By Keidra Chaney
Was it a good year for black women on TV? I guess it depends on how you define “good” It’s difficult to describe portrayals of black women on television as falling into simple categories of “Yay Scandal, it was awesome” or “Boo SNL, it sucked.” As for most things involving people of color in popular culture it was … complicated. On one hand, you have Awkward Black Girl’s Issa Rae getting a deal with HBO, on the other hand you have Miley Cyrus using black women as booty-popping stage props. One step forward, two steps back. So, where on earth do we start to unpack all this? I’ll give it a try:
Let’s get Scandal out of the way first. In its third season, it is a bonafide buzz show. It was the year of Kerry Washington. She’s an Emmy nominee (but didn’t win), hosted Saturday Night Live (more on that later) and was on the cover of nearly every magazine but Cat Fancy (and there’s always next year for both. The big win with Scandal this year that was for the most part overlooked was that the eighth episode of this season “Vermont Is For Lovers, Too” was directed by film and TV director Ava DuVernay. That means it was the first time in history where there was a major network TV show with a black female lead, a black female show runner AND a black female director. Now, one could argue that it’s 2013 and the fact that we are celebrating this as a first is not a win, but I think it’s worth celebrating the women involved while also acknowledging how ridiculous it is that it’s the first time it’s happened. On the show itself, one could argue that’s been not the best of years for the character of Olivia Pope, she’s certainly been robbed of much of her power and agency this season in particular, but this being a Shonda Rhimes show, she is surely faring better than the love-stupid characters of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.
FOX’s Sleepy Hollow is a cult hit for the network and pretty much the only thing FOX has got going on a diversity level. I watch the show fairly regularly but not 100% sold on it. However Nicole Beharie is one of those undeniably likeable actresses (she oddly reminds me of Doctor Who’s Billie Piper in that way) and her chemistry with Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane is also impossible to resist. The most interesting thing about Beharie’s Abbie Mills is that unlike many black characters on TV shows who exist in a Highlander-like state of solitary blackness, Abbie gets to be around other black people without having to talk about being black. In addition to her boss, Frank Irving, played by Orlando Jones. Abby gets a sister, AND her boss gets to have a family! AND they are all black too! AND they get actual lines of dialogue! Orlando Jones daughter is played by Amandla Stenberg, poor little Rue from the Hunger Games, she’s a bit older now, so I don’t always want to cry whenever I see her sweet face. Poor Rue!
The shocking death of Taraji P. Henson’s Detective Joss Carter devastated many fans of Person of Interest, and one could put her send-off into the “bad” category. Of course, they had to kill the only black character on the show!? I actually think it was a win, and here’s why. The episodes building up to Carter’s death put her at front and center, established her as a total bad-ass (not to mention squeezing in an unscripted smooch with Jim Caviezel) and she died as a hero. Her death was mourned by many fans online who swore to never watch the show again after her death. That means killing off her character was not a cheap move, but a gutsy one. You don’t get that kind of gut-wrenching emotional response for an actor or character that’s not beloved. That’s power – and that’s why it’s a win.
Let’s face it, Saturday Night Live has not been actually funny in decades (with the occasional exception of The Lonely Island and Justin Timberlake) But it’s a television institution that viewers want to see ourselves reflected in. And with black woman pop-culture powerhouses like Beyonce, Oprah and Michelle Obama to name a few, it is absolutely ridiculous for Lorne Michaels and Co. to slap a wig and dress on Kenan Williams and call that representation. Williams didn’t help at all with his comment that no black women were added to the SNL cast because they “weren’t ready” Of course, then SNL attempted to respond with a skit on the episode conveniently hosted by SNL, but then proceeded to shoot that all to hell by making her a neck twisting hood rat or a jive-talking 70′s black radical (and don’t even get me started on the Ugandan beauty queen skit) So all that to say, despite the recent news of a “secret” audition for a black female cast member to start in January (a photo of the audition invitees is show at left), I am still placing SNL in the “bad” category, because knowing that there are probably no writers of color on staff, I expect to see whoever is chosen in a string of stereotypical sassy black woman skits when she is not playing Beyonce. Not to mention the fact that this so-called secret auditions adds an extra level of scrutiny on this new cast member as the token diversity hire. Lorne Michaels has a history of not making the environment for female cast members very welcoming, so way to put more of a burden on her, dude.
I don’t watch American Horror Story: Coven for a number of reasons (no cable, Nashville is on at the same time, and I hate everything that Ryan Murphy has ever done) So I asked Faith Pennick and Dena Saper to share their thoughts on the show:
Faith – American Horror Story: Coven is about 75% done, and I give the sistahs of the show a grade of B. Angela Bassett reminds us all that she is one of the best actors working today. As Marie Laveau, Bassett is radiant as she unleashes rage and vindictiveness towards both Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) for wrongfully imprisoning her lover nearly two centuries ago, and Fiona (Jessica Lange) for Fiona’s belief that she’s H.W.I.C.: Head Witch in Charge. Also, Marie’s not-so-subtle dig at Fiona in one episode for not aging as gracefully as she did was a funny tickle (translation: “Black don’t CRACK!” Signed, Ryan Murphy). I also enjoy watching Queenie, a walking voodoo doll played by Precious star Gabourey Sidibe. But Queenie sometimes feels one-dimensional: a typical “sassy, urban Black girl” with biting comebacks. Also, while nearly all of the white characters have sexual relations with actual humans, the erotic encounters of both Marie and Queenie are relegated to Marie’s true love, now a minotaur. What? Queenie doesn’t get to hook up with FRANKENBOYFRIEND?! However, I do give AHS:Coven props for exposing viewers to a historical fact of which even I was ignorant–that it wasn’t just white women who were persecuted during the Salem Witch Trials.
Dena - Not much in this world is black and white, but season 3 of American Horror Story: Coven comes pretty close. One of the central conflicts in the series involves a coven of witches based in New Orleans, headed by Supreme Fiona Goode (played by Jessica Lange) and her daughter Cordelia (played by Sarah Paulson), and their relationship with a Voodoo congregation led by High Priestess Marie Laveau (played by Angela Bassett). While Fiona is the Supreme, Cordelia runs a boarding school for young witches. The young witches are beautifully dressed, wear their hair long and straight, and are all white. Well, all but one young witch.
Queenie (played by Gabourey Sidibe) is the sole African-American member of the coven and student at Cordelia Goode’s school. Her classmates dress in sleek black and white outfits, while Queenie’s wardrobe is more colorful and casual. It’s hard not to notice that Queenie’s clothing looks more like the bright and colorful clothing Marie and her all African-American congregation wear, except when they perform Voodoo rites and are wearing their white robes and head coverings. The same is true of the buildings in which each group is headquartered; the witches’ school is almost all white with a white interior, and the salon where the Voodoo practitioners work is colorful like the city of New Orleans itself.
Right off of the bat, it would seem that Queenie would fit in better with the Voodoo congregation than the witches’ coven. However, Queenie was born a witch. Her unique power involves the ability to injure herself while inflicting pain onto the body of someone else; long story short, she’s a human Voodoo doll. Of course, the writers of the Coven series chose to have Marie Laveau emphasize Queenie’s ironic power when attempting to recruit her. No, sorry, just kidding. The writers chose to have the High Priestess emphasize that Queenie is “different” and will never be truly accepted by her coven and will certainly never be allowed to lead her coven.
So what are your thoughts? Was it a “yay” year for black women on TV? A “boo” year? Both?