[Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on Black Girl Nerds last year. It has been republished here with permission.]
As a Black woman who consumes a substantial amount of television, it is invaluable to see images of women and people of color on the small screen.
My flat screen invites my favorite fandoms into my living room and provides an experience that I hope can be both entertaining and fulfilling. However, when it comes to diversity, I have noticed that slowly women and people of color are taking on protagonist roles that we haven’t quite seen before. As a TV viewer, I wouldn’t exactly say that my diversity appetite is fully satiated. In fact, I still hunger for more women who look like me on television. But there are shows that are slowly coming into the fold that are creating characters who look like the people I see walking around my neighborhood every day. Characters who look like people I see at a shopping mall, waiting for my flight at the airport, or riding a NYC subway train.
Racial diversity on television within the last several years has been sparse or relatively nonexistent, depending on which network you elect to watch. Seeing more white faces than faces of color is sadly becoming the status quo. In fact it seems since the ‘80s and 90’s TV shows are actually getting whiter. The monolith of whiteness is both discouraging and dismissive to many non-white fans who want to see images of characters who look like them.
But there are several new shows as of late that are embracing diversity, and are even including marginalized ethnic groups like Black women as the lead protagonists. One example is Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow reflects multicultural characters so well that it looks like any city in the U.S. As a fiction is doesn’t representation of some alternate universe like in the 1995 film White Man’s Burden.
Abbie Mills, a Black female police lieutenant, leads the show along with her companion Ichabod Crane in fighting the forces of darkness and preventing the impending apocalypse. Sleepy Hollow has become a major part of the fandom community and most particularly the blerd (black nerd) community.
Another TV show that has piqued the interest of many fans is CW’s The Flash. Barry Allen’s childhood friend and secret crush is Iris West, a Black woman played by actress Candice Patton. According to Comic Book Resources, Patton didn’t realize that the comic book character Iris West was white until after she landed the role and started reading the comics. Detective Joe West is portrayed by veteran actor Jessie L. Martin who we all know and love from the binge-worthy show Law and Order.
Greg Berlanti, the creator of both The Flash and Arrow, promises more Black characters to come. He recently stated, “We made the West characters African American so we can eventually head in that direction, absolutely … that’s our hope.” Wally West, also known as Kid Flash, is the nephew to Iris West. If you are following the New 52 series of The Flash comics, Wally West is biracial and is African-American on his mother’s side.The Flash is already a fan favorite among comic geeks because the creators are keeping its narrative pretty consistent with the books. However, the show Gotham has decided to go with a divergent approach, taking creative liberties with its characters.
In Fox’s Gotham series, the villain of the first season and up-and-coming mobster Fish Mooney is a Black woman. Fish Mooney, played by actress Jada Pinkett Smith, is a smooth, Eartha Kitt-sounding, fashionably chic mobstress who is ready to take over Carmine Falcone’s legacy as a crime boss of Gotham city. It is the first time I have seen a Black female character in a prominent role as a villain in a very long time. A Forbes writer stated that Jada Pinkett’s character of Fish Mooney seemed “wildly out of place” and further stated:
“It’s this empty effort at diversity-for-diversity’s sake that ignores realism and narrative in favor of inclusiveness and political correctness, all of which sends ripples through my ability to suspend my disbelief.”
I’m not even sure what the term “diversity-for-diversity’s sake” truly means. I’m bothered at times by the term “diversity,” because it often implies that people of color are utilized as tokens to create a sense of balance. That our presence is here to make the atmosphere more “cultural” or “colorful.” I don’t live in a world that exists in a monolith. I don’t live in a world where my sphere of influence is monochromatic. I live in a world filled with various eccentricities, body sizes, sexual preferences, and cultural backgrounds of people who come from all walks of life.
The writer’s concern alluded to the historical context of the show, in which patriarchy reigns high and women are still submissive characters. Although the TV series Gotham does come with its flaws—one of its main ones being its continuity and timeline errors—the show does not take place in ‘30s and ‘40s as depicted in the comics. Fish Mooney uses a flip cell phone and the cars look reasonably recent. It’s likely the show’s timeline is somewhere in the early to mid 2000s. The writer states, and I’m paraphrasing here, that in the world of organized crime a man of Italian descent is the most likely mob boss, not a woman.
There are a few things wrong with this, which is why TV archetypes have completely altered our perception of reality. Not all crime bosses are Italian and yes women, even Black women can do the job. According to Wikipedia, “Stephanie St. Clair was a female gang leader who ran numerous criminal enterprises in Harlem, New York during the early 20th century. She was a sole independent operator and never came under Mafia control.”
She was portrayed by actress Cicely Tyson in the 1997 film Hoodlum.
Stephanie St. Clair was neither Italian nor a man.
Gotham’s show creators took creative liberties with adding new characters to the popular story of Batman with women like Fish Mooney, and it’s evident that fiction is always based on some element of truth.
Outside of the geek community, TV shows like Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder are also fan favorites for many of us that are hungry for Black female protagonists.
Thank you Shonda Rhimes.
These are only a handful of shows and there are many others that can also be mentioned. However, for every show that represents people of color, there are 10 or more shows that have the “Friends” effect and illustrate a white blanket of cast members. I will never understand shows shot in New York City that are completely void of Black and brown people.
There is a small beacon of hope out there in TV. I’m just happy to finally see women on TV who look like me.
Jamie Broadnax is the writer and creator of the niche blogsite for nerdy women of color called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has written for Madame Noire and was named part of The Grio’s Top 100. In her spare time, she enjoys live-tweeting, reading, writing, and spending time with her beagle Brandy.
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