The Rocky Road to Representation
How Black Women Still Struggle to See Themselves in Television
This article was originally published in November 2019 in Shameless Magazine’s Youth Issue.
Television is constantly changing. Instead of chilling on the couch, channel surfing for a show to watch, we now have access to all the latest series right at our fingertips. Along with this new era of television, we are seeing more diversity on screen, especially with Black women. According to a study by San Diego State University, Black women made up only 6% of characters on American television in 2014 whereas in 2019, this number rose to 12%. In 2015, Viola Davis even became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress. It just took us 67 years.
But Black women are not numbers. They are people. Representation is more than just appearing on the screen of a television or winning an award. It’s all about how these women are actually represented. While black women may be on television more and more, they are often restricted to destructive stereotypes: the token Black best friend (a superficial attempt at being diverse), the Jezebel (a stereotype that portrays Black women as seductresses), and the ever-tiring Angry Black Women (a trope that portrays Black women as sassy or argumentative by nature). Yes, these archaic caricatures still exist today. They may not be as apparent, but they are there.
Think of some of the most popular shows over the last five years, such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Orange is the New Black (OITNB). These two series have broken boundaries in television and proven that women-led series can be profitable and critically acclaimed. However, both of these series have sidelined their Black female characters in favour of their white leads. In The Handmaid’s Tale, this has gone as far as killing off two Black female characters to further the arc of the white lead June. In a series that already has few women of colour, these creative decisions tell Black female viewers that they are lesser than their white friends, that their stories are appendages to the main plot line. In later seasons, OITNB moved away from its narrow perspective of its white female lead Piper and into equal storytelling time for its diverse cast of characters. But unfortunately, The Handmaid’s Tale still struggles to address race and give Black female characters the storylines they deserve.
Sometimes even the greatest writers can resort to harmful stereotypes. Shonda Rhimes is most known for her successful television show Grey’s Anatomy, but also for creating one of the most iconic Black women on television—Olivia Pope. Olivia Pope, a crisis manager, first appeared on television screens in 2012 in the political drama Scandal. At her best, she was a fearless leader, proving Black women can achieve success and power. But at her worst, Olivia was a modern-day incarnation of the Jezebel. A lot of Olivia’s power came from her love affairs with powerful white men in Washington, D.C. Her character, a powerful Black woman, was definitely a step in the right direction. But we also need Black female characters whose power is not derived from their sexual relationships with white men. Black women need to see that they can achieve success through their own means and that their importance should not be determined by who they sleep with.
Reality television is where we can find the most heightened stereotypes of Black women. If you are a fan of reality series, you are bound to come across the Angry Black Woman trope. Shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta profit off a bunch of Black women yelling and fighting with each other. Black women should be allowed to be angry but that is not all they should be seen as. There needs to be a balanced and authentic representation of who these women really are. These series should focus more on the strong friendships between Black women without highlighting a heated argument between them every other episode.
Some people may argue, “If you don’t like a show, don’t watch it.” And yes, that is true. With an abundance of content to watch, you can just pick something else. But this is a recurring issue across broadcast, cable, and streaming television. It’s 2019 and Black women still aren’t seeing themselves on screen in complex, meaningful ways. Of course, it takes time for things to change, especially when caricatures and stereotypes persist for more than 80 years. The key to change is not only having Black women behind the scenes but in leadership roles within the television industry. We are always in the need for Black female creators but when major television studios and networks are still mainly operated by white men, authentic representations become devalued in favour of entertainment and tradition. We need more women of colour at the top making these decisions. But right now, we need education. Industry wide training on media representation will help the people who are currently in charge make educated decisions. By understanding the history and effects of these destructive stereotypes of Black women, they have the power to break the cycle.