The Foil of White Characters
“I’m sorry I’m lucky!”
“No, you’re white!”
Though presented as goofy, easy-going, and outspoken, Kirt (Nina Moran) embodies what it means to be a foil for the rest of the characters – a recurring character who, when standing next to the rest of the characters, stands to show the differences between them. In Betty, Kirt serves as the racial foil: she’s white, unlike the majority of the cast, who are black.
Kirt stands as a comparison of Camille, another white cast member. In Episode One (Key Party), Camille’s declaration that she will call the cops on the latinx man who stole her friend’s backpack has serious implications, as Camille does not realize what calling the cops on this man could do to his livelihood, forcing him to drop the backpack and run away. The scene in Episode Four (The Tombs) where Janay, Honeybear, and Camille are in jail, reflects Camille’s inability to hear Janay out on her misunderstanding with Yvette as she continues to berate Janay for even starting trouble with Yvette. It’s not until a fellow black jail mate tells her to be quiet that Camille finally comes to her senses and listens, acknowledging she’s in the wrong.
On the other hand, the consistent denial of Kirt and of her own white privilege is unbearable. From the moment that the show begins, Kirt’s extremely gay, boisterous personality is diminished by her inability to understand the black experience, or at least hear her black friends out. In Episode One, it comes as an odd glance at Phillip (Raekwon Haynes) when he states that he doesn’t trust the government and therefore chooses to use a flip phone. These small misunderstandings of the black experience soon snowball into volatile situations and Kirt’s anger comes at the expense of her black female friends. This notably happens when a seemingly angry but non-violent argument between Janay, Yvette and Celia turns into a full-blown fist fight between Kirt and a boy watching the exchange, leading to her skateboard breaking the glass of the bar and the police being called. While everyone scurries to leave the scene, Camille urges Honeybear and Janay to leave, prompting Honeybear to state, “You know what happens when we run from the cops,” gesturing to Janay. It’s a moment of racial awareness that is further exacerbated by Kirt’s appearance at the jail as she’s talking to Esther, a black woman whose family member has been incarcerated without any questions being asked. Kirt ponders why the police are able to get away with that, a conversation that has been brewing hot on the tongues of the world as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many countless others push society to question the excessive force of police.
Following their bailout from the precinct, the conversation between Kirt, Indigo, Janay, and Honeybear becomes the epitome of what it means to misunderstand one’s own privilege as white or white-passing. As Kirt’s complaining about having spent hours on a fire escape hiding from the police, Janay snaps her out of her complaints with the argument of her hostility being unnecessary. When stating that she is lucky to have escaped from the police, Honeybear throws back the declaration that she’s not lucky, she’s simply white. The cherry on top comes after Kirt asks whether they would have preferred that she been arrested with them. They say yes, and dismiss Kirt from the scene. It’s through this interaction that the dynamic of this diverse friend group is tensed and stretched into a situation that is sadly too common, and right now is on the mind of every individual, especially in America. What does it mean to be an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement and especially to black lives, those that are not only strangers but are also our friends? It’s more than simply trying to be “Down for my girls,” as Kirt notes in defence of her actions at the fight. It’s not running away from the cops or dismissing your black friends’ feelings, but rather listening and learning about what it takes to be a better ally.
Race in the Everyday
But this is cultural appropriation. They’re putting mad black and Latin looks on white girls!
Caetlin Benson-Allot said it best when she wrote, “Still, it is race, not sexuality, that remains the most underexplored element of feminist television, even though feminists of color have been critiquing this cultural shortcoming for decades.” For the black female characters of Betty, the dynamics of friendship and even the occasional argument with their white friends, as noted about Kirt’s own whiteness, are just small rips in a tear that is constantly ready to burst, or that has already unravelled at the seams. It’s ever-present from the first minutes of the show, as we witness Janay’s apartment and the decorations lining her wall, from the Audre Lorde poster to an artwork that declares, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!” The black experience and being black is also not a singular linear path; it weaves with complexity and individual pleasures and pains. To document the black experience is to feel seen and heard as a black individual, and to document the black experience is to learn and listen as a non-black individual.
For Indigo, the theft of the weed pens that she’s been selling for Farouk (Reza Nader), the drug dealer that the audience comes to know at the start of the season, motivates her to forge a check from her mother’s check book, after she denies giving Indigo more money given her weekly allowance amount. The display of upper class living that we witness of Indigo is a different side to the streets of New York. Indigo comes from wealth but chooses to hide her family and economic background as she deals for Farouk. When Indigo forges the check to bail out Janay, Honeybear, and Camille, she loses the chance to pay back Farouk the money that was lost to the theft. Remembering the modelling agent who spotted her in the skate park, she decides to take the job to earn back the money, but is surprised to witness how much degradation is thrown at black girls at the gig. Even coming from the black man hyping up the models, statements like, “Now give me ghetto, ladies!” or “Give me food stamps, WIC vouchers, baby daddy, church lady, bouffant wig, Cardi B, tongue pop, Nene Leakes […] Out of the plantation, escape the freedom. Escape to freedom, but commercialized,” disgust Indigo, forcing her to leave the modelling gig on her skateboard, sporting the red Gucci fur coat that she’ll later give to Farouk in amnesty over the loss of money.
Indigo is forced to leave home after her mother finds out she has stolen money from her, and we come to realize how the economic status that Indigo has lived in comes at the expense of her refusing to buy into a system that commercializes black culture. Rather than be passive and agreeable to the derogatory stereotypes thrown at her at the shoot, even for the price of a grand, Indigo’s decision to leave the money is an action that speaks louder than words. It’s the proof that being black is much more than the color of one’s skin, but plays into the capitalist ventures we find ourselves surrounded by, especially by choice. Will you continue to buy into systems and companies that profit off cultures and movements, or choose to refuse?
Love your three-part textual analysis regarding Betty. I’m just wrapping up my thesis and I dive into Kirt and race. I completely agree with the quote you offered from Caetlin Benson-Allot. I find that Moselle, in the trappings of feminism, skims over whiteness. Rather than taking the opportunity to show audiences how Kirt could be a better ally, she is allowed to spiritually bypass it through her mushroom trip. Her friends of color forgive her without much discussion about the ways in which her race caused their arrest. Instead, the text focuses on Kirt needing to “stop fighting the patriarchy.” Such a cool analysis. Thank you! It’s my understanding that Rachelle Vinberg (Camille) is Columbian-American, but I really liked how you discussed how her white-passing privilege played into her lack of understanding around calling the cops.