TV Culture: “Deception” and the Rise of Black Actresses

Deception - Season Pilot

NBC’s highly anticipated new drama debuted early this year on January 7, 2013. Meagan Good plays Joanna Locasto, a detective who is sent on an extended undercover mission into a wealthy household to identify and incriminate her best friend’s murderer.

Though the show doesn’t base Joanna’s identity in her Blackness, there are subtle references to the reality of her race, including her interactions with the Bower family and romantic interests. Due to the lack of comprehensive African-Ameircan representation in the media, the role of on-screen relationships have been long debated. For example, when the first Black Disney princess, Tiana, emerged in The Princess and the Frog, some of the sharpest criticism came from the fact that her prince, Naveen, was not Black. Scandal has also been ridiculed for Olivia Pope’s romantic involvement with Fitzgerald Grant, not because he is the president, but because he is white. It will be interesting to see where the storyline goes now that Olivia’s racially ambiguous boyfriend, Edison, has proposed to her.

It is no coincidence that Deception’s Joanna, who is in a complex relationship with her co-worker Will Moreno (Laz Alonso), is also forced to face the temptation of her past in the form of Julian Bowers (Wes Brown) now that she is living in his house. By giving Joanna the option of both a Black and white love interest, Deception is leaving little room for scrutiny. It has been made clear that whomever she ends up with will have everything to do with her emotions rather than race.

In the pilot episode, right after Joanna moved in to the Bowers’ estate, Mia, out of frustration, threatened to tell her stepmother that Joanna had stolen something in order to get her kicked out of the house. This would not have been an ample threat if she were white. Joanna, knowing how detrimental this claim would be to her credibility as a Black woman, quickly realized how hard it would be to regain the Bowers’ trust. The fact that her relationship with the well-to-do family stems through her mother’s work there as a housekeeper also indirectly points to her race by way of socio-economic status. The earliest roles of African American women in media were that of mammies, a word used to describe a black nursemaid or nanny in charge of white children. Though Joanna’s mom isn’t featured on the show, there are constant reminders to Joanna’s perceived inferiority as the descendant of a maid.

The very premise of the show calls for the mass deception of most of the cast, hence the show’s title. For this reason, Joanna is posing as a victim of domestic abuse who is trying to jumpstart her life. The man of the house, Robert Bowers, offers her an assistant position at his company, further perpetrating her role as an unqualified, poor Black girl in need of a favor, though in reality she is a skilled detective. This paradox is only evident to the viewers and few characters who are in on the grand scheme. By developing an authentic backstory rather than exploiting Joanna’s Blackness to create tension, however, Deception is paving the way for African American actresses who deserve the respectable roles afforded to their counterparts.

Joanna Locasto, one of only two African-American lead actresses currently on primetime television, enforces her authority in a much more subtle way than would be expected by viewers accustomed to Olivia Pope’s character in Scandal. Though many people have begun to draw parallels between the two characters, the similarities are mostly skin-deep. Until more minority actresses and actors are cast in lead primetime roles, viewers will feel compelled to forge connections between the few who are on air. American primetime television desperately needs more characters like Joanna and Olivia who are non-stereotypical, yet realistically racial.

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