Tag Archives: TV shows

50 Years After Color TV, TV Networks Finally Putting *Color* On TV

It used to be if you wanted to turn on the TV and actually see non-white characters, your options were telenovelas, BET, or whatever all-Black cast family show was the Black show of the decade.

Seriously. Half of the history of Black folk leading TV shows looks like a bunch of awkwardly missed high-fives, or like the passing of a fairly unheroic torch. It looks a lot like the #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Rule of Black men in The Walking Dead.

onlyone

Just as The Cosby Show dared to add a little more color to TV land in 1984, The Jeffersons called it quits a year later. #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Black family movin’ on up.

On the tail of The Cosby Show‘s wild success, comes Family Matters with the all-too-adorable Steve Urkel in 1989, 3 years later… Cosby who? #ThereCanOnlyBeOne quirky Black Guy with a funny voice.

Then, you get the “glory days” of the early 90’s…

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and In Living Color bring us some funny, some color, and some dope soundtracks in 1990.

Then in 1992 & 1993 Martin and Living Single finally stop futsing around with that big, middle-class family shit, and dare to talk about Black people dating and *gasp* even having sex. Finally it looks like we’re gonna get some diversity of experience in these Black TV shows!

Next thing you know, 1994 brings us some young Black female perspective in Sister, Sister with Tia and Tamara Mowry giving little Mary Kate and Ashley a run for their money. And (it’s possible I’m the only one who actually watched it, but…) Moesha manages to bring Brandi to the small screen without execs screaming #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Black teen female show!.

But, of course, we speak too soon. The same year Sister, Sister launches, In Living Color goes dark.  Then, Fresh Prince bails on us in 1996. Martin a year later in 1997. Family Matters and Living Single in 1998. Finally Sister,Sister  bites the dust in 1999.

Lucky for us, The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show were kind enough to give us a handful of funny Black characters to last us until the new decade, when they took a dive to make room for The Parkers (1999) and Girlfriends (2000).  Since then, there have, of course, been others, and always a few attempts to branch out into other genres. This is clearly not an exhaustive list… but it’s pretty damn close!

I know, I know, that sounds like a lot, right? Like Black folk should be glad we had so much representation on TV. And a few years ago I’d have been the first one to reminisce on the old days of good (okay, maybe not The Parkers).  But then, what about all the other brown folk that make up this massive chunk o’ land?

All-AmericanGirlWell…Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which focused on a Korean-American family, lasted one whole year from 1994-1995 and is pretty much the only show that had dared cast a majority case of Asian characters. Before that the presence of Asian-descent characters on the small screen was pretty much a toss-up between abysmal or painfully offensive. John Cho managed to snag a leading role in Flash Forward in 1996, but that was cancelled after a year too… There are, of course, a couple of odds and ends — a Glenn in Walking Dead here, a couple from Lost there.  But you get the trend…

While I wish I could bore you to tears with the history of the representation of every community of color in TV, I think we get the idea…

Just a year or two ago, the dearth of brown faces on TV was a regular one of those “too true, *sigh*” conversations I’d have with my friends every few weeks.

But then, a funny thing happened…

It was just me, a bottle of cheap chardonnay, and a TV remote on a blizzardy Friday night. Making my usual OnDemand rounds, I manage to spend 5+ hours (yep, and I wasn’t even done yet!) without watching a single show that did not feature a leading character of color.

And it was all over the map here. I got in my high drama with Cookie (Empire) and Olivia Pope (Scandal). I got my mystery-thriller on with Professor Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder), my supernatural freaky with Angelica Celaya‘s Zed on Constantine, straight horror with American Horror Story, some superhero action with Cisco the West family in The Flash. Some hilarious family antics with Fresh Off The Boat and Modern Family. And, of course, got some nerdy historical fiction on with the Mills sisters and Irving in Sleepy Hollow.  If I was really desperate I could even have hunted down some Grey’s Anatomy for some medical drama.

