MUSINGS: TV still doesn’t get black women

By Jennifer Hearn
The Scene staff

Black women have been cast in the lowest roles possible on television.

Historically, they played housekeepers for white families or mothers on welfare, living in the projects and barely surviving. Other characters perpetuated extreme urban stereotypes: gum-popping ghetto girls with long weaves, short tempers, giant earrings and bad attitudes.

Today, we’re seeing a shift in atmosphere. Black actresses are getting roles that show them higher in intelligence and class. We still see black housewives and hip-hop harlots, but there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Black screenwriter, director and producer Shonda Rhimes has almost single-handedly re-imaged the black woman on TV recently. Thursdays are dominated by her ABC shows, “Scandal” with Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope and “How to Get Away with Murder” with Viola Davis as Annalise Keating.

The longer these women are on television, the more walls of stereotypes are crashing down. Years of black women being cast only as servants, prostitutes, welfare mamas and sassy sidekicks are being erased.

Another hit on FOX is the drama “Empire,” starring Taraji P. Henson as Cookie. It is expected to be one of the highest-rated shows of the year, and no doubt that character is a big reason.

Cookie has done time in prison, but she is not depicted as a criminal. She is a mother and businesswoman. She is a creative musician. Don’t get me wrong, she is slightly ghetto, but it’s not a defining characteristic.

These are just a few examples of the newest and most positive images of black women on television. I am elated that I get to turn on my TV set and see skin and culture that are similar to mine. But once again, I’m feeling that blacks are moving to a different extreme.

After pigeon-holing black actresses into weak and negative roles for so long, TV show creators and writers now seem hell-bent on going in the exact opposite direction.

Black women on television must be strong. They are at the top of their fields. Their personalities are dominating and aggressive. They know exactly what they want sexually. And any flaws or weaknesses are kept secret.

There are very few black women TV characters with whom I can relate. Where are the silly, clumsy black women? What about those who are still trying to figure out money management or sexuality?

There is definitely an audience for slightly self-deprecating, goofy, introverted girls on TV. Some shows with these kinds of characters played by white actresses have been profitable and made an impact on society.

White actress Zooey Deschanel gained fame as a doe-eyed, silly girl who sings and plays ukulele on the TV show “The New Girl.” For years, we watched Jennifer Aniston as Rachel on “Friends.”

She had multiple jobs and sexual partners, and no domestic skills. Her best friend, Monica, was obsessively clean and highly competitive.

Since that time, many sitcoms have come and gone, allowing white characters to be carefree while navigating the zigs and zags of life. So where can I go to see a black woman living a day-to-day life similar to mine?

A new Internet craze is the web series. It consists of short videos (15 minutes or so), usually shown in episodic form. Most are low-budget and created by independent production companies or even groups of friends.

A few years ago, I ran across a movie on Netflix called “A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy.” It featured six short stories that explored and attempted to shatter stereotypes about sexuality in the black community. The 92-minute film was written, produced, directed and edited by Dennis Dortch.

Two years later, I was excited to find out that Dortch and his girlfriend, Numa Perrier, had established a YouTube channel called Black & Sexy TV, which included the first “webisode” of their first web series. That series grew into several others.

Black & Sexy TV casts mostly black actors and actresses, but I would not call it “black TV.” It deals with much more than “black issues,” and the roles could be played by people of any race or ethnicity and still be relatable and relevant.

My favorite series by Dortch and Perrier is “RoomieLoverFriends.” The plot revolves around a black woman, Tamiko, who finds a black male roommate, Jay. On one fateful night, they end up in bed together.

The complications that follow are innumerable. Jay’s ex-girlfriend makes random appearances at their apartment, and Tamiko’s dad discovers that she has a male roommate. Jay’s ex-girlfriend then sleeps with Tamiko’s dad.

Tamiko is just like any 20-something woman. She is constantly undecided on how she feels about Jay. She’s jealous. She’s insecure. She struggles to say the right things. Sometimes she absolutely loves Jay. Other times, she argues with him about little things for no reason.

There are times when Tamiko and Jay are in the kitchen together, but they only communicate through text messages. I know I am not the only person who has done that.

Dortch and Perrier don’t try to show blacks in any particular light. They don’t make them super-positive, deep or Afrocentric. There are no extremes, just people living their lives who happen to be black.

The opportunities for black actresses have come a long way, but they still have a long way to go. Hopefully, soon we will see black women wearing their natural hair texture or showing off their plus-sized figures on TV. Who knows? Maybe one day there will be a show about a black lesbian couple.

Network TV executives need to realize that black actresses can play the same roles as those of any other race. Until more shows depict women like me, my “must-see TV” will be watched on the Internet.