Published May 11, 2020Lest the crushing weight of not hanging out in close proximity to your friends and having limited access to public space hasn't been hitting you enough, HBO's new skateboarder series Betty is dropping in every Friday night to remind you what happiness feels like. The series brings with it a refreshing perspective on "women and girls as outsiders in a male-dominated interest," as well as stories about belonging, feminism and friendship.
Betty is a six-episode spin-off of Skate Kitchen, the 2018 film about an all-girl skate collective in New York City. The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to a warm response from critics, who praised the its style and authenticity. Beyond the mesmerizing skate content, Skate Kitchen focused on the natural dynamic of the girls, who explored the bonds of friendship while coming of age as a young woman in the competitive, exclusive world of skateboarding.
Initially intended to be a documentary after director and writer Crystal Moselle met skaters Rachelle Vinberg and Nina Moran on a subway car, Moselle instead worked with the group of girls to create a fictionalized narrative based on their real-life experiences. The ease and authenticity between the cast — none of whom had acted before — was what set Skate Kitchen apart from its all-too-generic plot. Vinberg starred as Camille, a lonely eighteen-year-old girl who goes to the big city to meet the group of girls behind a skate Instagram account, eventually finding herself in the friend group.
In fact, Kitchen's plot is nearly identical to Jonah Hill's directorial debut Mid90s, a skate film that, instead of girlhood, explored toxic masculinity and premiered later in 2018. Despite their differences, Mid90s and Skate both stand as strong films independently while also complementing one another. However, it's starting to become clear that approaching an "insider" community like skateboarding from the point of view of an outsider is starting to feel worn out.
Subverting this formula is one of Betty's strengths. In the two hour-long episodes available so far, the stories about underground communities have strengthened by the medium of television. The roles created for the characters in the film have dissolved, and the cast no longer exists to support the narrative of one singular perspective. The series instead puts its trust into the hands of the cast and relies on their existing dynamics and experiences as active participants in a community that is shown to be less than friendly to anyone other than boys and men.
Vinberg's character Camille transforms from a gawky newcomer, as she was in the film, into a more removed character who is trying to win the approval of a group of boys in the skate park. Unlike the film's Camille, the show's Camille is less about girl power and seems embarrassed at the idea of being associated with a group of "Bettys" — a derogatory term for women and girls who hang out at skateparks but can't actually skate.
As the show operates in shorter vignettes with more day-to-day plots loosely woven throughout, we also get to spend more time with different members of the cast from the film. This includes learning more about a stand-offish character, Ruby (Kabrina Adams), now known as Honeybear in the series, following her from a conservative household off-island and into a budding romance with another girl skater. This format as well helps us to learn more about the experience of Janay (Dede Lovelace) growing up in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighbourhood, and exploring a bystander's perspective on accusations of sexual assault.
Relaxing the need to tell the stories of women and girls in skateboarding, or any male-dominated subculture, through the eyes of a singular outsider character presents the series with an opportunity to bring the audience into the community directly.
By allowing each of these characters to evolve and demonstrate their lived experiences, Betty provides an exciting dynamic to the series that the film lacked, serving as an invitation to young women everywhere to learn to skate.
The many different voices that have come together to make Betty do not insist that the characters are feminists just by virtue of existing in a male-dominated environment, but do so by providing a real group of diverse young women with a space to grow through doing what they love. We are very lucky to have such a generous introduction to their world.
Betty episodes premiere every Friday, which gives you plenty of time to think about learning how to skateboard during the week. (HBO)