This is the first time that TV hasn’t relegated characters of color either to the margins of an otherwise white cast, as “the brown friend,” but actually has characters of color leading prime time shows. And some are even heroes, villains, love interests… freaking complex, rounded, rich characters!

Seriously, *look* at the cast! Photo Credit: Kevin Parry for Paley Center for Media
Seriously, *look* at the cast! Photo Credit: Kevin Parry for Paley Center for Media

At this point, I’m dosed on half a bottle of wine and five hours of Mexican psychics, Black detectives, Cuban mechanical engineers, Creole superwitches, and Taiwanese Steakhouse owners. And as soon as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is back on, trust that I’ll be cheering every time Melinda May hands some supposed badass his… um… ass.

And the future is looking promising too!

Jill Marie Jones was just cast as the leading lady in the STARZ original series Ash vs. Evil Dead and the cast of the promising new NBC series Doubt is getting browner and browner with its casting of Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black), Dule Hill (Psych), and Kobi Libii. And on the geeky side of things (where I live), we’ve got Powers to look forward to with Susan Heyward as Deena Pilgrim.

heyward-pilgrim
via. comicsalliance

Now, despite wine-wasted me fist-pumping and “f*&k yeah!”-ing to my marathon of brown TV, a little sobriety reveals the facts. While we’re making some phenomenal strides, and young brown TV-addled kids everywhere are surely gaining a greater sense of self-worth and possibilities for their life narratives, we’ve got a ways to go.

Before Fresh Off the Boat,  ABC’s Selfie was pretty much the only sitcom with a leading Asian actor, and it still qualifies as the only one with that traditional romantic comedy love story we’ve all come to love. But before John Cho‘s character could get laid, ABC cancelled the show, which had garnered a strong cult following. Now Fresh Off The Boat is on it’s own in sitcom land, while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has got to hold it down on the action/superhero side with leading actresses Chloe Bennet & Ming Na Wen.

Selma still flopped at the box office, while Taken 3 (Taken number effing 3, people!) kicked the box office’s ass times $40 million…There’s something seriously wrong with that.

But let’s stick to television for now.  While we’ve got some seriously great shows led by folks of color. People of color are still majorly underrepresented, or worse misrepresented on many of the most popular TV shows, restricted to roles of the sexless side-kick, quick-to-quip Black friend, magical negro native, wise asian man, “thugs”, “homies”, criminals, or victims.

It’s time to color prime time with POC characters who can be goodhearted heroes finding their way, stressed out househusbands, know-it-all law students, hot dudes with daddy issues, nerdy girls with dynamic programming issues…

If we can’t even imagine people of color as diverse, complex, three-dimensional, real people in our stories, how the hell are the people who stay snug and terrified in their homogenous lala lands ever going to believe that Mexican women can be described with words other than “fiery,” or that some Black women aren’t actually just waiting for the chance to show-off their snap-eyeroll-suck teeth combo, or that the woman in the hijab is giddy planning her upcoming wedding not plotting the violent destruction of the U.S…. or that sixteen-year-old Black boys aren’t “demons” who deserve to be shot in the street…

We’re at least doing better in this small screen venue, but we need to do even better, ever better

Advertisements

WHY Black & Brown Representation in Pop Culture Is Important. A Rant.

Sometimes, especially when the tide of current events crashes against shores of racism and the violent murder of racial minorities, it feels so silly to be writing a silly little blog about silly little things like comic books and sci-fi television. What could possibly be the point of advocating for fictional Black and Brown characters to have more screen time or to angrily protest their pointless sacrifice in a TV show when in real life young men like Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin are murdered with no consequence?

