If you’re flipping television channels this fall looking for something to watch, odds are you will notice far more black women than you’ve seen on TV in a long time. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a network drama in 40 years. The television landscape looks vastly different less than five years after Scandal’s debut. In fact, in contrast with the so-called golden age of black television from the 1990s, black dramas outnumber black sitcoms. The change isn’t unwelcome, but something is missing.
The success of Scandal undoubtedly helped pave the way for black actresses to star in television shows like How to Get Away With Murder, Being Mary Jane, Underground, Queen Sugar and the forthcoming Still Star-Crossed, and it's worth mentioning that these shows are, significantly, black-women-created or -produced dramas.
Black female showrunners Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, Misha Green and Mara Brock Akil have a proven track record of bringing black women to star on their projects. These women reaffirm what many of us know: Black women passionately support one another’s endeavors.
Regina King recently won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, and onstage at the event, Taraji P. Henson presented her with the award, a big hug and an enthusiastic, “Yasss!” Last year, Henson also showed the same level of excitement during Viola Davis’ win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. It could just be that Henson is the best friend and cheerleader ever. Given the pattern of black TV showrunners hiring other black women, I am less inclined to believe that Henson’s exuberance is an anomaly.
That sisterly love, however, is curiously—and tragically—absent in scenes from our much-loved television dramas. I’m not the only one who has noticed this.
Perhaps the absence of black female friendships on TV has more to do with the genre. Drama lends itself to making its characters seem isolated to heighten the sense of conflict. But it’s also possible that the television industry’s penchant for a shallow form of diversity is responsible for shows starring black women without black female friends. We’re ecstatic whenever another black woman lands a lead role. But must she be at the top, alone, in each show? And why are there so many dramas and so few comedies starring black women?
The glut of dramatic black television shows makes Issa Rae’s new HBO comedy, Insecure, a must-watch. The series focuses on Rae and her co-star, Yvonne Orji, as two black friends working out their awkwardness in South Los Angeles. Insecure promises to be singular for HBO and television in general. Rae and Black-ish actress Tracee Ellis Ross rank among very few black women in comedy on scripted TV.
Admittedly, it’s an achievement for one black woman to star as the lead in a comedic role, let alone for multiple black women to star on the same show. Producer Yvette Lee Bowser’s 1993-1998 sitcom Living Single remains beloved for its depiction of friendship among three black female friends. Bowser also created Half & Half, which starred Essence Atkins and Rachel True as sisters. Fan favorite Girlfriends, the creation of Mara Brock Akil, also featured three professional black women living and loving. We haven’t seen anything like those shows since.
The current roster of television programming demonstrates that TV’s gatekeepers still have far to go before they can pat themselves on the back for being diverse. Diversity is not just one black woman on TV. It’s not even multiple black women leading multiple shows. Commitment to diversity means considering more black women to take over prime-time comedies, too. Ross was the first black woman in 30 years to be nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Only one black woman has ever won this award (Isabel Sanford, in 1981). When it comes to actresses in television comedies, I guess #EmmysSoWhite.
What’s missing from the crop of black female characters on television right now is a comedy centered on sister-friends interacting with each other. Drama just isn’t the medium for a black-girl buddy show. And we don’t need another black, sassy sidekick to the white female lead. Comedic black actresses merit the spotlight; they deserve to tell our stories in their own voice. I sincerely hope that Rae’s Insecure opens the door for more comedies the way Scandal did for dramas.
Some of the most powerful moments on television in the past five years have involved black women showing intimate sides of us, humanizing the black female experience. That is extremely valuable. I appreciate these dramas for showing the inner lives of black women.
But it’s not greedy for us to want a black female sitcom, too. We see #BlackGirlMagic portrayed on-screen in every way but in the friendships that sustain us in real life. How about some #BlackGirlJoy? Black women have gladly cheered and cried along with Olivia, Mary Jane and Dr. Miranda Bailey. Now it’s time for the television industry to let black women have the last laugh. Or three.