Are Strong Black Female Characters Moving Forward, Or Back?
Laila Corbeau | On 02, Aug 2013
I grew up watching shows that were on long before my time. The Andy Griffith Show was popular in my house, as was The Twilight Zone. I thoroughly enjoyed both; they had very different things to offer their audiences, but they did not (often) include black characters, especially not strong black women. I’m the daughter of an interracial couple, my father being black, and it didn’t take me long to realize that most of “those black and white reruns” didn’t include people of color. I often wondered aloud why shows didn’t have “people like me” or “people like my family”.
“It was a different time,” my parents explained to me. So I excused the black and white shows. I figured Technicolor would have more to offer.
Enter another favorite: All in the Family. I knew it was “younger” than the black and white shows, but I soon realized that it was bold in tackling topics such as race, sexuality and women’s rights. These themes were still taboo. I felt queasy whenever Archie Bunker said…anything, really. I was still too young to fully understand that brand of satire and comedy, but I did recognize that this type of character was on television because there were people out there who actually thought that way.
At the time, I wasn’t too worried. That show was from my parents’ time, right? Times had changed, right?
I admit, I grew up on the Disney princesses, but I definitely looked up to the strong female characters of television, and among them were African-Americans.
I admired that Claire Huxtable had a family and was an attorney, but didn’t make a big deal out of it. The show was never like, “Look at Claire! She knows the law and has children. Look at how perfect of a wife she is!” The fact that she had a strong career and silly kids were both just parts of the show that happened to be there.
Aunt Viv was another great one; as a professor and always very blunt, she was never afraid to take control or tell it how it is. Also, I was obsessed with the Banks’ mansion, and the money made from her successful career helped her contribute to that gorgeous home.
But out of all of the black women on television, Nyota Uhura from Star Trek had to be my favorite. It’s the fact that the title “Lieutenant” came before her name.
Fast forward to today, and what do we have? It was just recently announced that Kerry Washington, lead actress in the hit TV show Scandal, and a black woman, has recently been nominated for an Emmy award. I was surprised by this news. She is only the fifth African-American woman to be nominated for Leading Actress in a Drama Series (the last woman nominated was Cicely Tyson in 1995).
To put that amount of time into perspective? I couldn’t even form sentences when a black woman was last nominated for this award.
The lack of nominations is not because there is a lack of talent in the black community, but a lack of characters for black people, particularly black women, to portray.
An argument I once heard was that there are fewer black characters on TV because, unlike white people, they are not the majority of the population. One may say we have “enough” black characters on TV and in movies, but how many of them are positive characters, well-liked, or don’t play into stereotypes? This goes beyond just television — think of films. Think of every single Tyler Perry movie, or how he, Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence have felt the need to take the reins and portray the black women in their movies.
I understand that maybe it’s a way to show off their talent, or for makeup artists and special effects professionals to demonstrate their skills, and I get it. But when they are portraying the same stereotypical angry (come on now, Mr. Perry, Diary of a Mad Black Woman? Really?), loud, overweight black women, it’s a trend we cannot ignore.
Does Kerry Washington’s one nomination for an Emmy make up for the lack of black, female characters? Definitely not. But her nomination is certainly a wake up call. This isn’t to say that black actresses are being snubbed or that white nominees are undeserving, but the chances of a black female nominee would be better if we had a larger pool to choose from, preferably of awesome characters.
Written by Laila Corbeau
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