I will begin with the good.
One thing I love about Shondaland is her ability to create female characters that do not put their bodies on display as a means to an end. Her women are thoughtful, they lead with their brain, certainly, they are beautiful. But, this is not what informs their life. Their life and their success happens because of their brain power. This is one reason why I will continue to watch Ms. Shonda’s programming. I may not be in it for the long haul but, I will tune in, periodically, to see how these formidable women move in the world.
Faithful readers are aware that I stopped watching “Scandal” (mid) Season Two. Thursday night, however, I tuned into the season premiere. It appears that Olivia’s character has deepened, made some emotional connections but, the major issue still remains for me- the emotional life of the characters are not believable. Their emotional responses are limited in range and lack nuance. The romantic connections are, fairly, juvenile. And, the show relies on style vs. substance. It makes sense that the show is popular, the show exemplifies how American culture relates to Black people- superficially, without real depth.
The scene with Olivia at Harrison’s grave site was forced and overwrought. I did not believe Olivia’s tears because nothing about the show invites me into Olivia’s heart. Except, maybe, during a fleeting moment passing the President in the hallway. Her inability to overcome her love for the President is the gateway to her heart. Through camera angles and facial expressions, I’m asked to believe the emotional connection. I am asked to believe that Olivia is upset because she is crying. That isn’t enough. The emotional experience is inauthentic.
I, consistently, have this issue with ShondaLand writing. I have chalked it up to a stylistic choice for her programming. Soap operas work because the hint of emotion is enough. People can fill in the blanks and impose their emotional lives onto the characters. I watch Olivia’s reaction to the President and I think…hmmm…many women want to believe that a man is pining away for them, emotionally. The President’s emotional response, becoming undone when he hears the mention of Olivia’s name, is not something afforded to Black women on TV. So, I get why people appreciate it. But, unfortunately, the writing of it has never worked for me.
I also tuned into “Black-ish.” The main issue I have with the show, thus far (taking into consideration that we’ve only seen one episode of the show), is that it positions “Inner-City Blackness” as authentic Blackness. Anthony Anderson’s character, apparently, was raised in an environment where things like “field hockey” and a “teenager changing his name,” is foreign. His wife, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, being a “mulatto”, schools and scorns him on how his learned behaviors are inappropriate. I found myself shifting between cringing and laughing. Laughing because many of the lines are well-timed. Cringing because I am tired of “inner city” Blackness being heralded as authentic and tacky Blackness. I need to see something different. The show is reaching toward different but keeps succumbing to ignant stereotypes.
I also cringed to hear a boy say that he couldn’t wait to “hold a girl’s boob”. Sorry, folks, that’s offensive. I’m not going to give sexism a pass because “it’s a comedy”. See, this is where things are. Black relating is not sealed in heartfelt connection. It would have been just as interesting if the child said that he “couldn’t wait to kiss a girl”. Or, if that’s too much, “he couldn’t wait to hold a hand”. Or, “he couldn’t wait to touch a girl”. “Hold a boob”, seriously?! Many girls. at his age, haven’t even developed breasts! Sheesh, let’s continue the reduction of females, even when they are children, to their body parts.
Before you say, “this is a comedy”, I will refer you to “The Cosby Show.” (Because I am not fond of Bill Cosby and the sexual assault legacy that follows him), I will refer you to episodes of “Roc.” Or, here’s a gem, “Frank’s Place” (do what you can to find these shows and use them as a model for writing comedy). These comedies, at their root, are grounded in a humor that is committed to connection and understanding. These shows do not speak, directly, to White audiences. They do not go for the stereotype to induce laughter. They regaled in who they were and created comedy from the humor that resulted within the framework of their everyday lives.
“Black-ish” identifies those elements of Black life that people find “comical” and they play on that. Honestly, I did not need to see the family break dance. Or, the brilliant little actress going for the “cabbage patch” dance to communicate her happiness. If the show is able to get away from saying “Black” every five minutes, playing on stereotypes and they find their humor in the heart of the household (not based on the White gaze), I may tune in once in awhile.
Finally, “How To Get Away With Murder,” again, taking into consideration that we’ve only seen one episode of the show.
The good: the Wes Gibbons character is new and refreshing. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Black male character that was smart, sensitive, thoughtful and VULNERABLE. He is the perfect character, drawn to invite the audience into the heart of the show. We experience the show through his eyes. He is the gateway. I love that! I love his innocence, his naivete. My sense is, as he devolves into mayhem, the show will follow. Glad they found him! I also appreciate the Black female student. Although, she was a bit chaotic during the “rug in the woods” scenes, her character steadied over time and I appreciated how sharp she became.