But after the heated moments when we rage and possibly cry and feel our chests tighten up at the thought of having nothing to tell our future Black and Brown sons what they should do, what they could possibly do to avoid the same fate… After those wretched feelings and thoughts tire themselves out… again, it becomes clear. The man who shot at four teenage boys in a car last year and just escaped prosecution for the murder of one of them, he probably watched TV. He probably grew up on movies and TV shows that showed him Black men as drug-dealing, gun-wielding, hard-time serving gangsters who live on the streets with an unmovable kill-or-be-killed mentality. We’ve all seen the stereotypes a million times, and so did Michael Dunn, and so did George Zimmerman… and so did Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

The history of expendable Black and Brown life continues to play out in fiction and in reality as we continue to portray Black boys and girls as crooks and gangsters in both fiction and in the media. And this is not without consequence. These images stay with us. Think how we all relate to and consume ideas from our favorite TV shows and movies. How we take BuzzFeed quizzes to tell us What Character from TV show  X we are most like. Fiction is not inconsequential. It reflects and it informs our beliefs and actions about the world and about the people in it. So when we see a the valiant white male hero save the day again against the “thug” drug dealer, we applaud the hero and retain the image of that dark-skinned killer with a trigger happy finger on his .45.  He’s got baggy pants, and he talks with a particular accent; he listens to rap music and wears a hoodie low on his face. It’s told to us over and over again in these stories. THIS IS WHAT THE BAD GUY LOOKS LIKE. He’s dangerous. He’s homicidal. He’s the cardboard cut-out, poster child of criminality and danger. And he’s Black. Beware!

And consuming these fictions, we see men and women, boys and girls who look not unlike these images on the streets and our first reaction is fear. But it doesn’t stop there. It goes all the way to the courts. A white man who fires a gun into a car of Black children or shoots a hoodied Black teen claims self-defense because he felt threatened. Why did he feel threatened? Well, because this child looked exactly like the criminal threats he’d seen before… on the news… in so many episodes of his favorite prime time crime show…

So, now, we fuss and fidget when we see these portrayals on TV, but more than that we advocate for better portrayals. We don’t just want to see less of these ridiculous stereotypes of Black and Brown people in fiction, we want to see Black and Brown characters as heroes and fighters and lovers and quirky awkward guys caught in love triangles… you know… as real people.  Unfortunately, so much of what ends up on TV and the big screen are remakes of stories already told, back when heroes were only allowed to be white. That, by the way, is a very large percentage of American history. So we insist on new stories. But those are slow coming and don’t pull as large of an audience as the old stories. SO…  given the very clear bias towards heroes being white and white only in the past, due to clearly racist ideas… and now that we’re so forward thinking and (cough) “post-racial” it should be clearly understood that revision-ing that history to include Black and Brown heroes is the correct and progressive thing to do, right?

Yet, when Michael B. Jordan is cast as the Human Torch or (god forbid) a brown-skinned man is cast as a musketeer, arms flail and feelings are hurt and people claim it’s breaking “my suspension of belief” when a Black person appears as a significant part of history. Weird how Black folk didn’t just make a sudden appearance in history around the 1800s and only then as slaves. Open a f**king history book and realize a thing or two about the various and myriad experiences of Black and Brown people in the world since the beginning of history as we know it!

In any case, the point is that when very real, very painful things like another young Black murdered child being denied justice occur, people like me wonder if it’s worth it to talk about comic books and science fiction and TV shows. But it IS. We should talk about it more. Expose the problems! It’s been demonstrated over and over again throughout history that imagination often comes before real change… because if our greatest imaginative leaders cannot imagine a Black man as a hero, as a straight-A student or as a sentimental artist, but only as a thug, a criminal, or a troubled victim, then when a real Black man comes into the view of those who have no other representation of Blackness than these faulty images, what would he expect other than a criminal, a thug, or a victim?

This is no excuse though. History and media and art might influence one’s opinion of another race or gender or orientation or neighborhood, what have you, but at the end of the day a violent, hateful action is a decision made by an individual, and they must face the consequences of that action.  But we could damn well do our part as artists and creators to dare to explore and discover the complexity of world experiences and portray humans of all shades and credences etc as complicated and myriad as they are and might be. In fact, we should be ashamed if we do no less. Can we really call ourselves artists if we can’t imagine beyond stereotypes and one’s own experience?