Ladies on Fire“Betty” Is More Than a Skateboarding Show about Women

Kabrina Adams as Honeybear, left, Ajani Russell as Indigo, Nina Moran as Kirt, Dede Lovelace as Janay, and Rachelle Vinberg as Camille on Betty (Photo credit: HBO)

There’s a classic trope onscreen that if a non-male character is introduced in a male-dominated environment, the plot needs to offer up trauma in their backstory to serve as their motivation for what is seen as an extreme breaking of boundaries: Why are they there? Who do they think they are? Without this moment, viewers are rarely trusted to believe that these characters can exist as full and complex people, especially not in a setting where they don’t “belong.” This is doubly true for queer people (whose representation is lacking at the best of times), as viewers are seldom allowed to see queers as anything other than a by-product of an origin which must, of course, be painful. While I watched Betty, a recent HBO series, I noticed that the world built around a small skate crew in New York City doesn’t need to lean into heavy trauma in order to convince viewers to invest in its characters; nor does it require them to always be fighting a patriarchal society. Instead, It’s the intersection of their identities and their unique, fully-realized personalities that drives their story and carves out the connection viewers need to be invested in the series.

Betty—itself named after a term referring to girls that hang around the perimeters of skate parks and surf spots—is a new series from director Crystal Moselle. Moselle, who previously worked with the Betty cast in her film Skate Kitchen, which premiered in January 2018 at Sundance Film Festival, presents us with an ensemble that doesn’t need the weight of difficult backstories to provide complexity. Instead, it’s their environment that provides the young women of Betty with a relatable, easily watchable personality. And their environment is, of course, the skate park—the young women of Betty are almost always at the skate park. The added lens of skating, which is hugely important to each of the characters in their own way, provides a thread that presents the characters in constant, obvious contrast to their environment.

They’re almost always at the skate park, just as they’re almost always surrounded by men. Skating is a predominantly heterosexual masculine scene, so viewers find themselves watching a cast of women—the majority queer, most of them women of color—whose literal existence and presence in the space means they’re acting, intentionally or not, in defiance of their environment. Late in the first episode, “Key Party,” new-to-skating Indigo (Ajani Russell) accidentally runs up against a guy who is skating and knocks him over; we bear witness to a screaming match in which the man threatens violence, which he would surely dole out if not for the fact that they’re women. He asserts what he perceives to be his dominance, earned by the fact that he’s a man at a skate park. He’s supposed to be the one in power, and the one in charge. But as the argument continues, we see that façade peel away, given the presence of this small crew of self-assured women.

They’re not engaging in a masculine environment by apologizing for being there; instead, they’re actively proving with their presence that they deserve and demand to be there. Kirt (Nina Moran), the de-facto leader of the crew, sums up the scene matter-of-factly, saying, “When a girl runs into a boy, it’s a big fucking deal. When a boy runs into a boy it doesn’t matter.” While Skate Kitchen was a story largely focused on Camille’s (Rachelle Vinberg) coming-of-age story, in Betty, Moselle is given more time to devote to dissecting the deeper dynamics of the larger crew. Camille is still given a story threaded throughout the course of all six episodes that explores her attempts to fit in with a group of popular skate dudes and navigates a questionable romance with a local filmmaker.

But now the other girls are given a spotlight: We follow Janay (Dede Lovelace) as she struggles to come to terms with her relationship with her closest friend as he deals with an allegation of sexual violence; Kirt struggles to keep herself and her ego in check while being loyal to her crew; aspiring filmmaker Honeybear (Kabrina Adams) aspires to be out, but feels limited by her homelife. Each character manages to grow as young women who aren’t forced to be in a male-dominated space, but who choose, day in and day out, to be in one. Under the lead of Moselle, they’re given screentime in a world of men without those men ever really taking over. It’s the young women of Betty who take, and remain in, center stage. But this is more than a skateboarding show about women.

In the final episode, “Ladies on Fire,” Kirt notes to her friends, “I want to stop fighting the patriarchy and start helping the matriarchy instead.” And with a single line, viewers catch a glimpse of an underlying theme to all of these interlacing stories: This isn’t a show made to shatter glass ceilings so much as it is to empower those pushing against it. Every non-male character introduced is given a name and an identity. They exist in the world with purpose and flaws and the capacity for growth, and they make mistakes and fight with themselves and with each other. They’re deeply imperfect, with no character really being an “icon” or a “role model” in the sense of the 2020 millennial feminist.

Betty isn’t a show made to shatter glass ceilings so much as it is to empower those pushing against it.

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Inversely, there are male characters that exist to further plot points, but not all of them garner any real screen time; even Tony Hawk is given a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo: He sits with a woman and yet isn’t the center of attention, instead going completely unnoticed as the core cast prioritizes putting together their all-girl skate; they speak to her instead of Hawk. This isn’t done in the name of any sort of misandry so much as it is an intentional act that gives attention, space, and a voice to people that haven’t traditionally held it. In short, they just aren’t paying that much attention to men. Skate Kitchen and Betty are a tipping point not just for non-male representation in skating but also young women on screen. As Moselle told The Playlist, “In the writers room, we’d come up with ideas that were inspired by the girls and their situations and experiences. It was a group of people with their own experiences.” 

The core cast of Betty is young, and that’s obvious from their mistakes: each character does something that, to the adults in the room, is likely going to seem questionable, or like a stretch. But as Moselle explained in the aforementioned interview, “I think that sometimes when you’re older you don’t actually listen to the youth but I think that there’s a lot that they can say and we can learn from, especially with all of the crazy things that are going on in our world right now.” The most powerful thing about Betty is its ability to create visibility for people that might never have had an opportunity to see themselves represented on screen before. From Kirt, a somewhat self centered white dyke whose uncontrollable temper causes her to get her black friends arrested while she hides from the cops to Indigo, the cautiously optimistic drug dealer and secret rich kid trying to find where she belongs outside of a loft in Soho.

These are women living in their identities even as they exist in flux around them. Over these six, half-hour episodes, we watch them come together and push themselves to grow, to make mistakes and to support each other and push harder. And they don’t only support themselves. They support every woman they come in contact with, regardless of past conflict or a lack of reason to really do so. A high point in the script takes place in the final episode, “Ladies on Fire,” when an angry father confronts Camille and Kirt as they try to teach a young girl to skate on the sidewalk. He’s upset that he doesn’t know them, but he’s more upset to see his daughter doing something unladylike, or out of the realm of what he may have imagined for her. Frustrated, Camille and Kirt leave, but the final scene of the season shows that young girl as she walks out her front door and grabs a skate deck left behind for her by Camille. Maybe this is a glimpse of what Moselle wants to see: boundary breaking women encourage other women to break boundaries. They can see the spaces where they belong. All they need to do is walk out the front door and find it.

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by Niko Stratis
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Niko is a Toronto-based trans lady and a freelance writer, handy person and artist manager. She has written for THIS, Canadaland, HuffPo Canada and Xtra, with a usual focus on trans related issues. She also once won second place in a bowling tournament. She is always online on Twitter and Instagram.