Black Women Are More Than Your Superwoman—Even On TV
TV programs such as "Insecure" that showcase the multifaceted lives of modern Black women are necessary to our society.
December 03, 2021 at 6:00 pm
Black women are often portrayed as the backbone of our society. We hold everything together without a tear slipping from our eyes and do it with a smile.
However, that is incredibly far from reality. As Black women, we have days where we struggle, days with no excitement and days full of joy. We are complex and layered people just like everyone else in the world—and today's television is showcasing that.
Dr. Toniesha L. Taylor, author, Department Chair and Associate Professor of the Communications Department at Texas Southern University, recalled children's favorite Sesame Street and the TV hit Dynasty as the first shows where she ever saw Black characters on television.
"One of the first TV shows I remember seeing as a kid with a Black character, interestingly enough, was actually Sesame Street; after that, it was Dynasty," she said. "I remember how classy Diahann Carroll was on Dynasty."
"I remember thinking, 'All I want to do when I grow up is become a businesswoman. I don't know what businesswomen do, and I don't care, but they dress fancy, sound nice and look pretty,'" she recalled.
Black women have been on the small screen for decades, inspiring other Black women with their every move.
"I remember being very young and my sister and I got Barbie dolls. I remember getting a Barbie doll townhouse," Dr. Taylor said. "I dressed up my Barbie doll-like Diahann Carrol's character in Dynasty. Those were the kinds of characters that I remember."
It can be argued that numerous Black female characters from shows in the past truly did not serve a purpose to the TV show and were merely seen as part of the background.
Dr. Lisa B. Thompson, a playwright, scholar, and professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, expressed that in the past, Black female TV characters were mainly on the sidelines.
"They're stereotypes. They're a flat representation of someone—basically, they have no emotionality, no backstory," Dr. Thompson said. "They're just there serving a limited purpose like a sidekick or something like that."
"Sometimes people think of positives as being like, 'Oh, that person is in the middle class, they are wealthy, well educated or are really nice human beings,'" she reasoned. "From that kind of thinking, we've gotten to the point where Black people growing up for me could not be complex."
Black women on TV were unable to show authenticity—they constantly had to rise up and be the all-around exemplary woman.
"They had to be savior perfect human beings like for women, a Diahann Carrol," Dr. Thompson said.
Today, television programs are fighting back against these "perfect Black woman" or "static character" stereotypes. Shows like Issa Rae's Insecure and Lena Waithe's Twenties provide a lens into the multifacetedness of the modern Black woman experience. Black women can watch programs created and directed differently from the past.
"Painting Black women in a positive light is so important because, to me, it's more than just recognition. It's breaking stereotypes and false narratives of how people may think a Black woman is," Noelle George, a University of Houston graduate, said.
"It's also about safety. We are seen as lesser than because we are constantly portrayed as struggling or weak," George continued. "That right there keeps us down. If we are portrayed in a brighter and more positive light, we can finally have a proper seat at the table."
There has been substantial growth in how Black women are being portrayed on television in recent years. We are now entering an era where Black women have the opportunity to write their own stories and share them with the world on a larger-than-life platform. They can discuss not just the fun moments or the moments that would make other audiences watching comfortable.
"For Black girls coming up, what they're getting is choices. They get to pick shows that they don't want to watch. When I was coming up, there was 'No, I didn't want to watch that.' There was not enough to choose from," Dr. Thompson continued.
"It's really wonderful to be able to look across all these distributed platforms and see that," she said. "I think that it would be remiss to not underscore how many Black women playwrights are writing in the writer's room helping to make these characters rich and engaging."
There is an enormous need for Black women to fully see themselves when they watch TV in order to feel not alone in a world constantly attacking them.
"We need to be able to see Black women as completely human. You need to see Black women as having good days and bad days," Dr. Taylor said. "Because that's what life actually is. We've been watching this progression of Black womanhood on television."
"You start in the 60s and 70s where the TV Black characters, whether on the predominantly Black show or an interracial show, all those Black women were in a serious struggle. On the soap operas, you have those wild swings. On the comedy shows, just everything's a barrel of laughs," Dr. Taylor added. "Everything is great, everybody's fine, everybody is happy."
It was not until later in the 1990s that Black women on TV were able to find an equilibrium between the best day ever and a never-ending struggle.
"The Black women who are on those shows are holding up both ends of the sky and giving birth to a nation at the same time," she declared. "Then, two things happened in the 90s. One, you actually get our diversity of characters and a diversity of shows."
"But then, you do start to get, 'Okay, wait, we can have some balance here or at least introduce the idea that it's not all a struggle, and it's not all great. There are just regular days in between,'" Dr. Taylor persisted.
While there have been positive steps made regarding Black women's representation in media, the work and effort must continue for society to grow.
"Support those show-runners, and we also support those who are stepping into those roles to do shows. It is really important for Black press to cover and review our work," Dr. Thompson said.
"That includes Black theater because you have the major publishing journals and newspapers covering our stuff and then not understanding it," she stated. "There are critics that are outside the culture and not really understanding the nuances, and then that also hurts."
While more content is being created surrounding the Black female experience on television, there are still numerous diverse directions that must still be taken in order for every side of this experience to be represented.
"We have to make sure we put our money and our eyes to our interests. Also, where our hearts are, as well, in having more diverse stories about Black women," Dr. Thompson expressed. "It would be nice to, at some point, have some more content from a Black queer woman and trans women."
"We got it a little with Pose, but definitely want to see that continue as well," she recalled.
It is time to put an end to the sassy Black female trope and for the media to continue to create opportunities for Black women to be the main characters in their own stories.
"Give Black women blockbuster roles in big movies. I am so tired of us being the best friend and the token Black in an all-white cast," George said."We finally stopped dying first in movies. But now, it's either we are the only one or none."
"It is a terrible balance. We need more than our voices heard. We need our people seen. The amount of talent out there today is crazy," she remarked. "The more representation we see that is more than the norm of who we already see will break that wall down that Hollywood loves to have when too many Black women are cast in a role."
"It's all about generations to come, and what the young ones see today will impact what they believe they can do later on," George noted.
Black women on television have gone from riding in the passenger to fully taking control of their narrative. While there is still work that must be done, Black women on the small screen are strides away from just being the token characters.