Many African-American-led reality series on cable today represent some of the more highly rated shows on their respective networks and get plenty of press coverage in urban glossies.
Look closely, though, and you’ll see many of those reality shows promote negative or demeaning stereotypes about black women, such as the bad behavior on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta; VH1’s Love and Hip Hop and Basketball Wives; TLC’s exposé of the lives of pastors’ wives, The Sisterhood; and Oxygen’s recently pulled reality special, All My Babies’ Mamas.
African-American activists have countered with online petitions and real-world lobbying efforts to combat what they deem as “toxic and degrading” images of black women.
Indeed, the Horowitz Associates State of Cable and Digital Media 2012 Multicultural Edition survey found only 36% of African-Americans felt television was delivering quality multicultural content. That’s notable considering how important that group is to television: African-Americans watch more TV that anyone else, based on current Nielsen numbers, taking in nearly 213 hours of programming per month, twice as much as Asians and roughly 57 hours more than white viewers.
Too many of these shows promote the same outdated typecasts of black women as loud, hair-pulling, neck-rolling, gold-digging jezebels, at a time when there is an African- American woman living in the White House and another with her OWN cable network, and when an Oscar nominee for best actress was an African-American girl, 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis — as is this summer’s “All-American Girl,” Olympic gymnastics champion Gabrielle Douglas.
It’s not enough these days just to have black women on TV — viewers deserve to see the diversity of their experiences and their stories lived out in full, on-screen.
And viewers are beginning to see more in scripted series: with actress Regina King as Southland’s Lydia Adams, a Los Angeles police detective and working single mother; Wendy Davis as Army Wives’ Col. Joan Burton, a wife and mother of two; and Gina Torres as the powerhouse managing partner Jessica Pearson on USA Network’s Suits, as well as with starring roles for Kerry Washington as Scandal crisis manager Olivia Pope; Meagan Good in Deception; Gabrielle Union in BET’s Being Mary Jane; and Thandie Newton in DirecTV’s Rogue.
Even Shanola Hampton’s Shameless alter ego, Veronica — whose on-screen inter racial relationship is a much-applauded change of pace for a dark-skinned, dreadlocked woman — has not created the kind of embarrassment that the brawling, highly dramatic and overly sexualized antagonists on reality TV bring.
THE REAL WORLD
“On the part of the participants in reality TV, they quickly understand: If I create enough excitement around myself, the cameras will stay on me longer,” Toni Judkins, executive vice president of original programming and production at TV One, said. That network last month premiered its new family comedy series, Belle’s.
“That’s been the name of the game since [MTV’s long-running reality series] The Real World,” Judkins said. “But as it relates to black women, the thing that’s sad about it is that we tend to play those stereotypical characters.”
Black actresses, by contrast, are finding more three-dimensional roles as scripted characters who benefit from the conceit of actual storytelling.
“Women of color are being more fleshed out in scripted series than [in] reality,” Gina Torres, the Afro-Cuban actress of USA’s Suits, which returns for its second season June 14 at 10 p.m., said. “These people are hand-picked for very specific reasons — to make compelling television. But they don’t fully represent us. And when I say us, I don’t mean just black women. I don’t mean just ethnic women. I mean us as people.”
Scripted series still have a long way to go in fully representing black women — and other women of color — in leading roles, media critics have argued.
But in today’s modern TV landscape, even such supporting characters as Michonne (Danai Gurira) on AMC’s The Walking Dead; LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) and Davina (Edwina Findley) of HBO’s Treme; and Lana (Aisha Tyler), an animated character on the satiric spy series Archer, are all uniquely diverse and decidedly layered.
“For a cartoon, Lana’s very complex,” said Tyler, who voices the character on the series, which wraps a two-part, fourth-season finale airing April 4 and April 11 at 10 p.m. (ET/PT). “She’s struggling with questions of her age and her relationships; she’s dedicated herself to her work [but] wants to have a child, so she’s a really interesting woman; and, as an African-American woman, she’s doesn’t fall into any of the African-American tropes. There’s nothing that she trades on that feels very stereotypically black.”
BEYOND BLACK BEST FRIENDS
Tyler, who played the first “black friend” featured in an extended story arc on NBC’s smash-hit 1994-2004 sitcom Friends, believes roles for black actresses are gradually evolving beyond “BBFs,” assistants or nondescript subordinates to the white protagonist.
