Ethnic Exclusivity of Television

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My mom never once bought me a Barbie doll. Every Christmas, birthday and “just because” gift was usually Barbie’s equally perky African-American friend, Christie. I probably have something close to 200 Christie dolls, toys and ornaments today, and one day, I’ll pass them along to my daughter.

I was always grateful for any new addition to my Christie collection, but eventually I started to wonder why the “Barbie” that was advertised on commercials — the one all my white friends had — was so different from mine. One day in kindergarten, I asked my mom, “Why do you only buy me the black doll? All of my friends have the regular one.”

I’ll never forget the way she looked at me and said, “What do you mean, the regular one?”

Of course now I realize that 5-year-old me was implying that white was “normal” and to be black was “different.” Back then, I didn’t understand why my mother was so upset with my casual statement. It would only be much later in my life that I would discover the sad truth that my mother knew — that all black women knew. I learned that black women would always be considered “different” from “regular” women in some way. And I learned all of this from watching television.

Throughout most of television’s history, black women were portrayed as servants and maids. However, NBC’s “Julia,” a show that starred the dynamic black actress Diahann Carroll, shattered this expectation for black women on television. Julia was a widowed nurse whose husband died in Vietnam. The show depicted Julia and her son, Cory, and the trials and tribulations of a normal black family in the 1960s and 1970s.

While the show had a large fan base that sustained huge ratings at NBC for 38 episodes, its portrayal of blacks had always been scrutinized by critics for being “apolitical” and “unrealistic.” However, “Julia” still opened doors for many other black women on television, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the world of entertainment, the 1990s had little to offer in the way of representing women of color. There were shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “The Cosby Show” that portrayed black women as affluent professors, doctors and university students, but shows like these were few and far between. Even in this television heyday of black female pride, rarely were we central characters on these shows. In addition to this, many of the shows that depicted rich black families were often disparaged as being “unrealistic” by critics, like many reactions to “Julia.”

I hoped that, over time, our society would progress to the point where I could see my race represented often over a wide variety of television shows and movies. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

Today, there are even fewer instances of black women on television, with a few noticeable exceptions. “Scandal,” a political thriller starring Kerry Washington, is gathering critical acclaim for its portrayal of a successful black woman. The Huffington Post notes that Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, marks the first emergence of a black female protagonist on a primetime drama since the days of “Julia.”

Outside of “Scandal,” the only place that seems to be welcoming to black women today is TBS, which offers a wide variety of comedy shows geared to a black audience. Among these are the numerous shows produced by Tyler Perry that show African-American families in a way that is closer to a caricature of black culture rather than a true representation. Part of the success of any show, regardless of diversity, can be traced back to the show’s ability to relate to its audience. While I can’t say I’m a fan, I do respect that Perry is doing his part to portray black families — and black women — as often as possible.

Currently, my favorite black female television character is the no-nonsense secret agent Lana Kane from FX’s hit animated series “Archer” (referred to as “Archer Vice” for the duration of the 2014 season). Lana is the powerful, intelligent and beautiful “straightman” to the antics of alcoholic superspy Sterling Archer and the rest of the colorful characters at her spy agency. She’s the highest-ranking field agent at the company, and while she is the most levelheaded of the “Archer” cast, she also has the most consistently intelligent and humorous dialogue.

While it is not necessarily unheard of for a black female character, it certainly is rare — many roles for black women are usually sidekicks, or comic relief, or characters who lack depth. Lana remains relatable across ethnic boundaries while still being an interesting, developed character with her own hopes, dreams and fears.

Even with all the black Barbies I felt deprived of seeing myself within the world — which made me feel like the world didn’t have a place for me. Even in the few situations in which I did find a positive, interesting black female character in the media, she was usually “Americanized” — she had long hair, an inhumanly slim frame, light skin and light eyes. I’m not challenging the blackness of these women at all — Beyoncé, Halle Berry and Rashida Jones, for example, are no less “black” than I am, and they’re successful, talented and beautiful in their own right. The fact that society chooses these types of women to represent women of color as a whole while ignoring the rest of us is more telling about society in general — the actresses themselves are not at fault.

