by Inda Lauryn
Black women have long had a tenuous affair with depictions of them in romantic, loving, supportive and sexual relationships. The stereotype of the “strong black woman” has been one of the most persistent images of Black women and served to deny them of relationships and support systems not only in a romantic sense but also in a community setting. When Black women were allowed a relationship, they fit into heteronormative tropes of matriarchy and marriage.
However, in a few contemporary television shows we see older Black women as objects of affection and/or desire, sometimes by attentive younger men. These women are depicted as finding love and relationships at an advanced age rather than the already-married family matriarch or widow. Furthermore, many of them are dark-skinned actresses playing roles in which their characters are seen as beautiful, sexy and desirable from a variety of male counterparts.
Such depictions buck the stereotype of the the Strong Black Woman by letting go of long-standing respectability politics that deny Black women of their own sexuality and by extension their full humanity. In addition to these romantic liaisons, the characters Annalise Keating, Mariah Dillard, Cookie Lyons, Violet Bordelon, Cassie Calloway, and Jessica Pearson add richness to a variety of shows featuring nuanced depictions of Black womanhood.
Black Women in Television Romance
Romance has never been a genre that placed Black women front and center at any age. However, during the 90s with networks such as Fox, the WB and UPN, audiences saw a number of Black women in various relationships, most of them steady and all heteronormative. For instance, Fox first found its audience among the Black demographic with shows such as Living Single, which had to make the love lives of its four 20-something leading women a central focus of the show to get the greenlight and ended its run with each one paired up to their significant others. Martin featured Tisha Campbell as a girlfriend and later wife to the male lead. UPN featured Roc in which Ella Joyce portrayed a working-class wife. This same network later had a hit show Girlfriends, which featured the lives of Black female Millennials in various phases of love and life. Other shows such as The Parkers, Moesha, One on One, and The Game also featured Black women in various stages of relationships.
The major networks also provided some memorable Black families with shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters on NBC and ABC respectively. However, like the previously mentioned shows, these were sitcoms. Yet they were distinct in that they featured dark-skinned women as the wives and mothers, at least until Fresh Prince’s Janet Hubert-Whitten was replaced by lighter-skinned Daphne Maxwell-Reid. Interestingly, Family Matters’ Jo Marie Payton was a wife and mother in the similar vein as Isabel Sanford of The Jeffersons and Esther Rolle of Good Times.
With the exception of shows like Girlfriends and Living Single, the love lives of Black women were never the primary focus of these shows.
In many cases, their “love lives” were a given considering the focus was not really the journey from courtship or the pursuit. They were already married or paired in a serious commitment. Romance was not a priority in the script.
These shows taught audiences a few things: romance for Black women was the realm of the young, the lighter hued, the thin and the professional. While Martin featured the steady relationship between Martin and Gina, it also maligned the darker-skinned Pam who was often the object of ridicule. Marriage appeared to be the goal for women in shows such as Girlfriends and Living Single (with the exception of pansexual Lynn of Girlfriends). And while these shows had shining moments at times for these women, they also revealed the limits of the network sitcom when it came to developing romantic liaisons for Black women.
Eventually, hour-long dramas and other non-network shows featured Black women characters who did not fit the mold of the sitcom matriarch or the 20-something looking for love in all the wrong places trope. For instance, the short-lived scifi show Flash Forward found Gabrielle Union paired with John Cho as his love interest in a recurring role. The Shonda Rhimes creation Grey’s Anatomy gave Chandra Wilson’s character Miranda Bailey a love life. Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope balances political intrigue and various affairs as the focal character of Scandal. And Gabrielle Union juggles the messiest of love lives as Mary Jane Paul on the BET drama Being Mary Jane. Even the horror drama The Walking Dead elevated Danai Gurira’s Michonne to leading lady status when the character began a relationship with the leading man.
While these dramas dismiss the trope of the matriarch, they still seem to focus on Black women under 40, keeping with the notion that older Black women are not romantically inclined. Certainly, darker-skinned women were not objects of desire, especially at an older age, unless they had already been in a steady relationship from an early age. So seeing older dark-skinned Black women outside the matriarchal, widow or perpetually single trope in multiple shows is practically subversive.
