Soapy, salacious and scandalous are just some of the words that describe the current crop of popular TV shows featuring African American women. And it’s not just teens or twentysomethings blowing up social media and turning key phrases and dialogue from the shows into worldwide trending topics. The Black female academics who gathered to discuss Black feminism at the El Kati Distinguished Lectureship Panel March 12 at Macaslester College, proudly admitted to joining virtual viewing parties on Twitter each week.
Authors Dr. Yaba Blay and Joan Morgan, University of Louisville Women’s and Gender Studies Associate Professor Dr. Kaila Story, Rutgers University Assistant Professor Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Ohio State Women’s Gender Studies Assistant Professor Dr. Treva Lindsay, told the audience that they tweet each other while watching such shows as ABC’s Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, Fox’s Empire, BET’s Being Mary Jane, and other shows starring Black women.
“We like to get together and tweet about all kinds of things,” said Blay. The Olivia Pope character, played by Kerry Washington, has shown America that Black women are desirable, said Story, a contributor to the book Homegirls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology.
She argues against critics who say Washington, Viola Davis (Prof. Annalise Keating in ‘Murder’) and Taraji P. Hanson (Cookie Lyon in Empire) aren’t presenting Black females positively. “My question is to whom?” posed the professor. “To the White mainstream audience that I don’t have anything to do with anyway?”
“I don’t care what White people think of me,” continued Story, on mainstream media’s “politics of race” discussions of Black shows. “I love Empire,” added Blay, but admitted that she understands why some Blacks might not like the show. “I think we’ve been trained to respond to popular images in a certain way. We are not supposed to enjoy anything that is made by the mainstream about Black people.”
Morgan pointed out, “I do not want Black women’s problems to always be contentious, misery, trauma and violence — that’s the only way that we fit into an American racial and sexual narrative. If you are going to write an article about the misrepresentation of Black women, then you need to account for the Black female audience that loves the show.”
“We have been so socialized to only see Black women in controlling images” that mainstream media often project, added Lindsay.
Thomas Umstead of Multichannel News wrote last month that the nearly two dozen scripted and reality shows that have been on cable and network television are specifically created to reach the Black female who “watches more television than any other demographic and that mostly controls the purse strings for an African American consumer base estimated to have buying power of more than $1.1 trillion this year.
“Shows mainly featuring African American women in lead roles are attracting not only African American female viewers, but viewers across all demographics in big numbers,” concluded Umstead.
“We are starting to see Black women interactions” on television, said Morgan. “We get to see Black women have sex on TV three times a week,” said Cooper, the co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective and Salon.com columnist.
Empire, which premiered on Fox in January, has drawn an estimated 21 million viewers per episode, wrote Broadcasting & Cable’s Tim Baysinger in his March 16 article, adding that the aforementioned shows’ “record ratings have jolted networks” into fast-tracking pilots with Blacks and other people of color as leads.
“This big burst of African American women on television and being showcased on a variety of [roles]” is good, said Story, who warned against “getting stuck on representation.”
“We absolutely want representation that represents some aspect of our lives, but the shows we are talking about…aren’t White shows with Black people on them. We are talking about Black shows with Black creators and Black directors,” noted Cooper on Scandal and Murder creator Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil, the creator of BET’s Being Mary Jane.
But as each woman gave thumbs up to Scandal and Murder, the second-season BET drama Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union as a successful television reporter with a very unsuccessful private life, got a mixed reaction from the women.
“What I like about the show is that I don’t like anyone on it,” admitted Morgan. “I don’t want to be friends with anybody on that show.”
Story said she didn’t like the show, but liked seeing “beautiful Black people” who are on it. “She is full of contradictions, but that’s why I tune into it every week.”
“I like the complicated relationships” of the main character, said Cooper, but added she would like to see more “Black home girls” on the show.
Macalester College American Studies Chair and Professor and author Duchess Harris pointed out Black shows feature “very wealthy Black women or very wealthy fictionized Black women.”
“If you always grew up watching yourself on TV in all kinds of genres, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to be cultivated as a particular type of viewer,” noted Cooper. “I think we are still being cultivated into a particular type of Black woman viewer in television. I want to give those shows credit for letting us know that we can have more.”
Morgan says that Rhimes and other Black female creators, producers and directors are unfairly “expected to get it right.”
Nonetheless, the aforementioned women aren’t going to stop watching.
“We’re really into Empire these days,” concluded Blay.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The conversations about the Empire finale continue below with the attached Storify (refresh your browser if you’re unable to see the Storify).