Why We Need Complicated and Messy Depictions of Blackness on Television2/02/2015
When a new show that stars a talented cast of black actors airs, we’re in all the way, eager to support a black narrative and the chance to...
When a new show that stars a talented cast of black actors airs, we’re in all the way, eager to support a black narrative and the chance to end the first season with a long-awaited exhale, appreciation for a TV program that finally gets the black experience right.
But eventually there forms the inevitable separation between those who idolize a show's depiction of the black experience and those who label it a detriment to our ability to advance from stereotypes.
This is the case for ABC’s Scandal. Fans are perturbed by Scandal's haters. They can’t understand what there is to dislike about Olivia Pope, a successful black woman with the skills and smarts to erase national crises. And the inclusion of an interracial relationship disrupts the stigmatization of romantic bonds between white men and women of color. Though her love life is flawed, whose isn’t? To fans, Pope is the embodiment of the progressive black woman experience.
But others see Scandal as a reminder of the stereotypes that continually plague black media. Critics despise the hyper-sexualized jezebel image that is so reflective in Pope. Most of her power stems from the use of her sexuality. Her ability to criminalize Fitz for infidelity if the affair is leaked is almost more significant than her abilities as Washington's greatest fixer. For these reasons, critics say the show is far from capturing an uplifting sense of black womanhood.
Scandal will forever be caught in the dichotomy between good and evil and the same can be said for Being Mary Jane and How to Get Away With Murder, shows that also dance a progressive/offensive line when depicting the public and private lives of black women. But the search for accurate black portrayals is not limited to these TV dramas; the debate stretches to all genres of TV programming.
Blogger Janet Walters Levite for The Epoch Times shames sitcom Black-ish for its projection of a problematic and limited definition of blackness:
"The IMDB storyline of the new ABC Sitcom Blackish…is described as follows: “A family man struggles to gain a sense of cultural identity while raising his kids in a predominantly White, upper-middle class neighborhood.” While this abbreviated synopsis is most certainly reflective of a valid real-life dynamic amongst upper-middle class Blacks, the blatant buffoonish rendering of this sobering dynamic in a weekly 30 minute sitcom misdirects, diminishes, and trivializes the immeasurable scope of Black existence in America."
Black-ish is also praised for being a show that depicts the struggle of a family striving to maintain a sense of their culture, even if that idea of culture is slightly misguided.
“If you suspend the fact that Andre Anderson’s character is saying offensive things to his wife and focus on the purpose (bringing the issue of “Blackness” into question), you’ll see that his character actually represents a large part of the collective Black conscious, those striving to maintain “Blackness.” It’s something I believe lots of minority groups deal with...The emotions that the characters feel are real and the intent of Andre’s quest to preserve Black culture for himself and his family is noble, something many minorities deal with on a daily basis.”
Criticism of the portrayal of upper-middle class blacks was aimed at The Cosby Show. For some viewers, the middle class perfection of the Cosby family was unrealistic and aimed to blind American society from the race and class barriers that traumatized the black community during the 1980s.
On the other hand, does every black family have to deal with “temporary layoffs and easy credit rip offs” on screen to be an accurate depiction of the black struggle? Even when we are given a black family with hardships like in Good Times, we frown and wonder, “Why do all black families have to wallow in poverty to make it on TV?”
The concerns steaming from both sides of the TV portrayal debate are understandable and valid. With the media's power to project racial stereotypes and influence the mindset of people across the world, TV is definitely a tool that can enable oppression. Black portrayals that are less than positive can further our hardship by creating an image of black culture that adheres to the negative preconceived notions that non-blacks already have.
In short, one bad TV depiction can stereotype the entire black community.
But there's a downside to the black community's collective action against TV images; the individual gets disregarded. If we fight to only allow certain images on TV, we're eliminating the vast black experiences that exist outside the unrealistically perfect depictions. Olivia Pope’s flawed love life, though not reflective of all black women's' experiences, can be credited as a possibility for someone in the black community. Some black women may find the drama of Sorority Sisters or Love and Hip Hop relatable to their own life situations.
Each of us deserves to have our individual black experience validated in our media space.
Perhaps the first step to accepting black diversity in media depictions is denouncing the term “black community” which brings about an assumption that we all stem from the same black experience and therefore must be represented in the same way. Realize that there are “black communities.” There is no ideal image that blackness must maintain in order to be deemed valid.
Until we as media consumers realize this, we will continue to furiously flip through channels in search of a prefect portrayal that will never exist.
Courtney Taylor is a senior English-Creative Writing major at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, GA. She is an editorial intern at For Harriet. Follow her on Twitter @thecourtcase