Viola Davis as Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder)
Interestingly, shows with Black women at the helm and in lead roles do not shy away from messy relationship dynamics and they do not get any messier than Annalise Keating’s (portrayed by Viola Davis) in How to Get Away with Murder. Like Suits, this show occupies the world of legal maneuvers, and Annalise’s moral ambiguity in both her personal life and career make her absolutely toxic to her affair mate Nate. Incidentally, both Annalise and Nate were married to other people when their affair started and are currently both widowed.
Annalise’s relationship with Nate is among the messiest on television. After setting him up to take the fall for her husband’s murder, Nate tries to quit Annalise but eventually resumes their relationship. His continued liaisons with Annalise follow a pattern she’s set with everyone in her life: she is damaged from a lifetime of trauma and no one lets her go completely. They depend on her for her knack of getting out of impossible situations, often coming out on top in spectacular fashion.
Annalise Keating is a study of an older woman who is not only frank about her sexuality but also uses it to get what she wants. While Nate is the younger man in her life, she has also displayed sexual tension with the even younger Wes, her law student. From the start, there has been sexual tension between the two even after Wes finds out that Annalise has both a husband and a boyfriend, as she calls Nate. Annalise often approaches Wes in ways that suggest she uses her sexual allure to manipulate him and keep control of him in various situations.
The tension between the two remains when things become strained between them, just as the passion between Annalise and Nate remains when his relationship with Annalise costs him his job. Furthermore, Annalise revives a relationship with her law school girlfriend Eve when the two come together to provide a defense for Nate, giving viewers one of television’s only current queer representations with a Black woman along with Queen Sugar’s Nova (portrayed by Rutina Wesley).
Annalise Keating is most definitely a classic femme fatale straight out of 1940s film noir.
Annalise Keating provides a complicated view of sexuality for an older Black woman, but she is never punished because of her sexuality. In fact, she still has affection and support from Nate (and possibly Eve) even after clearly wronging both of them. Furthermore, her flirtations with Wes continue and add to her femme fatale allure. She isn’t likable all the time, but she has constant attention from the men (and women) in her life.
Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard (Luke Cage)
With the premier of Marvel’s comic book creation Luke Cage on Netflix, audiences got another incarnation of the Black femme fatale of a certain age: Mariah Dillard (portrayed by Alfre Woodard). Mariah’s femme fatale is intriguing in that she is not portrayed as one from the start. Instead, we see that she has the attention and eye of her gangster cousin’s associate Hernan “Shades” Alvarez. In real life, the two actors have more than 20 years between them, but onscreen they are closer in age and it is clearly Shades who lusts after Mariah from the beginning.
His attraction is quiet and calculating, handing Mariah barely couched compliments while working with her to bring down Luke Cage and his underworld associates Cottonmouth and Diamondback. However, his sly smirk at her supposed insult to him in episode two, “Code of the Streets,” belies his true feelings: he wants her for more than just a professional partnership.
Shades’ attraction to Mariah becomes more evident later in the series. In episode seven, “Manifest,” he comes to her brownstone to plant the seeds of betrayal so she will usurp her cousin Cottonmouth, who he feels is a weak leader. The sexual tension between the two becomes especially clear when Mariah goes to slap him and he catches her hand. However, there is an even stronger indicator of his feelings.
Mariah is the only one for whom he removes his shades when he speaks to her. He lets her see him. He lets her look him in the eye.
Not only does he remove his shades in episode eight, “Blowin’ Up the Spot,” when he helps Mariah frame Luke Cage for Cottonmouth’s murder (which Mariah committed), but he also takes hold of her, either being comforting or at least in control of the situation, as he talks her through the next steps of the plan. Here, his words complete what his expression tells the audience from the beginning: “I need you to hear me. I want you to win. Do what I say and when you get away with this, you can go back to being the sexy, domineering bitch that we all hate to love.”
At this moment, Mariah does not respond to the advance except to say, “That’s the last time you will ever call me a bitch.” However, for the rest of the season, we get a clear dynamic between the two. Where Shades wanted to usurp Cottonmouth and later Diamondback, he seems content to let Mariah conquer as the queen. He appears to see her more as a partner, not a stepping stone on his way to the top as he defers to her. And in the end, Mariah kisses him and he takes off his shades again to watch her walk away as the audience fills in the implication of what comes next.