There are things I appreciate about Viola’s character. She is the smartest person in the room. She is the recipient of sexual pleasure as opposed to being an object to entice it. She has secrets that I want to know. Suspense is my favorite genre, so, when I saw this show, I was excited. There are elements to her character that are delicious. However, so far, she comes across as one note, almost psychopathic. She went from this very tough character, to receiving sexual pleasure with absolutely no connection to it, to crying in the bathroom (understanding, she worked it to manipulate), to staring off into the distance like a haunted demon from ‘American Horror Story’. Her character, so far, lacks nuance, a range. This concerns me. Layering her is going to be the issue. It may happen. But, this is where I become hopeful with ShondaLand Productions and then become terribly disappointed. Her shows hint at depth but never get there.
And, this speaks to my issue with “Black TV” at the moment. Black lead TV characters lack depth. They do not invite us for a walk in their shoes. We occupy two ends of a spectrum, humorous or tough. To illustrate my point, you must watch “Transparent’. That show tugs at your heart, your intellect and your emotions, all at once. It makes you question who you are, what you believe and your notions about family. It invites you to have empathy toward a person and experience a life that may be foreign to you (or, closer than you know). It is the show of the Season (although, I have issues with the storylines for their Black characters).
Similar to Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano, White men are drawn to give you a walk in their shoes. They were all beasts. But, they were relatable beasts. They could create destruction and we stayed with them because, early on, the Writers brought us into the emotional vulnerabilities of the characters. Walter White becomes a drug dealer because he has Cancer and wants to care for his family (as he destroys them- genius!). Over time, we learn that Walter was always a psychopath. He did things that benefitted him. There was a slow build to that knowledge after we were suckered in to his humanity.
WIth Shonda’s characters, I don’t get the slow build. I don’t get the invitation into their heart. I get their cold heart, upfront. And, the next few seasons are about unwinding that heart but it never really thaws. I want to see a Black character who breaks my heart. So much of Black representation on TV is underwritten. The complexity of our lives in nowhere to be found. When am I going to get to walk in the shoes of a Black character whose choices haunt me because I can relate to them? Characters who negotiate the ordinary with flawed defense mechanisms. And, they don’t need to be well-dressed, well-spoken or politically correct. They can be broken and wreaking havoc within that broken-ess. In the current TV configuration, Black folks are well dressed, well spoken, FLAWLESS. Unfortunate, because the best characters on TV are the most flawed. That is life. We all are. We are human. Rarely, do I see Black folks afforded the opportunity to be crushingly human.
The only Black characters that have given me that, thus far, are (kind of) “Chalky” White on ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and (kind of) Omar on ‘The Wire’. Definitely, the children in Season 4 of ‘The Wire’ achieved this. We were invited into their lives and the difficult choices they had to make as a result. If you can name others, please do, in the comment section. They do not have to be leads but I would love to hear about characters that you guys enjoy!
America must walk in our shoes. It is how we deepen understanding and create empathy to Black Americans. In this culture, we privilege Whiteness. One of the reasons is because over many, many years, Whiteness has been represented, in a variety of ways, in America’s cultural production. Turn on TCM and you will see how Whiteness has scratched at our hearts and minds over generations. Slowly, as we undo this dominance, we will begin to carve out characters that invite the world into a deeper understanding of who we are, of our humanity of our complexity. I applaud all of the content creators that are getting work made within the money driven, heart alienating, entertainment industry. I believe we are getting closer to creating that TV series. I just haven’t seen it with a lead Black character, yet.
Yes, we get our fair share of Black trauma. Having to see Mike Brown’s body, dead in the street, on an endless loop. And, having to see Janay Rice being knocked unconscious, on repeat, I reached my limit of Black brutalization. We need fun. We have earned the right to escape. And, these shows provide that. I am a tad concerned, however, that the why’s and the how’s of how we end up seeing Mike Brown dead in the street or Janay Rice tossed about like a rag doll, are not being explored in drama. Drama deepens our understanding of humanity. Otherwise, we have an unrealistic view of Blackness. Allow our lives to be Shakespearean because, clearly, they are!
I don’t need to see another character who is FLAWLESS in her presentation. I need to see a character who is, irreversibly, FLAWED. And, she allows her flawed nature to break the heart of her family, her lovers, of everyone around her. A character who is deeply human. To put it simply, less emphasis on Louboutin shoes and more emphasis on the heart.