Why can’t women of color carry their own TV shows?
The past few years have been pretty fantastic for women of color on primetime television. With the introduction of shows like “Scandal,” “Suits,” “The Mindy Project,” “Elementary” and 2013’s breakout hit “Sleepy Hollow,” we have seen a steady rise of female actresses of color in leading roles. Not just as parts of an ensemble but as real, central, plot-driving leading ladies.
The current representation of women of color in television is significant for many reasons. Women of color still make up a mere two percent of television directors, with similarly low numbers in other areas of media production. In popular media, depictions of women of color are often severely lacking. They are portrayed as one-dimensional stereotypes and relegated to the role of background characters.
Writer and media scholar Stephanie Larson refers to this practice as “selective exclusion,” a media phenomenon that limits the variety of roles available to actors and actresses of color. Notably, “Scandal” marked the first time a black woman has led a U.S. prime-time network show since Diahann Carroll’s role in “Julia” in the early 1970s.
However, while I stand back and marvel at all the wonderful, well-rounded women of color suddenly appearing on television, I can’t help but notice that all of these depictions have something in common. While yes, there is a bold woman of color in the lead, every single one of these ladies is somehow partnered up with a white male character.
And these men are not merely background characters — each of them is just as important to the story as the lady of color, if not more so. Olivia Pope of “Scandal” has the President of the United States as her complicated love interest. Mindy Lahiri of “The Mindy Project” has an awkward romance with her white male coworker. Joan Watson of “Elementary” is, of course, the partner of the British consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. “Sleepy Hollow” finds Lt. Abbie Mills sharing biblical witness status with Revolutionary War soldier Ichabod Crane.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with pairing women of color with white male leads. The problem arises when it becomes apparent that this is the only way women of color on prime-time television are being depicted. Shows that deviate from this formula seem to quietly vanish from the small screen. Remember when award-winning producer J.J Abrams of “Lost,” “Alias,” and “Star Trek” made “Undercovers,” a show centered on an African-American spy couple? Most people don’t. The show only ran for 13 episodes on NBC in 2010, before it was canceled. Earlier this year, NBC picked up another show “Deception,” starring a black female police officer and her black male partner — that show was also canceled.
Why can’t women of color carry prime-time television shows by themselves? Or even while partnered with men of color?
Jenji Kohan, creator of “Orange is the New Black,” offered her take on this recent occurrence in an interview with NPR. “Orange is the New Black,” a popular Netflix original series, in another show that explores the lives of women of color, while focusing on a white lead character. “In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse,” Kohan said of her lead character. “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women and Latina women. … But if you take this white girl … and you follow her in, you can expand your world and tell those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially.”
What Kohan is alluding to here is what Joseph Turow calls coping with the risks of production. Because the main goal of television networks is to create programming that draws the highest number of advertisers, networks are often hesitant to take risks when creating new programs. To make new programming less risky to produce, networks have a tendency to stick with elements that are proven to draw in high ratings. Since there are so few shows centered on women of color, networks may be pairing them with white male leads, in their minds, to make the shows less risky to produce.
While coping with risks of production is a very real concept, the implication of this being an issue in the representation of women of color on television begs an important question: Why are the stories of women of color still considered risky to tell? Why are their stories “a hard sell” for networks?
While we can applaud the diversity in these new prime-time shows, I still look forward to a world where it might have been possible for “Sleepy Hollow” to focus on Abbie Mills and her sister — much like and the Winchester brothers of “Supernatural” — rather than Abbie and Ichabod Crane.
Marjorie Eyong is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and political science with a minor in women’s and gender studies.