Onscreen depictions of interracial love are in flux. The same year the world was introduced to the first black Bachelorette, we were treated to Get Out, a biracial director’s psychological thriller version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Fifty years after Loving v. Virginia and Sidney Poitier’s feature-film performance, screens big and small are making a statement about interracial love stories: They are just as legitimate and just as beautiful as any other, but the external challenges they face are still colored by persistent prejudice.
Interracial marriage has increased more than fivefold since that landmark case in 1967, according to a study by Pew Research. Its findings show that one in six people who married in the U.S. in 2015 entered an interracial marriage. That year, 11 million people were in an interracial marriage—10 percent of all married people.
Attitudes are changing too. In 2000, 31 percent of adults said they would oppose intermarriage in their family; that number is down to 10 percent today. Among nonblack Americans specifically, the difference is even starker: 63 percent of those surveyed in 1990 expressed opposition, but today only 14 percent were against interracial marriage of their own family members.
With statistics like these, it’s no wonder depictions of interracial love are shifting onscreen as well. During the past 30 years alone, big- and small-screen creators have nudged the boundaries, progressing in lockstep with their audiences.
The 1990s left viewers obsessed with small-screen couples of the same race—think Boy Meets World’s Cory and Topanga, Friends’s Ross and Rachel, A Different World’s Whitley and Dwayne, and Martin’s titular character's relationship with Gina. Those examples offer a good look at that era. Pushing the boundaries of diversity largely meant casting racial minority actors and giving them a love interest of the same race. This view of diversity is even more limiting when you consider that it was focused on black and white, too often excluding Latinx, Asian, Native American, and other minorities onscreen at all, let alone in relationships.
Premium TV kicked off the new millennium with an interracial bang: HBO’s Sex and the City gave Samantha a black record executive to date—only to have his sister insist they break it off before the episode’s 30 minutes were up. With that strong-willed sister’s views out in the air (“I’m sure you’re a very nice person, but you’re white”), big screens fell in line, showing that prejudice could come from all sides: a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remake with Bernie Mac disapproving of Ashton Kutcher; Bend It Like Beckham, where her Sikh parents’ open distrust of Europeans kept Jess and Joe from sharing their relationship; and Save the Last Dance, which cast Kerry Washington and Bianca Lawson as staunch critics of white women who pursue black men.
But as we moved into the 2010s, these interracial relationships took shape in much the same way as any other relationship—with problems not rooted in racism—even as characters of color grappled more candidly than ever with America’s legacy of prejudice. Shonda Rimes’s Scandal is a compelling example: Rowan Pope consistently expresses his disdain for Fitzgerald Grant’s extramarital relationship with Olivia. But in this scenario, Rowan is not a black dad protecting his daughter from a white man; instead, he’s a dad who has worked for every shred of success he’s achieved, and spoiled, weak Fitz is not good enough. Essentially, he didn’t think Fitz was any match for Olivia—and fatherly disapproval is a universally understood relationship challenge, regardless of racial divides.
Similarly, the lone interracial marriage on HBO sensation Big Little Lies was portrayed as one with tensions that might plague any couple in their situation. Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan has invested far more into his family with Bonnie than he ever did in his first marriage. To add insult to injury, Madeline’s daughter has bonded with Bonnie, who is implied to be the cool bohemian stepmom. It’s a classic scenario that isn’t bogged down by racial politics. Instead—either by design or because of all the other crazy things happening with the characters—Bonnie’s race never becomes a talking point.
Season 13 of the The Bachelorette was the first to center on a black woman—and even then, the show was criticized for missing a clear opportunity to acknowledge its many years of feigned color-blindness. When a few potential suitors met bachelorette Rachel Lindsay on live TV before the season began, one of them addressed it head on. Dean, who became a favorite during the season, told Rachel, "I’m ready to go black and I’m never going to go back." Yikes. Unfortunately, this didn't set the series up for honest conversations about race like fans expected. Instead, the lack of honest commentary bubbled beneath the surface for weeks, boiling over into ongoing confrontation between Kenny and Lee not long before they were both sent home.
That turn of events revealed the worst of what can happen when we try to revert back to the "I don’t see color" attitudes that were largely left in the 20th century. People of color are increasingly fed up with this approach, which aims to sweep America’s racist past under the rug—along with the ethnic identities that shape the nation’s growing population of minorities.
While Get Out was a mostly fiction thriller, it represented the other end of the spectrum: a space where difference is so widely acknowledged that it reverts back to judging others solely based on difference. Bodies of the film’s black victims became mere vessels for the perpetrators to live out the fantasies that their own mediocrity hindered. How did they "catch" the victims? By sending out one of their own to date black men and women. The interracial relationship was a bait that gave victims the illusion of equality and interracial love.
This, particularly coming from a biracial writer-director who is half of an interracial marriage himself, was a harsh metaphor: It told audiences that the world has a long way to go before difference is embraced instead of fetishized, marginalized, hated, and feared. But it also revealed some of the ways that even now, even in families devoid of overt racism, interracial couples are up against an additional set of challenges. After the awkward "meet the parents" moment in Get Out—a staple in most relationships—Rose’s dad took it a step further, making a point to tell Chris that he would’ve voted for Obama a third time. Cringe. For Chris’s part, his friend Rod speculated that he was only dating Rose because of their physical relationship. Although they pale in comparison to the horror film’s violent crimes shown later on, they are likely the kinds of prejudice-based remarks that interracial couples face more regularly.
As this century’s second decade nears a close, there is an increased push for authenticity and candor in all aspects of public life. So far, this has led to more and more people of color sharing their experiences of racial prejudice on social media, in everyday conversations, and in creative works. Pulling back the curtain on unresolved issues of prejudice has both humanized the victims and revealed that society still has work to do. As art imitates this facet of life, it makes honest assertions about the unique challenges interracial couples face but also gives them room to argue and stumble and love in the way that all couples do, regardless of identity.