced a whole generation to drag without acknowledging the full range of drag performance (drag kings and bio queens,) Tampa Baes threatens to portray a more homogenous “reality” than that of the actual community it claims to represent.
Is it possible that Tampa Baes has more to show us than what we saw in one photograph? Absolutely. But it would have to be quite a game-changer to put my concerns about diversity to rest.