The first episode of Amazon Prime’s “Modern Love,” “When the Doorman is Your Main Man,” tells the story of Maggie, a single woman in New York who becomes pregnant. Despite the pregnancy being unplanned and the fact that the father declines involvement in the baby’s life, Maggie chooses to move forward as a single mother with some help from her doorman, who offers her unwavering support and guidance. As the niece of a woman who has lived alone in Manhattan for over 30 years, I know firsthand the close, intimate relationship my aunt has with the men who work in her building.
These men span all colors, languages and creeds, and as “Modern Love” takes place in New York City, I naturally expected these elements of a New York City experience to show up as well. But nearly the entire episode went by without a significant appearance from a person of color. When one did show up, it was Maggie’s husband, a black man. His sudden appearance in the midst of a lily-white episode felt like a hastily and messily applied band-aid on a series that clearly has problems with racial representation.
I went into watching “Modern Love” with an open mind. I knew it would be girly, mushy and romantic but not hold much substance. After all, Angelica Jade Bastien wrote for Vulture that “‘Modern Love’ is all heart, no soul’” because “the characters have the depth of a thimble.” I took this to heart, expecting the show to be empty but worthy of a girl’s-night-in marathon nonetheless. Yet as each episode went by, I found that what I was taking away from the show was much darker—darker even than the third episode’s lazy attempt to explore bipolar disorder (which oddly involved a musical number). I didn’t come to “Modern Love” expecting it to fulfill new Hollywood diversity quotas. I didn’t really even expect much at all. But I didn’t expect it to pretend like women of color don’t exist.
There are only two black women with speaking roles in the entire series: one a coworker to Lexi, the lead character in “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” and the other a roommate to Maddy, a girl with daddy issues in “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” The black female roommate in the latter episode serves as a foil to Maddy; her healthy relationship with her father highlights Maddy’s lack of one. I wondered briefly if doing so was an attempt on the show’s part to upset stereotypes about black girls with daddy issues, but the show’s grappling with race is so nonexistent that to extend even this to the episode would be incredibly generous.
Watching “Modern Love” as a black woman was infuriating for a few reasons. One, the show insinuates that in modern-day New York City, white women (and one white-passing woman) are the only kind of women who experience romantic love. Second, it suggests that when women of color do exist, they do so only in supporting roles, helping propel the white woman toward her romance and eventual happiness. Third, it brought me back to how I experienced watching television in my childhood and teens, when it was so rare (still is) to see anyone of my particular experience reflected on screen. The same questions plagued me as I watched “Modern Love” that plagued me then, though I used to try squashing them down in favor of admiring the stories I consumed for what they were. Where are the women of color? Where are the girls that look like me?
Nylah Burton speaks truth to these questions in her piece “Is ‘Modern Love’ Only for White Women?” for Zora, a publication on Medium. She takes it one step further by arguing that, “the exclusion of women of color in this series is so blatant that it can only be intentional.” I have to tentatively agree. One could argue that because the women who wrote the New York Times essays upon which these episodes are based are white, the actors who played them must follow suit. But this logic doesn’t ring true in the rest of the series. Black characters and other characters of color appear in the show, showing that when it comes to casting, race isn’t an issue—except when it comes to deciding who gets to be loved publicly and who doesn’t. As Burton writes, all the men of color in “Modern Love” “are all shown either in love, falling in love, or trying to fall in love with White people.”
If the decision wasn’t intentional, it certainly highlights a major blind spot in the casting of “Modern Love.” It’s still taboo to see women of color—especially black women—receive love on screen. Romantic movies with black people or black women are characterized as “black movies.” The same is true for movies with mainly Asian casts, or Latino casts and so on—implying that seeing people of color experience love onscreen needs to be the result of a calculated choice, rather than a given. The issue of representation does not only affect young people like me, a young black woman struggling to see positive, meaningful images of herself on-screen. It affects how we all see ourselves and each other. As Burton writes, “simultaneously excluding and hypersexualizing women of color on-screen reflects how we’re treated off-screen.” Perhaps most chillingly, Burton argues that the blatant exclusion in “Modern Love” of rich characters of color who do more than just support the white women at the center of the stories reinforces a dangerous message, one that has been communicated to black women and people of color more broadly by years of inadequate or nonexistent representation: that we “don’t belong in modernity.” I can’t help but ask: just who exactly is the modern love referenced in this show for? And why?
When love is denied from women of color in a television show entitled “Modern Love,” it is damaging, not just because it implies that women of color are not worthy of love, but because it implies that we are not worthy of the richness that comes with being recognized in our full humanity. This is, of course, not true. I don’t have high expectations for low-brow adaptations like this one, but a show called “Modern Love” has one task: to depict modern love. This show failed at that, and we all need and deserve the culture we consume to do better.