Fatimah Asghar on Why Her New Web Series is a Love Letter to ‘Brown Girls’ Everywhere

By Joshua Adams Jan 30, 2017

Set to drop Febuary 15, the new web series "Brown Girls" is buzzing across social media. The series follows two young women of color—Leila, a queer South Asian-American writer, and Patricia, a sex-positive Black American musician—as they balance paying their bills with pursuing their art. The series shows them dealing with complicated friendships, the messiness of dating and other challenges of mid-20s life.

The series was written by Fatimah Asghar and directed and produced by Sam Bailey. The creative team is predominantly made up of women of color, and includes the music of Chicago-based singer and songwriter Jamila Woods. The team funded the series through grants and crowd-funding efforts.

Asghar, who Colorlines highlighted in its 2016 roundup of history-making women of color, is a performer, educator, writer and member of the multiracial poetry group Dark Noise Collective. In a mid-January phone interview, we discussed where the story came from and where the series fits into conversations about diversity in art and media presentation.

What is "Brown Girlsabout, and how did you come up with the idea?
"Brown Girls" is a web series that follows the lives and friendship of two young women in their 20s. Both are navigating what it means to be a young artist of color as they also try to figure out things like financial independence, love lives, family relationships, all of that kind of stuff. 

I started writing it last year, and the stories are basically modeled around the texture of the friendship between me and my best friend, Jamila Woods. We’ve been best friends for 10 years, and it’s one of the strongest and most important friendships I’ve ever had. But it’s also kind of as a response to how I felt women of color and our friendships have been portrayed in the media. A lot of times we see women of color just as a sidekick, but not really a full, three-dimensional character, or they’re only with other people of their own race. I think there’s a thing that gets lost in terms of what happens in friendships between cultural boundaries. Displaying them is really important to me. 

The creative team behind "Brown Girls" is almost all women of color. Was that a choice or more of an organic thing?
I think it was both intentional and organic. The crew is 95 percent women, queer and people of color. A lot of film sets are heavily run by straight, White men, and it’s behind this idea of linking race and gender to technical skill. It’s just not true. There’s a ton of women, queer people and people of color who are really talented technically. They know how to be a grip and know how to run a camera. 

From our own experiences and what we’ve heard from others, a lot of people from these groups have some negative experiences on film sets that are mostly White men; they feel marginalized and devalued. We didn’t want that. We wanted the whole production process to be safe and enjoyable for the demographic we are presenting in the show, and the audience we would love to watch it. 

When we think of the term "universality," it’s often, ironically, found in the local—in the telling of a story through an authentic lens of a specific location. "Brown Girls" is shot in Chicago, mostly in the neighborhood of Pilsen. How does that affect the series?
When I was thinking through everything, I wanted the series to be a love letter to my best friend, but also a love letter to the communities that I’m a part of and feel attached to—artistic communities, queer communities—and to know that they felt that they were being represented and the story was doing them justice.

But also, I wanted it to be a love letter to Chicago. I’m from Cambridge, Massachusetts, but feel like Chicago has raised me in terms of my artistic voice. There are a lot of shows set in Chicago that I think are great, but they don’t talk about individual neighborhoods. They show shots of downtown and The Bean, and that’s it. I wanted to show the everyday Chicago. We wanted to show what it means to wait for the bus, or walk to a café, or walk to a house party; the color of the communities, the richness of Chicago.

It’s interesting though, because Chicago is such a microcosm of America. It’s one of the most diverse places in the United States but it’s also, in a de facto sense, thoroughly segregated.
The segregation is very real, but the times in which I feel Chicago desegregates is in artistic spaces. When I go to a show, a gallery or whatever, those are moments when people from different backgrounds are in the same space together. Conversation across cultural boundaries often happens in art-making spaces, and those spaces become a political resistance to the segregation in a lot of ways. We really just wanted to show that with "Brown Girls." … Politically, I wanted to make the case for solidarity between different communities of color in my work. It’s something that I try to make sure that happens in my art and in my own life.

Where do you think "Brown Girls" fits in the discussions about diverse representation?
"Brown Girls" attempts to display women of color in nuanced, full ways that allows them to be messy or make mistakes or be complicated. Especially growing up as a South-Asian Muslim woman who is queer, I never saw anyone who looked like me at any point on TV. I think that the power of representation is important. But I don’t think diversity in representation is the end all, be all, because sometimes it can feel more like a trend and inauthentic. It’s like we put people [of color] in these roles, but we aren’t going to put them behind the camera or in the writing room. That’s dangerous because it often reproduces these overarching, White perspectives on what diversity is or what it means to be a person of color.

I love shows like "Atlanta," or the film "Moonlight," or this web-series called "Ladies Room," that are getting at the core theme of having the creators reflect who is in the creation. When you get diversity on all levels, that’s when you see it reflected in the work. 

And authenticity is what often connects people to the show, even if they are not exactly the target audience. But you’re also getting at the idea of gaze and who you are making the art for. How does "Brown Girls" move away from the mainstream White, male and straight gaze?
When we think about representation, it’s dangerous to only see representation when the person looks exactly like you. Like "Star Wars" casts a person of color, and some White people get upset and are like, "That’s just not relatable!" But part of the power and meaning of art is it can make you see yourself in other people.

Like with "Atlanta," I’m not Black, I’m not a man, and I have never even been to Atlanta. But I love that show because the hyper-specificity of it. The culture it creates on the set is palpable; it feels real and tangible.

Talk about the gender and sexuality gaze in "Brown Girls."
We created the world together. Even our director of photography (DP) and set designer are queer women, and that changes so much. When your DP is a queer woman, that changes the gaze. When she’s thinking about what’s the most interesting shot, it’s not from a male perspective, it’s from a female and queer perspective. It’s not that we don’t want other people to watch the show, but we wanted to challenge the traditional gaze.

What do you hope people are going to get from watching "Brown Girls"?
Honestly, when I first started writing it, I envisioned a room full of my friends laughing and forgetting some of the rough political shit that has been going on. I wanted characters that were relatable to them, and could be their friends. I want people from all different backgrounds and places to feel that joy. I want people to see the joy of being a person of color, the joy of these communities, the joy of this friendship. …When you create a show, you don’t know if people will like it, you just know it’s a story that needs to be told.

Joshua Adams is a writer and an arts and culture journalist from Chicago. He holds a B.A. in African-American Studies from the University of Virginia and a M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California. His writing often explores current and historical cultural phenomena through personal narratives. Follow him on Twitter at @JournoJoshua.