June 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Dana L. Davis On Hollywood, Defying Stereotypes, & “Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now”

Photo courtesy of HarlequinTeen

This debut YA author is no stranger to fame. Dana L. Davis has had a successful career on TV shows like Franklin and Bash, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Heroes. The actress and writer has turned to the page, though, in order to bring more stories of young black women to the forefront. In Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now (HarlequinTeen, May 2018), the title character works through grief, anxiety, moving in with her father’s new and very religious family, and much more. Davis shares what inspired her to write this tale, which was recently optioned for a TV series.

The call came in around 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning. My talent agent was letting me know that I was up for a role in a new movie. I was ecstatic.

“The callback is with the director and producers.” He exclaimed. “But they have notes.”

“Ok.” I said breathlessly, containing the urge to squeal with excitement like a tween at a Shawn Mendes concert. “What are they?”

“They want you more sassy. More street. More urban.”

I frowned. This wasn’t the way I initially auditioned for the character. I had made her funny and smart and confident. I could read between the lines. “Sassy, street and urban” was industry code for: stereotype. And I had decided years prior, I would no longer even audition for such types. So I prepared the callback as I originally had. And you know what? I didn’t get the part. It was upsetting, sure, but I wasn’t surprised. This was a common theme. Because I refused to play stereotypes—my career suffered for it.

So often in Hollywood the person of color is written to be a caricature—someone to play off the main character. The protagonist is typically white. But even with films that are produced, written, and starring people of color, the writers of those films often feel compelled to carry on the Hollywood trend with gun-toting grandmas, drugs, violence, gangs, tomfoolery, or seriously bad attitudes.

A friend once said to me, “Dana, I am looking to read an epic love story. Something like The Notebook. With a black couple. Do you know of one?”

I didn’t. But I wanted to help. I had so many stories brewing within me.  Fairy tales. Legends. Eternal love. Magic. Competitions. Music. You name it…my mind was subconsciously already outlining the manuscript. And it was at that moment I made a decision. If things were going to change; if there were to be an evolution in the way people of color (especially black people), were depicted in film, TV, and in literature, we needed people who could see to the core of the problem to step up. People like me.

It became my new life goal to create stories where people of color had beautiful tales to tell that didn’t make them a caricature or a stereotype. I got right to work. And Tiffany Sly was born.

When HarlequinTeen informed me that my debut novel, Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now, would feature a brown girl on the cover, I cried. I knew they were not the first publisher to do so, but to me it spoke volumes. It confirmed that the story I created compelled my publisher to see Tiffany as a hero worthy to be celebrated. And it meant thousands of girls with beautiful brown skin would see it reflected in the glossy shine of Tiffany Sly. But mostly it confirmed that never again would black girls grow up as I had—an entire childhood gone by without the opportunity to see a version of themselves on the cover of a novel.

We still have a ways to go before the playing field is even and girls and boys of all shades share the shelves at bookstores. And we may have decades before film and TV no longer feature played out narratives with people of color reduced to sidekick status or offensive stereotypes. But I’m so proud to be a part of a movement where people are stepping up and saying no more. Where the depiction of the black race is being redefined and where people of color are heroes worthy to be praised.

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