However, I find it unsettling that the only way in which black women are easily digestible for a widespread American audience is if they are mixed race, or otherwise lacking physical features that are “African” — outside of, perhaps, a slightly darker skin tone and sensualized lips. Essentially, the blackness only really serves to add a touch of smoky mystery. For example, on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” Rashida Jones’ character, Anne Perkins, is constantly at the center of debate regarding the ambiguity of her ethnic background — but this only adds to her allure. Neither Anne nor the rest of the characters on the show acknowledge the fact that she is, in fact, black. Doing so would strip her of a small percentage of her mystery and allure, which is the source of much of her perceived attractiveness.

Which brings me back to Lana Kane of “Archer,” the most kick-butt crime-stopper since Foxxy Cleopatra. She’s unrelenting, unapologetic and unstoppable, and although it’s insinuated that she is of mixed race, Lana identifies herself as black, as shown in a dialogue with her ex-boyfriend, Sterling Archer.

Sterling Archer: What? You’re black…ish.
Agent Lana Kane: Ish?
Sterling Archer: Well, what’s the word for it, Lana? You freaked out when I said ‘quadroon.’
Agent Lana Kane: Imagine that.
Archer, S1E03: “Diversity Hire”

As far as I can see, Lana is the only black woman in popular media not to use her blackness as a source of smoky mystery — she’s also the only mixed race black woman who couldn’t “pass” for white, not that this would be in character for her. And that, kids, is real bravery — not just in acknowledging and accepting who you are, but doing so unapologetically and with pride. This is why Lana’s blackness is so incredible to me, and I hope that future depictions of black women will in some form derive from Lana Kane — the only current black female star who does not apologize for her blackness.

I could sit here on my high horse all day and tell you what I think television is, and what I think it should be for the sake of myself, my non-existent daughters Penelope and Maeby, and my society as a whole. I could sit on this aforementioned high horse and shame television and modern media as a whole for not normalizing what I consider to be normal. Oddly enough, from my valiant steed high in the heavens, I overlooked some things myself.

While black women are totally underrepresented, there are some groups that could use the attention just as much if not more — LGBTQ communities, Chicana/os, Latina/os, American Indians, Eastern Asian, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Pacific Islanders — the list goes on and on.

Everyone wants to tell their story. White people do, black people do, Muslims do, gays, straights — as a matter of fact, the desire to tell our stories is one of the few shared traits inherent in nearly all societies. On some levels we all do: through mythology, legends, stories, songs and even on Twitter. However, the most powerful version of storytelling is still television, and television continues to be a billion dollar industry operated by an elite few. These elite few are the people who decide what goes on television, and just like myself, they tend to overlook the importance of telling stories that aren’t theirs. Not to say that the current homogenous state of television is not the fault of this select few, but there is a way to retaliate.

Two ways, in fact. First, we have to tell our own stories. I have to tell stories about blacks and women and awkward teenagers who wear black way too much, because that is my story. Maya Angelou told her story in the form of poetry the same as Seth Macfarlane tells his story through cartoons. Piper Kerman told her story in the book that eventually became the hit series “Orange is the New Black.” We have to be brave and make our voices heard, regardless of whether or not we think people are listening.

Next, we have to tell each other’s stories, specifically for those who can’t tell their own. We don’t do this for the sake of fairness, or inclusivity. We must do this for the sake of pursuing and portraying a more complete picture of our society as it actually exists, not the cookie-cutter version that seems to dominate mainstream media. Why? Because there are a billion stories in this huge world, billions of people to meet, places to go and experiences to have that you might not have had otherwise.

This brings me back to the story about the Barbie.

 

What do you mean, the regular one?” my mom asked.

“I just meant the one that everyone has. All of my friends have the white one, and mine is different,” I responded.

My mom laughed, and said something that I haven’t forgotten 16 years later, even though I didn’t entirely understand what she was saying at the time.

“Sweetheart,” she said, “People are always going to try to make you feel different. You’d better start getting used to that.”

 

I did get used to it, but I hope my future children won’t have to.