With Mariah and Shades, we get a very unusual ship in that both of them are clearly villains, drawn in this vein from the beginning. However, Woodard does not consider Mariah a villain. She explains, “Well, nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘How can I be an asshole today?’ [Laughs.] Although we think they must have thought that. People wake up and say, ‘I’ve got a bright idea, and this is how to do it.’ It is conflicting intentions that makes it all go haywire. When you’re speaking of comics, people want to identify the hero and the villains. But all of our life is lived in the gray, no matter who you are. Everyone is using whatever is at their disposal to move forward. Now, you’re going to cross paths with people who will say, That’s unethical, or maybe it’s illegal. But that person can say, Look at all the good that is coming from this, while you’re strictly going by the book. We all get to make ethical decisions moment by moment. I certainly think Mariah operates in the same lanes that successful people in our world operate today. All I know is I found her reality, and that’s what I brought to it.”
While Mariah has her complexities as merely shady but eventually spiraling into monstrous evil, neither she nor Shades is actually a bad influence on the other. Mariah may have legitimately wanted her family name to shake off the shadows of its underworld origins, but she constantly shows that her apple is still very much attached to that tree, perhaps even more so than Cottonmouth’s.
Quite frankly, this is part of the fun of Mariah and Shades. Just as Viola Davis questions why Annalise has to be likable, we have with Mariah someone we may not necessarily like but can still understand why Shades has an attraction to her. She is power and charisma wrapped in Alfre Woodard’s beautiful doe eyes and Woodard brings a raw humanity to her portrayal of Mariah.
Like Annalise, Mariah has a history of sexual assault and incest but has her own sexual agency at this point in her life. Even with her villainous inclinations, Mariah is an example of a Black woman owning her sexuality despite the damage done to her. At 63, Alfre Woodard has long been reserved for mom roles, so seeing her as a corrupt politician morphing into the best villain of the MCU is incredible. Seeing her do it while catching the eye of a man more than 20 years her junior is icing.
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon (Empire)
Upon its debut, Empire became one of Fox’s highest rated shows ever. The contemporary hip-hop spin on prime time soaps like Dallas and Dynasty was an instant ratings winner with two Oscar-nominated actors leading the show, Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. However, Henson as ex-con Cookie Lyon emerged as one of the most lauded characters of the show.
Cookie breaks many tropes of the Black matriarch television audiences have known throughout the decades. She resembles nothing like the Claire Huxtables of yesteryear. But this does not present a downgrade in representation. In fact, Cookie Lyon is a character that expands the boundaries of representation Black women usually fall under in drama. Cookie and her husband Lucious divorced while she was still in prison and her relationships with her three sons became strained, so hers is a struggle to find a family dynamic that works after her lengthy prison sentence.
After spending 17 years behind bars, taking the fall for Lucious’ crime, Cookie wants to reclaim her piece of the empire Lucious has built in her absence, knowing her sacrifice made it all possible. The show has its moments of backstabbing and twists, but Cookie remains consistent in her characterization as the streetwise businesswoman but loving mother, particularly to her gay son Jamal from whom she has even had to protect from Lucious.
Unlike many mothers in drama, Cookie also still has her own sexual autonomy, and her sexuality is not placed on the backburner as a thing of her past. At one point, she shows up to dinner in a fur coat and lingerie, thinking Lucious has invited her for a romantic outing only to find it is a family affair complete with his new fiancée. She has her affairs with her ex-husband and others including Laz Delgado. With the Laz affair, viewers not only see Cookie as an older woman with a younger man, but also with a man of a different ethnicity. The relationship between the two blurred professional and personal lines as Laz worked with Cookie to expand the empire. Yet, this relationship between the two added another dimension to Cookie’s characterization. Audiences see an older Black woman in a mutual attraction with a younger man.
The show adds another layer to Cookie’s love life during season 3 when she gets involved with Angelo DuBois, an Ivy-league educated mayoral candidate who comes from old money. This relationship does more than gives Cookie a chance to have a romantic relationship: class issues come into play, particularly with Andre’s mother Diana, portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, the woman still known for playing the quintessential Black middle class mother Claire Huxtable. The juxtaposition of the two begs a comparison of depictions of Black motherhood on television outside the show as well as draws parallels in achieving Black wealth within the show. Diana tells Cookie that their family money comes from bootlegging, which makes her more like Cookie in the sense that drug dealing became the new bootlegging.
However, with her relationship to Angelo, Cookie also has a chance to express her regrets in life, recalling that her father wanted her to be with a man like him rather than Lucious. She lives with the guilt she felt after her father threw her out of their home because of her relationship with Lucious only for her father to die soon afterward. This is when the audience learns that Cookie has some regrets about the way her life turned out and maybe wants new possibilities for herself with her relationship with Angelo. As with Laz, Angelo’s presence brings new dimensions to Cookie and allows her to grow as a character.
