Romance in Living Color | Guest Post by Nadine Gonzalez

by - 2:54 PM

Everything I needed to know about diversity and racial/cultural representation in pop culture I learned in the nineties. 

Back then I was an avid fan of category romance novels. Most of the books I read were set in England. Needless to say, women of color did not play a role in these narratives, not as a supporting character and certainly not as the lead. One day, I got my hands on a weathered paperback copy of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale (1992). Waiting is not romance. It falls squarely in the genre of “four friends who meet to drink wine, laugh, cry, and dish about their lives.” McMillan’s unfiltered writing style broadened my field of vision. It gave me a glimpse of what was possible: fresh stories, salty comedy, relatable heroines of color, and heroes that I recognized. Soon after, my interest in category romance dwindled. 

The hit HBO show, Sex and the City (1998 – 2004), based on the novel of the same title by Candace Bushnell (1997), had a similar effect on me. I started watching the show in grad school even though my dorm room cable package didn’t include HBO. The premium channels were scrambled but the audio was clear. On Sunday evenings, I’d climb into bed and give myself a manicure while listening to SATC. The voiceover narration made it easy to follow the overlapping storylines: four friends who meet at a diner get the point. But since I couldn’t see the fashion featured on the show, I was left wondering what Carrie and her friends wore to brunch or on dates. I never had to wonder about the ethnicity of the characters because, while Carrie’s fashion sense was eclectic and diverse, her social set was not. A New York City devoid of cultural and ethnic diversity is as imaginary as Narnia or Wakanda. 

This is not to say that the nineties was a throwback to the fifties. Some of my favorite shows featuring actors of color were produced in that decade: Martin (1992-1997), In Living Color (1990 – 1994)… But a clear bright line separated mainstream entertainment and shows made for “minorities.” 

I’ve now mapped out three veins of pop culture influence: category romance, Waiting to Exhale, and Sex and the City. For the sake of brevity, let’s stick with those three. What’s the takeaway? From nineties category romance, I learned that a lack of diversity may potentially alienate even the most devoted fan. It’s bad business. No one likes to be ignored or made to feel irrelevant. From Terry McMillan I learned to write in my most authentic voice, tell stories from my unique point of view, and to do it with humor and style. Lastly, from Sex and the City, I learned that excellent writing can hold its own, but also faithful world building in a contemporary narrative is important. The contemporary writer cannot edit out large sub-sections of a city’s population for convenience’s sake. 

Miami Dreams, my contemporary romance series with Harlequin Kimani Press, is set (duh!) in Miami, Florida. I tap into the city’s natural diversity. In my debut novel, Exclusively Yours (March 2018), I adopted a mixed salad approach to diversity. My heroine, Leila, is Afro-Caribbean; Brie, her protégé is African- American; and Sofia, her best friend, is Latina. Leila’s love interest, Nicolas, is the child of Canadian snowbirds. I tossed it all in. Still, I struggled against my default settings. In a pivotal scene, Nick and Leila meet with a wealthy couple seeking to buy a condo in Miami Beach. An early draft depicts the couple as American and heterosexual. In the finished manuscript, the couple is foreign and homosexual—by all statistical standards a more accurate depiction of a wealthy couple seeking to buy a condo in Miami Beach. 

It’s 2018 and so much has changed since the nineties. Naomi Campbell still slays. But a hit HBO show, Insecure, is set in California and features a diverse cast. Independent publishing has offered a space for formerly marginalized authors to produce stories that reflect their tastes and experiences. Traditional romance imprints have produced powerhouse authors of color and are expanding their lists. There is still a long way to go. See the “State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing 2017” by the Ripped Bodice. 

Nothing I’ve said here is particularly groundbreaking. This is just one writer’s journey to understanding the importance of representation in popular culture. It didn’t come naturally; it was a lesson I had to learn. As society awakens to the idea that representation matters, let’s agree that diversity in pop culture may be a lot of things: a moral imperative, a smart business move. The one thing it isn’t is a trend. The term, “diversity trend,” was pushed by some major publications and has been much debated on Twitter. Diversity is a mandate and the only way forward. But since we’re on the topic of trends, let’s talk about Carrie Bradshaw’s wardrobe. Her iconic tutu skirt, her thrift shop finds, vintage classics, street chic, and haute couture glam… 

Yes, I eventually got premium cable channels. I’m all caught up. 

Reference articles: 
  1. 15 Publishing Professionals On Why Diversity Isn't a Trend But A Reflection of Our Lives 
  2. Diversity in Publishing: Still Hideously Middle-Class and White?
  3. The Ripped Bodice Presents: The state of racial diversity in romance publishing 2017

Nadine Gonzalez is an author, artist, and attorney. Born in New York City, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, she eventually moved to Miami, Florida. The vibrant city is her muse. Nadine shares her home with her Cuban American husband and their beautiful son. For more information, visit or follow @_NadineGonzalez (IG, Twitter).

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