*This article was originally published on Urban Cusp.
With the recent success of shows featuring African-American leads, there has been much debate over the types of shows Black people should create and support. There seems to be a divide between viewers who are satisfied with any and all characters of color and those who are overly critical of every Black face on television.
Due to a long history of oppression and misrepresentation in the media, many people are subconsciously searching for a minority TV savior to come and redeem us. Although this desire is warranted, it is unrealistic and potentially damaging. While the idea of a morally sound, “classically beautiful,” and highly educated Black cast sounds great in theory, the reality is that model minority stereotypes can be just as detrimental as the “other” ones.
What we need is a varied representation of Black people on TV so that we don’t have to depend on every show to speak for us and “get it right.” We all know that every Black woman in America isn’t a lying and conniving adulterer, but if you were to watch primetime television for cultural context, Being Mary Jane, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder would suggest otherwise. It’s easy to get frustrated with these shows for perpetuating problematic notions, but we must understand that these shows aren’t meant to represent all of us.
When I watched the Being Mary Jane pilot last year, I was fascinated by the disclaimer in the beginning that absolved itself from all responsibility, clarifying that the show was portraying one woman and did not reflect every Black woman’s experience. In that moment, I remember feeling both relieved and deeply concerned. Since when do show-runners need to write disclaimers in order for people to understand that their content doesn’t give audiences the right to stereotype entire demographics?
We would never assume that every white man in the army is an undercover terrorist or conclude that all white women are crazy drug addicts after watching Homeland or Nurse Jackie, would we? So why do we feel that it’s acceptable to make sweeping generalizations and write off Black shows based off of basic character flaws that have been employed since the beginning of dramatic structure?
As an educated Black woman who happens to be a screenwriter, I understand and identify with the anxiety and apprehension that people of color have towards shows with African-American leads. I would never think to cast a Black woman as a white president’s side piece—or as anyone’s mistress for that matter. (I do not support adultery and wouldn’t want to glorify that lifestyle among women of any race.) But I also believe that good storytelling must be comprehensive, even if it upsets our inferiority complex. Although Black anti-heroes seem problematic on the surface, they are doing more for our cause than some may realize.
In order for the humanity of Black people to be fully realized in this country, we need lighthearted shows like Black-ish that feature nuclear Black families in suburban settings. We need films like Dear White People that satirize the very real identity crises that Black people face in college. And believe it or not, we need shows like Scandal, Being Mary Jane and How to Get Away With Murder to remind us that Black people don’t need to be perfect to be on TV.
No single show will ever be able to capture the complexity of “the Black experience” because there is no one experience. We are a multi-dimensional group of individuals that deserves a wide variety of TV deals and character descriptions. Instead of putting unrealistic amounts of pressure on every Black show that airs, we should seek to share our individual stories and work towards creating a world where our full humanity—flaws and all—is recognized and respected.