Seeing a Black woman in a romantic relationship with a non-Black person of color is still rare.
Like Cassie Calloway of Survivor’s Remorse, Cookie is unique in that motherhood is an essential part of her characterization, unlike many other women with similar trajectories. Her love and defense of her son Jamal humanizes them both and breaks away from the Claire Huxtable mother of yore who had it all and remained perfect in every way. Cookie has her flaws and comes across as an anti-hero. So seeing her as an object of desire and affection is not only subversive with regard to her age but also with regard to her characterization as an imperfect human being.
Tina Lifford as Violet Bordelon (Queen Sugar)
Audiences get a more complicated view of an older Black woman dealing with a relationship in the midst of family drama with Tina Lifford’s portrayal of Violet Bordelon in Queen Sugar. By mid-season, the relationship between Vi and Hollywood, her man, still unfolded. In episode five, “By Any Chance,” the story reveals that Hollywood is married in name only as he needs this status to make sure his bipolar wife receives insurance to treat her condition. However, Hollywood makes it clear to his wife that he has moved on, as per their agreement that their marriage is now only a piece of paper.
With Vi, Hollywood seems to be a bright spot in a life where her family is in danger of losing their farm and she must meet the demands of a low-paying job (which she actually quits by the episode’s end). Interestingly, even with Hollywood’s marriage, his and Vi’s relationship appears to be one of the healthiest depicted within the family. Nova, Charley and Ralph Angel, her nieces and nephew, are all in unhealthy relationships with unstable partnerships. Vi and Hollywood are openly affectionate with each other and they clearly have a sex life.
Interestingly, the relationship between Hollywood and Vi brings us another view of an older Black woman receiving support even though the romantic aspect of the relationship is over. By staying in their marriage, Hollywood makes sure his wife LeAnne (portrayed by Erika Alexander) receives the care and medication she needs, something she would not be able to do without his insurance. This aspect shows the benefits and privileges of marriage as a social construct, beyond any physical or romantic urges. Rarely does a television show take such a complex view of marriage and fidelity with Black people at its center.
At the end of the first season, the portrayals of all the characters remain complex and three-dimensional. Vi and Hollywood’s romance appears more of a subplot than the main storyline, but provides insight into gender norms and expectations in heterosexual relationships. As Lifford explains, “Hollywood feels like the place that Violet has been trying to get to in her life for a long time…. These two people are only aware of age because of the society that we live in. They connected and they’re not dating an age, they’re dating a spirit and dating core values. Hollywood is a fit because they both are solid in similar ways. Their priorities are love and loyalty, clearly.”
Interestingly, it is Hollywood who feels betrayed when he sees Vi dancing with another man after they break up and it is Vi who feels compelled to apologize after she finds out Hollywood has received a divorce from LeAnne. She panics when she realizes Hollywood has taken a job away from the Bordelons for six months. The door appears open for a reconciliation, but sympathy lies with Hollywood, who gets to be hurt. Despite their troubles, they clearly love each other and have an attachment for which they may both may end up compromising.
But it is doubtful the show will construct a clean and uncomplicated happily ever after ending for the two.
While things may work out in the end, Queen Sugar has thrown a few curves and a roadblock as Vi breaks things off when she finds out about the marriage. For now, the show explores the complications and nuances of an older Black woman in a mostly working class family.
Tichina Arnold as Cassie Calloway (Survivor’s Remorse)
Tichina Arnold portrays Cassie Calloway, the matriarch of Survivor’s Remorse, who she describes as her Martin character Pam having children. She’s the crass, outspoken yet loving mother of her two adult children Cam and Mary Charles, better known as M-Chuck. Much like Empire’s Cookie Lyon, she’s fiercely protective of her queer child, even going out of her way to find an LGBTQ church to hold a funeral service for her deceased brother, Julius. However, the first time Chinese billionaire Da Chen Bao, aka Chen, sees her, he is instantly attracted and becomes smitten.
It was Arnold herself to suggest that Cassie have a love interest of a different ethnicity. A report in Fusion explains, “Arnold told the Wall Street Journal that she wanted Cassie to continue to explore her relationship with Chen because she wanted [Black] women to live vicariously through her. It was important for her that [Black] women see a rich billionaire of another ethnicity loving a [Black] woman.” Viewers will indeed notice that Chen comes across as the hopeless romantic and does everything his wealth allows to keep the relationship alive. He works harder than she does to make it work between them, making her the worthwhile object of affection dark-skinned Black women rarely portray onscreen. Although it is not explicitly stated, Cassie also codes older than Chen, who is in his late 30s.
