Hollywood has had its eyes on Tampa Bay as of late. In 2019, St. Petersburg was the filming location for the third season of MTV’s “Floribama Shore”; then this year, St. Pete and Clearwater were the backdrops for dramedy series “Life’s Rewards,” which hit Amazon Prime in May. The biggest production as of late was A24’s action-packed film Zola, which created tons of buzz over the summer. Amazon Prime has set its sights here yet again for its latest show, ”Tampa Baes,” a reality TV series that follows a group of lesbian friends. It’s set to premiere sometime this fall.
This show is one of the first of its kind and while some members of the LGBTQ+ community celebrated its arrival, others couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the cast appears to be white or light-skinned and mostly femmes—sparking controversy.
The cast was unveiled on July 19 and Twitter wasn’t too pleased. People were quick to point out that it seemed as if the casting directors had used the “paper bag test” to determine who could be on the show.
This is false to an extent; the women on camera in “Tampa Baes” were a pre-existing friend group, but the fact that this specific friend group was selected instead of a more diverse one still rubbed people the wrong way. Those especially familiar with the demographics of Tampa felt that the cast was overall not representative of the city’s queer community.
“Tampa is a city where there are many Black people, many immigrants, Caribbean people; so when I saw the casting, I didn’t see any dark-skinned people, anyone below the paper bag test,” EuroTrilll, a 25-year-old Black artist from Tampa tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “Black people are integral to Tampa—that’s just the bottom line. And as the city grows and becomes more popular it would be sad to see that part of Tampa forgotten or treated as invisible. The beauty of Tampa is the diversity and the cast doesn’t show the diversity which is kind of what bothered me.”
According to the Census Bureau, statistics from 2019 show that 26.4% of Tampa’s population is Hispanic and 23.6% is Black. There isn’t any concrete data on the demographics of Tampa’s queer community but many of those that live there or have lived there agree that BIPOC are a huge part of it.
The “Tampa Baes” cast isn’t entirely white as some have suggested though. Some deep diving through the friends’ Instagram accounts reveal that Nelly Ramirez is Hispanic, Jordan Whitley and Mack McKenzie are biracial, and Shiva Pishdad is Iranian. The rest have scattered backgrounds from France to New Zealand, Greece, and others.
Jade McCartney is a 29-year-old Black lesbian who lives in Orlando but lived in Tampa for five years. She tells CL that the casting choice was disappointing but having watched reality shows in the past, she wasn’t shocked by it either.
“I feel like they easily could’ve found another set of friends, but I also wasn’t surprised because when I was a kid I would watch shows like ‘The Real L Word’ and I saw what their casting looked like, so I knew that [the women in 'Tampa Baes'] either already knew each other or all dated within the same circle, so it’s going to create drama,” McCartney says.
"The Real L Word” cast was made up of women who were mostly strangers before landing on the reality series, but McCartney was right about the “Tampa Baes” cast being pre-existing friends.
By taking a look at some of the women’s Instagram accounts, it appears that they have been friends since at least 2019. Of the 12 women in the promo photo for “Tampa Baes,” half of them are dating each other, according to their Instagram pages.
There is no doubt that these entanglements will cause the necessary drama for a reality show. And it will most likely make for great television, just as “The Real L Word” did. According to the LA Times, "The Real L Word" averaged “more than a million viewers in its first two seasons” and was Showtime’s “top-performing unscripted show in prime time.”
Still, despite its popularity, “The Real L Word” wasn’t without its own controversies. Similar to “Tampa Baes,” it was criticized for its lack of diversity in both skin tone and gender expression.
The aforementioned EuroTrilll, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, identifies as a nonbinary lesbian. She says the lack of studs in the show’s cast was another red flag for her.
“Studs are a huge part of Tampa culture,” EuroTrilll says. “There are so many studs that live freely in their expression and people are inspired by that—and [to not include them], it’s just not an accurate depiction of Tampa at all.”
In general, queer representation in the media has gotten better throughout the years. According to a 2020 report by Nielsen, LGBTQ+ people make up 4.5% of the population and have a 6.7% share of screen rate. Nielsen defines share of screen rate as the identity group (in this case LGBTQ+) being represented among the top 10 recurring cast members. For reference, this is a much more impressive number than other groups that were assessed, such as people of color (all BIPOC, not just queer), which had a 26.7% share of screen rate compared to a 39.5% share of the population.
Despite the advancement, queer people of color have historically not seen the same representation as their white counterparts. So much so that New York Times’ Jamal Jordan sought to create more imagery of Black queer couples’ romance back in 2018. He photographed these couples in New York City, stating in the article that he couldn’t “think of a single high-profile example of a loving relationship between two queer black people.”
