The brilliance of “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope – portrayed by Kerry Washington – has opened the floodgates for other women of color on television. Washington’s role is historic. She’s the second black woman to star in a network drama, but it’s clear she won’t be the last.
“Scandal” debuted in April 2012. In the short-time that’s elapsed since its premiere episode, Meagan Good became the third black woman to star in a network drama when she was cast in the now-canceled “Deception.” Though the cancellation of “Deception” was disheartening, it doesn’t disprove the realization that black women are invested in seeing authentic-representations of their realities on television.
BET’s “The Game” is still amassing large-ratings. Season five drew an average of 2.69 million viewers each episode, a ratings bonanza for the Viacom-owned network. The popular football-meets-love sitcom was recently renewed for a seventh season. Even Vh1 is capitalizing on the momentum. More than 1.5 million viewers tuned into the premiere of their newest scripted-series, “Hit the Floor,” which stars Taylor Paige and Kimberly Elise.
Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network entered the ring with Tyler Perry’s latest creations, “The Have and the Have Nots” and “Love thy Neighbor,” which both garnered more than 1 million viewers on their premiere nights.
Of course, reality television produces a plethora of women of color in lead roles. “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta,” “Married to Medicine,” and the legion of different reality programs are generating big bucks for their networks. The fifth-season of the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” drew an average of 3.1 million viewers each episode, leading to a sixth-season renewal and additional reality-programs on the Bravo network.
The sudden crop of black women on television is refreshing, but as writer Ramou Starr points out, all representations of women of color on television aren’t positive.
It’s great that women of color have the opportunity to star in a television show that boasts great ratings, ratings that prove that viewers aren’t anti-women of color characters on television, and yet it’s disappointing that we feel forced to consume shows that may not represent women of color in a positive way in order to make some sort of statement about wanting to continue to see women of color represented at all on television. What’s problematic about these types of portrayals is not that they don’t exist among women of color, rather, that the portrayals of women of color on television are so minimal that we have to scrounge to find the positive ones, which is not a problem typical of white female characters on television.
Women of color are a sizeable television audience. Networks are beginning to notice the importance of reaching the market, leading to the sudden uptick in black women on television. But will it last?