The relationship between Cassie and Chen has its sweet moments such as this mixed with conventional issues that occur in romantic relationships, particularly long distance relationships. The season three finale even addressed some of the cultural tensions that come when Chen brings Cassie to Shanghai to meet his parents. However, their relationship itself is never the butt of jokes. Their interactions with each other are sweet and funny and sometimes poignant such as Chen coming to be by Cassie’s side after the death of her brother.
With Cassie and Chen, we see a healthy and loving relationship with an older, dark-skinned Black woman as the object of affection, allowed her crassness and still pursued by a self-made billionaire. When it comes to light that Chen fell for Cassie because she is like his mother, Survivor’s Remorse bucks another expectation of the Black woman as an “exotic” experience or tool for a non-Black man to show his subversive nature. As a premium cable show, Survivor’s Remorse breaks many sitcom conventions that allow it to show a relationship between two people in their maturity as a positive factor in making a romance work.
Gina Torres as Jessica Pearson (Suits)
Fans of Gina Torres know her character Jessica Pearson of the law drama Suits has had her struggles in both her personal and professional lives, but the show rarely explored her personal and romantic interests until season five when her relationship with fellow lawyer Jeff is revealed. However, the audience does not see this relationship blossom. It’s dropped with no warning.
Viewers also get no warning when Jeff breaks up with Jessica because he discovers she lied about knowing their star junior associate Mike Ross is a fraud. Jeff is unforgiving and Jessica is essentially punished for her loyalty to the law firm with her name on the door. Jessica’s dedication to the job and the corporate environment in which she thrives has been the bulk of her storyline throughout the six-year run of the show.
However, the audience does get some hint of Jessica’s struggles with her persona as the ice queen, a bitch in heels who will eat any man alive who crosses her when she privately reveals that she was shaken when a rival attacked her femininity. This is the softer side Jessica is rarely allowed to show as she must constantly remind her rivals, especially those within her own firm, that it’s “my goddamn name on the wall.” Since Black women are rarely seen as feminine, Jessica’s hurt at being called old and unfeminine is subversive to the Strong Black Woman stereotype. It also breaks the ice queen trope to show that she indeed has feelings that she must suppress to survive the male-dominated corporate law world.
Yet, in her final season, Jessica decides to help her firm’s longtime paralegal Rachel take on a case for The Innocence Project and uses her tough-as-nails demeanor to help a wrongly convicted man go free. This is when Jessica remembers why she got into law and realizes her heart is no longer in corporate law. And as a bonus, she goes back to Jeff and asks him if she would like her to come to Chicago with him when he goes to take a new job for which she herself recommended him.
In this turn, she does not quit her high-power position to get the man; she does it for herself. The man is just the bonus.
Torres said of the departure, “But what was so beautiful and poetic about how we’ve decided to end it is she’s going to find her bliss. After all this time, she is not breaking with anything we’ve come to expect from Jessica Pearson.”
Jessica Pearson is a fascinating depiction of a Black woman in the corporate world who appears to have sacrificed everything for the sake of her career, including the one who got away in a previous relationship. However, her romance is not the reason she decides to leave her high-power position at an exclusive law firm. Gina Torres’ nearly six-foot frame made her perfect for her role in which she towered over white males and quietly brought to life the old adage that Black people must be twice as good to get half as much. Jessica Pearson constantly showed how much better than the rest she was right until the very end.
Where Black Women and Romance Should Continue
Hopefully, this is only the beginning of more Black women who are allowed their sexuality and power at any age. How to Get Away with Murder has been great at depictions of older women owning and being comfortable with their sexualities. Thankfully, Queen Sugar and Survivor’s Remorse further explore complex Black queer women. Now with more television shows acknowledging the attractiveness and sex appeal of older Black women, audiences get a more varied representation of Black women.
And with this, representation could and should become even wider. Give audiences trans Black women finding love later in life. Give audiences bi and pan Black women finding love later in life. Give audiences fat Black women finding love later in life. Give audiences disabled Black women finding love later in life. Give audiences working-class Black women finding love later in life. Show Black women as not only being worthy of love but also worthy of support in all their intersections. Black women deserve romance at any age.