Network shows with African American female leads don’t come close to true diversity, experts say
Meagan Good (Deception) and Kerry Washington (Scandal) are two Black women who are starring in their respective prime-time dramas. LL Cool J co-stars in another network series. And Jada Pinkett Smith was executive producer and star of her own series on cable for three seasons.
“They are few and far between when it comes to Black voices or the Black perspective” on television, declares Southern Illinois University Media Professor Beverley Love. “It’s sad that we don’t have more, and I am not sure why it is.”
The characters Good and Washington play on their shows recently were debated on The Root.com. One (Good) “is living a double life,” while the other is “the perennial other woman” (Washington), wrote Helena Andrews in her January 8 post.
Allison Samuels wrote last April in the Daily Beast, “I’m usually scared to death of what I might see if I do stumble across a Black woman on the small screen… The sight of a Black woman on TV has meant one thing: trouble.”
“I look at episodes” on how Blacks are portrayed in her media studies, continues Love. Black characters on some shows “are Jezebel, Uncle Tom and Buck kind of characters in the way we are represented. The dress and the way [they] walk are almost buffoonish. I don’t know if it is the actor, the direction — who is allowing [such stereotyping]…” she surmises.
The television industry, whether regular or cable, “continues to keep us [Blacks] second-class citizens” with the lack of diversity on their shows, notes Love. “Until we have someone writing something different,” stereotypical roles featuring Black people will continue to be seen, she believes.
Will it takes more Blacks as executive producers? As production heads? Studio bosses?
Dr. Love responds, “We need to do something else than be in front of the camera. [Blacks] are there, but we don’t know that they are there. We need to go on the set and see who actually is there.”
The National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communication (NAMIC) each year hands out their Vision Awards. “NAMIC looks for programs that speaks to people of color, either ethnically or culturally in a positive light,” explains Charmaine Chapman, vice president of Denver-based BTB Communications, who represents NAMIC. “They have to have some sort of diverse angle, be it imagery, writing, original story.
“There [is] talent out there that can be tapped to tell culturally and ethnically diverse stories. I think cable is doing a good job. They have a track record of committing to diversity,” especially “family-oriented” shows as BET’s Reed Between the Lines, Chapman points out. Yet both she and Love notes that diversity in programming, whether traditional network or cable, is far from complete.
“There isn’t enough of a critical mass to make a difference,” Love says of Blacks in key positions. Reality shows such as Basketball Wives that show Black women in unflattering ways are disturbing, she points out. “What is it saying about Black women — the angry Black woman, the money-grabbing woman?”
“Number one — it has to be beyond the mentality that people of color or talent of color may not be able to write or produce something that’s universal to everybody,” adds Chapman. Secondly, “A lot of consolidation” in recent years has reduced opportunities for Blacks and other people of color — Chapman cites the former WB and UPN networks, now the CW, as an example.
“A lot of opportunities for shows went away on the broadcast side, and on the cable side you have all these networks — Viacom, Turner Broadcasting, and now Comcast [which owns NBC and Universal] — start to bundle; there are only so many opportunities you have [now].”
As a result, there are several networks all under the same corporate umbrella. “I think the constriction and consideration have a lot to do with the fact that there are not the opportunities out there as there were five years ago,” says Chapman. “There is always a concern, and NAMIC have given their viewpoint.”
The NAMIC Vision Awards “present[s] a positive platform where that [diversity] discussion and that dialogue can be ongoing” and the NAACP has taken “a more watchdog approach” by grading shows, she points out. “I think both organizations coming from two different angles help keep that dialogue stay in the forefront. The goal hopefully is that will lead to more representation down the line.”
“We thought there is a need and a hole in television for Black heritage [programming],” says Black Heritage Network President and CEO Richard Black, who is trying to get his channel, which came on air last year, picked up by the major cable systems. “It’s the Discovery Channel meets the History Channel… We’re the first network totally devoted to nonfiction — to tell the real story of African Americans. They’re excellent and important stories worthy to being in American homes… There really is nothing like it on television today.”
“Hopefully, we will be on in the Twin Cities before long,” pledged Black. “We think it’s time — the African American market is diverse. It deserves more than TV One and BET. They do what they well, but there’s certainly room for more.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.