“I’ve been wondering, when is it gonna be time for more Black representation when it comes to mainstream lesbian and LGBT media? I feel like Black women are at the bottom of the hierarchy [when it comes to media]. White lesbians, white gay men, Black gay men—it’s like everybody’s above us because we’re not really on TV being represented or being represented correctly. And if we are, we often have smaller side roles,” EuroTrilll says.
Eric Deggans is a TV critic for NPR and the author of “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation”. He couldn’t provide any commentary on “Tampa Baes “specifically and highly suggests that everyone should give shows a watch first before critiquing them. However, having reviewed the media for over 15 years, Deggans has certainly witnessed this lack of diversity on screen when it comes to the queer community.
“There was a show in the early 2000s called ‘Queer as Folk’ on Showtime that was about gay men in Pittsburgh and they were almost all white. That’s something that critics like me used to talk about a lot at that time, that the vision of gayness on television was often male, white, and middle class,” Deggans tells CL.
“But we’ve come a long way since then on television,” he adds. “We’re in a better space now than we were 10 or 15 years ago. In recent years there have been a lot of shows that are not white or middle class because there have been objections raised again and again that TV shows need to feature a wider palate and do a better job of showing different kinds of characters.”
Following the pandemic, this lack of diversity in queer shows has seemed to improve, as Deggans said. GLAAD, an LGBTQ+ media advocacy group, released its annual “Where We Are on TV” report back in January of this year. The organization has been tracking LGBTQ+ representation in the media for 25 years, and found that now is the first time that more queer people of color have been more prominent on-screen than their white counterparts. Queer people of color made up 53% of LGBTQ+ regular and recurring characters on broadcast series, 52% on cable shows, and 47% on streaming platform originals, according to GLAAD’s report.
This is great progress for the BIPOC queer community but there is still much more work to be done until there is adequate, accurate representation—and perhaps that should start with those behind the camera and in the writers’ rooms.
“In the end, mostly white people run TV, film, and the media, and so it’s constantly a struggle to get the people who control the industry to be more inclusive in their vision or be more inclusive in how they’re depicting different kinds of people,” Deggans says.
Indeed, all five of the executive producers of "Tampa Baes," mentioned in the Amazon Studios press release, appear to be white. Melissa Bidwell, who is described as the showrunner in the same release, couldn’t be reached for comment on the show’s controversy. PR for Amazon Studios told CL that Bidwell wouldn’t be available for interviews at this time. Presented with a list of questions regarding criticisms of the “Tampa Baes” pre-existing cast and how decision makers landed on them for the show, PR also declined to comment on the record.
According to a 2017 “Race in the Writers’ Room” study by Darnell Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences at UCLA, nearly two-thirds (65.4%) of all shows had no Black writers in the writers’ rooms. More shocking: more than 90% of shows were led by white showrunners. When these types of stark disparities are not challenged, it becomes difficult for Black stories to be told properly or to be told at all.
Diversity and inclusion in the writers’ rooms as well as the cast is important because representation is important. There have been many studies done on the positive psychological effects of accurate representation across all races, sexualities, and gender expressions.
“I feel that seeing someone that is like you, that presents in the way that you present or presents in the way that you in your mind see yourself, means so much,” says 19-year-old Uniekue (whose legal name is Daniel Akomolafe) of Atlanta, Georgia. They are Black and identify as genderfluid. Uniekue recounts a “life-changing” moment when they saw a picture of Billy Porter wearing an androgynous outfit.
“He was wearing a beautiful suit that was then cut into a mermaid-style gown and I saw that and I was like, ‘I feel so deeply connected to whatever is going on here.’ And that was part of how I realized I was genderfluid. Seeing that for the first time was revolutionary for me. The more and more we have Black queer people present in the media, the more we can bring a sense of normalcy to it and show that these people exist,” Uniekue says.
Uniekue made a Tik Tok about the “Tampa Baes” controversy when the cast photo was first released, expressing their opinion on it. It went viral, receiving over 190K views and 62K likes—but not everyone was agreeing with them.
“When I made the video and it started doing numbers on queer Tik Tok, the way in which I was attacked by white queer people...I was like, ‘Oh, y’all was not happy to hear me say that!’” Uniekue says. “When you have a presence online you open yourself up to criticism...but I was berated in the comment section. I’ve dealt with a lot of white fragility in my life so it wasn’t that serious but I was like, ‘Okay so I was definitely right.’”
People like Uniekue will continue to be loud about diverse representation in the media because it’s still a prevalent issue today. And when the positive effects of representation done right are so great, it’s something worth speaking up about. It allows young queer people to have a role model to look up to or to have a reference point when it comes to their journey toward self-discovery and identity. But perhaps overall, it allows them to look positively toward the future.
“One of the things I always say is that TV and film teach us how to dream,” Deggans says. “It often teaches people what might be possible for them when the situation that they're in is limited. You can turn on the TV and see someone who might be a little bit like you doing something you could never imagine being possible because of where you’re personally at or what’s physically around you.”
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