The Year of Black Women on TV
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there are reasons we’re seeing a lot of strong, smart black women on TV — $1.1 trillion of them.
You don’t see this often in Hollywood: An award winner takes to the stage, grabs her statuette, launches into a tirade about why she’s “pissed off” to be honored. But clearly, Shonda Rhimes, the creative force behind Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and the runaway ABC TV hit Scandal, isn’t one to keep her lips zipped. When she accepted the Director’s Guild Award for Diversity last week, the trailblazer let the industry have it: She’s ticked, she said, “because there still needs to be an award. Like, there’s such a lack of people hiring women and minorities that when someone does it on a regular basis, they are given an award.”
Television is a famously fickle medium, one that’s largely dominated by white men.
She’s got a point. When it comes to reflecting what this country really looks like, television lags behind real life. Far behind. It’s hard to believe that before Kerry Washington made her Scandal debut in 2012, the last time a black woman starred in a network drama was 1974 (Get Christie Love! starring Teresa Graves.*)
This season, TV execs seem to be making up for lost time, firing up the airwaves with a jolt of black female badassery: Besides Scandal’s now iconic Miss Fixit, Olivia Pope, there is Nicole Beharie battling a headless horseman on Fox TV’s Sleepy Hollow; Angela Bassett and Gabby Sidibe fighting racism and witch hunters on FX’s American Horror Story: Coven; and Danai Gurira taking down zombies in AMC’s Walking Dead. Over on BET, Gabrielle Union recently made her debut as the übercompetent TV anchor with the übermessy personal life in Being Mary Jane. On Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, comic Jessica Williams is stealing all kinds of thunder with her snarky commentary. And this month, after a major dustup, Saturday Night Live unveiled the newest addition to its cast, Sasheer Zamata — along with two freshly hired African-American women writers.
Does this mean that 2014 is the year of the black woman on TV? If so, will it last? Why now? And why should we care?
Television is a famously fickle medium, one that’s largely dominated by white men. It’s human nature to hire people you are most comfortable with — and generally that means people who look like you and share your same sensibility. And so, as Rhimes pointed out, an industry of white guys tends to beget more white guys. Not that there’s anything wrong with white guys. It just makes for a skewed perspective in a multiracial country where, outside of television, powerful black women are dominating the conversation. It’s not just Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey these days. The new power brokers range from National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns to fierce entertainers like Rihanna, Beyonce and the new darling of the red carpet, Lupita Nyong’o.
“You have this major representation of [black women] in such an unprecedented space,” says Salamishah Tillet, professor of Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “Television is reflecting that — and it’s trying to appeal to that very strong consumer base of African-American women.”
These women are strong yet conflicted, filled with both save-the-day bravado and hide-under-the-covers neuroses.
Clearly, money talks — with a bullhorn. Network suits aren’t going to put people of color on TV because it makes them look good. It is, after all, show business. Considering that African-American buying power is projected to reach $1.1 trillion next year, it makes smart business sense to populate television shows with all different types of people. (And while they’re at it, how about better representation for Latinos, Asians, Arabs, American Indians…)
“It’s about the bottom line,” says sociologist Darnell Montez-Hunt, who tracks representation in media as director of the Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA. “Shows that look like America tend to do better than shows that do not.”
Cases in point: Scandal, which returns on Feb. 27, is a ratings juggernaut, with over 9 million viewers, most of them slavishly devoted fans live-tweeting episodes. Sleepy Hollow, which happens to co-star an Asian man (John Cho as a zombie cop) and an African-American man (Orlando Jones as the police chief), beat the competition last week with its two-hour season finale, with nearly 7 million viewers checking in. It also became the first show of the season to get booked for a second, making it the network’s strongest fall drama since 24.
Of course, success always begets criticism. This batch of black female characters is a far cry from Diahann Carroll’s buttoned-up Julia from back in the day. These women are strong yet conflicted, filled with both save-the-day bravado and hide-under-the-covers neuroses. Some viewers have objected — vehemently — to the homewrecker propensities of Olivia Pope and Mary Jane.
Particularly when past images of black women on TV were rife with decades of sassy sista stereotypes. There’s a tendency to want to burden the scant black representation with an “uplift the race” aesthetic. Call it the Claire Huxtable syndrome. In the ’80s, Diahann Carroll declared that she was happy to play TV’s “first black bitch” on Dynasty. There’s a certain amount of freedom in being flawed. Human. Just ask Issa Rae, who, frustrated with the limited representations of black women on TV, created her own wildly successful Web series, Awkward Black Girl. Now she’s developing a sitcom for HBO. “It’s thorny,” says Yaba Blay, co-director of Africana studies at Drexel University and author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. “We want to be in the mainstream, but we only want to have a certain image in the mainstream. We’re aware of the potential impact these images can have.”
It’s still early to say what TV has in store for the 2014-15 season — networks and cable won’t be rolling out their “upfronts” until mid-May — but we’re already keeping an eye out for Halle Berry’s return to TV on July 2. In Extant, produced by Steven Spielberg, she’ll play an astronaut who returns home after a yearlong space mission and tries to fit back into family life.
Halle Berry? Sci-fi? Steven Spielberg? It’ll either be great or it’ll suck. Either way, we’ll be watching. And so will a lot of other people.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the actress in Get Christie Love.