“Every role, every breakthrough, builds upon a thousand breakthroughs that came before,” Tyler said. “Now there’s been a thousand cracks in that glass ceiling for the thousands of roles that go as far back as Hattie McDaniel. There’s this slow progress.”
John Wells Productions president Andrew Stearn, who serves as executive producer on Shameless and co-executive producer on Southland, said shows created under the company’s banner are typically diverse workplace dramas.
Shameless is a family-based show, a genre in which diversity is less common. Still, it was intentional to make Veronica (best friend to Fiona Gallagher) a full character, Stearn said. “We wanted her to have her own life, as well as goals and dreams and aspirations.”
Shanola Hampton, who plays Veronica, said that when she took the role, she believed it would be nothing more than a paycheck. But as the character evolved over the past three seasons, not only does Veronica have her own storylines, she is making headlines as she attempts to start a family of her own — with her mom as a surrogate.
“When they said Veronica was going to ask her mom to have her baby, I was like: A black woman would never do that,” she said. “But then no woman would ever want her mom to sleep with her boyfriend, so it was interesting. It’s really nice, especially as a woman of color on television, to have a storyline like this, even though you’re not the lead.”
Over seven seasons as Col. Joan Burton on Army Wives, Wendy Davis has seen her character as a role model. “Sometimes career women on television are either one way or the other, and you don’t see them managing the family or the career,” Davis said. “But those are real-world challenges, and she makes a lot of mistakes.”
The new season also brought another black family to the base, with singer Ashanti in the principal female role.
“It’s not that this new couple is any less loving or successful, but they’re not a super-couple like the Joan/Roland relationship,” series executive producer Jeff Melvoin said. “But they’re allowing us to portray a couple from a different part of the social spectrum.”
Lifetime and Showtime both have a history of success with shows with African-American leading ladies, including the former’s Any Day Now (1998-2002) and the latter’s Soul Food: The Series (2000-2004). But it’s the current success of ABC’s Scandal, the first hour-long series starring an African-American woman on network TV — more than 41 years after Diahann Carroll was the first black sitcom leading lady depicted as an educated professional on Julia — that is likely to beget copycats.
“When I got the green light for this show, I never even thought about having a black female lead,” Rogue creator Matthew Parkhill said. “And then a year later, we’re one of two or three or four in that position.”
Scheduled to premiere in April on DirecTV, Rogue is a thriller starring British actress Thandie Newton as an undercover detective involved with a notorious crime boss while trying to be the wife and mother her family needs after the loss of her son — an situation further complicated by the possibility that her own actions may have contributed to his death.
During January’s Television Critics Association Press Tour, Newton, a longtime film actress, told reporters why she wanted to come to TV: “I felt frustrated by the stunted nature of sort of adult drama, the characters I was portraying. I really wanted to work on something that had more of an arc, more complexity, and I think the best adult drama is in television these days. Certainly, there’s more choice.”
There are more choices for African-American viewers, too. OWN and GMC are targeting scripted shows specifically to African-American women, and VH1 begins production on the third season of Single Ladies, with LisaRaye McCoy, this summer in Atlanta. On Memorial Day, VH1 debuts Hit the Floor with Kimberly Elise and Taylour Paige.
Also this year, BET debuts its first hour-long scripted series, Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union as a single anchorwoman for a 24-hour cable news network living in Atlanta.
“I think our last election showed us that America looks like what I thought America looks like,” creator and showrunner Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends, The Game) said. “If you look at broadcast television, even with Scandal on the air, it still feels like we live in a white world in America, and that’s not true.” At the end of the day, advertisers are still “selling soap,” Brock Akil said.
“And there a lot of single, black women with buying power who like to buy Mercedes and Victoria’s Secret bras. We’ve got to sell that, and they’re a sophisticated group —women, in general are a sophisticated group — and you’ve just got to keep reaching for an in-depth image, and that’s certainly what we’re trying to do with Being Mary Jane, and what I’ve been trying to do forever in my career.”
Multichannel News contributor Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate Mixing Race, Culture and Creed.
Cable scripted series are offering a more-realistic, less-one-dimensional take on African-American women and their role in society.