Olivia Pope has been as welcome in my home on Thursday nights as my evening glass of Trader Joe’s $3 Merlot. Created by network drama brillionaire Shonda Rhimes and portrayed flawlessly by Kerry Washington, the protagonist of ABCs Scandal has not only become a household name and the ultimate portrayal of an incredibly complex yet supremely likeable television character, Olive Pope has also been used as the marker of proof to networks that viewers will respond positively to a female of color in a lead role.
Prior to Scandal’s Pope, the last black woman in a lead television role was Teresa Graves as an undercover cop in Get Christie Love! in 1974. Graves’ performance also marked the very first black woman in a lead drama, making Washington only the second black woman in television to do so. The argument for why the lack of women of color on television continues to persist despite the romantic ideal of a “post-racial America” is mostly one of money. In order to convince networks that a show is worthy of being on our television sets, they have to be convinced that the show will make them those dolla dolla bills y’all. They need to know that people will watch, that advertisers will jump at the chance to market their product in this show’s time slot, and that everyone goes home happy – with money in their pockets. Of course, there’s a bigger conversation to be had here about opportunities afforded to those who come to the table already equipped with enough money and connections to make networks less weary of whether or not there’s a viewing audience for whatever it is they’re pitching. For now, however, let’s focus on the fact that while shows like Scandal and my beloved Mindy Project are kicking booty in their respective network prime time slots, there are several other television shows airing right now featuring women of color in lead roles that are making it harder and harder for networks to say that viewers simply aren’t interested in seeing representations of women of color on television.
Even if reality shows aren’t your jam, the force with which non-scripted television has taken over is undeniable. Both Basketball Wives and The Real Housewives of Atlanta are two such shows that have featured casts dominated by women of color and have consistently maintained a substantial viewership. Despite rumors that the LA spin-off is in danger of being cancelled due to low ratings this spring, the original Basketball Wives franchise has continued to attract an audience, with 3.7 million viewers tuning in for last season’s premiere – a 42% increase from the previous season. The third installment of the The Real Housewives franchise, The Real Housewives of Atlanta was renewed for a sixth season in April after its fifth season was the highest rated series in The Real Housewives franchise with an average of 3.1 million viewers. While much debate has been had in regards to how women of color are portrayed on both Basketball Wives and RHOA, with some believing that the theme of ratchet behavior woven into both shows is less than desirable in a television market with so few portrayals of women of color, the fact that they continue to maintain a solid and consistent audience shows that viewers are not opposed to seeing women of color on their television sets.
There are currently black women being featured in prominent roles in scripted television as well. The Game, currently in its sixth season and already slated for a seventh, has repeatedly been successful in terms of viewership, with season five closing with an average of 2.69 million viewers per episode. Just last May, VH1 debuted its new scripted series Hit The Floor, a drama about the world of professional cheerleading, featuring a black woman, Taylour Paige, as the lead. Although it’s too early to tell Hit The Floor‘s staying power, it premiered with 1.5 million viewers in its Monday night time slot.
Facing similar concern about the portrayal of black women on television as reality shows like RHOA and Basketball Wives, is the first scripted series on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, The Haves and The Have Nots – brought to us by none other than Tyler Perry, which debuted in May with 1.77 million viewers, becoming the highest rated series in OWN’s history. The show, based on Perry’s 2011 play of the same name, focuses on the all-powerful and rich Cryer family in Savannah, Georgia and their hired help. You can guess which of the cast is portrayed by black actors. In typical Tyler Perry fashion, the show has already been criticized for its stereotypical representation of black women. As Dr. Brittney Cooper from Crunk Feminist Collective put it, “The fact that Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire, along with their remixes (Bad) Baby Mama, Golddigger, Freak and Hood Bitch showed up in under 15 mins is surely a new world record.” Again, it’s great that women of color have the opportunity to star in a television show that boasts great ratings, ratings that prove that viewers aren’t anti-women of color characters on television, and yet it’s disappointing that we feel forced to consume shows that may not represent women of color in a positive way in order to make some sort of statement about wanting to continue to see women of color represented at all on television. What’s problematic about these types of portrayals is not that they don’t exist among women of color, rather, that the portrayals of women of color on television are so minimal that we have to scrounge to find the positive ones, which is not a problem typical of white female characters on television.
What makes both Scandal and The Mindy Project so unique is that neither protagonist’s race is the focal point of the character and neither of them are portrayed as a stereotype of that race. The fact that this is revolutionary is what is disappointing.
Representation of women of color on television appears to be in a state of flux. It’s simultaneously hopeful and sad, with a range of portrayals, both negative and positive, and an array of emotions about them all. Perhaps the most encouraging part of this is the hope that all of these representations considered together prove to networks that their belief that viewers don’t want to women of color in lead roles is frankly, entirely incorrect.
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