If you’ve been a constant reader – shoutout to my Intersect Tesseracts! – you know I’ve spoken a lot about the Invisibility Of The Black Woman In Television & Film. I have over the years come up with the (not so secret) formula and why that happens so goshdarn often.
I also titled this post with a particular purpose in mind. In a genre where the imagination can pretty much run wild, I find it significantly galling that all that imagination seems to dry up when it comes to casting choices. The Black woman nearly always getting the short end of the stick.
Here’s why that happens:
I address the patriarchy that comes part and parcel with the white supremacy that is also endemic to the United States of America. Yeah, it is that kind of post. If you can’t stand the heat, get out the kitchen NOW.
When writing characters for sci-fi literature, television and movies, there comes a choice. The default “person” is usually male. And also usually white and male. So the protagonist of our particular tale is going to be a white male. (oooh! I’m a poet!)
Examples: Star Wars, Star Trek (Original, Next Gen, Enterprise & reboot films), Doctor Who, Supernatural, Firefly, Touch, Stargate SG-1, Farscape, Numbers, Kyle XY, A Gifted Man, Awake, Teen Wolf, etc.
Now when content creators want to get really cutting edge with diversity, they choose a female protagonist. The default “female person” is usually a white female. So now we have this cutting edge television show starring a white female instead of the usual default white male. Oh! Progress!
Examples: The X-Files, Fringe, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, Continuum, Revolution, Star Trek Voyager, Caprica, Medium, Once Upon A Time, Xena: Warrior Princess, Ghost Whisperer, etc.
But that is not enough for some. They want to really shake things up now. So they decide to cast a Person Of Color (POC) as the main protagonist. When they decide that POC is going to be Black, the default “Black person” is very often a Black male. Because, remember, patriarchy. The default begins with the male. Same goes for any other race that is picked. (Asian, Hispanic, Native American etc).
Examples: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Luther, Ironside (2013), Bad Boys, All the movies starring Denzel or Will Smith.
But now because we are in the modern age, some people want to really go that extra mile when it comes to diversity. So they skip past the white male, the white female, the POC male and pick the Asian or sometimes Latina female. OMG! So liberal and avante garde!
Examples: Nikita, Dollhouse, The Mindy Project and whatever else you can google up. I’m too tired and depressed to do it myself at the moment.
There is a reason the Asian or Latina is chosen as the next default. Because it can be so very easily done, very often, their race is usually written as white, (or whitewashed) with their ethnicity not mentioned, nor written in as part of the story. Many times a bi-racial actor is chosen: white mixed with the requisite Asian or Latina flavor.
Now you can see from the above examples of the secret formula for casting how the Black woman can very easily be left out. It is usually after that last above mentioned huge effort towards diversity that so many stop and consider their bases amply covered.
I can count on one hand the shows starring a Black Female protagonist: Deception, Scandal and Sleepy Hollow. As for movies, let me think for a minute. Apartment 4E. Starring – ironically – Nicole Beharie who headlines Sleepy Hollow. In theaters now, there is Baggage Claim starring Paula Patton.
I often tell people who have Netflix and/or hulu to do a quick movie and television show search. To take a look at the casting in any genre. To observe the extreme lack of diversity. Or google up pics of the audience at the recent Emmy’s. That ocean of whiteness should give you a concrete idea just how white television is. The Oscar’s fare little better.
For example. In all of the history of that award – some 84 years I believe – a Black woman has won the statue for Best Actress in a Leading Role: Only Once. That was Halle Berry in 2001.
You have to be in it to win it, the saying goes. If you are not cast in leading roles, not cast in leading roles in Oscar-contending movies, or Oscar-worthy leading roles, you will not be even on the playing field. Not in contention to vie for the statue. Forget talent and chops for a moment. It is truly a numbers game, if you think about it.
The same goes for the top acting award in television. I have not researched the Emmy, in terms of if any Black women have won it, but I did a quick skim and I didn’t see any. Again, you have to be in it to win it.
Kerry Washington nearly made history recently, although the scholarly article I read about how awards are given out at the Emmy’s she really didn’t stand a chance. Her nomination was historical in it’s own right if you stop and think about it.
Which brings me back to the lecture at hand.
Who is running the entertainment industry? Who holds the bulk of the power? Who is responsible for making those casting choices and decisions? Who is responsible for dictating what is socially acceptable and subsequently: What Makes Money and What Doesn’t?
9 times out of 10 it is the white male. From the owners of the studios, networks, cable companies, casting directors, writers – you name it. So they write about themselves. Cast themselves in leading roles, and cast their women in when they want to mix it up a little bit. Rarely step out of that bubble of ownership and power they exist in.
Which is why we have that invisible wall, that imagination halt that happens so often when it comes to casting. I’ll just mention one more thing before I finish up here.
I have noticed – again this happens a lot in sci-fi, my genre of choice – that Black women do get cast. Not in leading roles usually. Some of the people in the PTB decide to get really froggy and toss in a Black woman to make things really cutting edge and diverse.
Usually the character is a one-off. Just thrown in for an episode and killed off, or poorly written – a caricature instead of a character, very one-dimensional. Tokenism, racial tropes and stereotyping abound.
There is also that comfort-zone thing that must be addressed. More often than not, when a Black woman is cast in a leading, supporting and/or highly visible role, she is very light skinned and/or has “European” features and straight hair. That is the “type” of Black woman that is most comfortable for the white males that are running our entertainment machine. The “Halle Berry Default” if you will.
Not very often will you see someone like Aisha Hinds (Goddess!) being cast. Yeah, you caught a glimpse or two of her on the bridge in Star Trek: Into the Darkness and she is currently cast in Stephen King’s Under The Dome TV series.
Things are changing, however slowly. I am still hopeful that America will get over itself one day. In the meantime, the entertainment PTB can take lessons from the success of shows like Scandal, and the early promising success of shows like Sleepy Hollow. (Which btw, was renewed by Fox for a second season well before the usual renew or cancel deadlines).
The hope I have, and the lessons learned will eventually bleed into the film industry as well. They can start to use the “excuse” of the sci-fi genre to start pushing casting boundaries, instead of failing so miserably.
I absolutely adore science fiction. So often I have to watch what is being offered up in that genre and hardly ever get to see a Black female character mixing it up and having adventures with everyone else. That hurts.
How I would love to see a swashbuckling space opera blockbuster movie or television series starring someone who looks like me!