It’s High Time for Smart, Intentional and Authentic Representation in Media
From 2012 to 2018, millions of viewers faithfully tuned to the ABC series Scandal. Centered around the tumultuous life of Olivia Pope, (Kerry Washington) as she managed Capitol Hill crises and her personal life, the show kept viewers on the edge of their seats and wanting more week after week.
“Olivia Pope is smart, runs a successful business and is the center of attention when she enters a room. She’s the kind of woman who magazines say every woman can be, and the type that others love to hate,” Sarah Springer, a CNN reporter, said in an article. “There’s just one thing: She is also Black.”
While Springer’s observation may seem like it was pointing out the obvious, it was really emphasizing the significance. Before Scandal premiered in 2012, it had been nearly 40 years since a Black actress played the lead role on a major network show. The new decade brought along an awareness of the lack of diversity in television, and while Olivia Pope’s character seemed like an answered prayer, it wasn’t entirely.
Stereotypes and Subjective Judgment
There are three stereotypes often attached to Black women when they’re depicted in any form of media: the Mammy (a maternal figure to a white person), the Sapphire (also known as the “angry Black woman”) and the Jezebel (promiscuous, hypersexualized).
As intelligent, confident and strong as Olivia is, the better part of her character development and storyline throughout the series stemmed from her on-again-off-again affair with the President. What was initially perceived as a step forward for diversity and representation of Black women on television brought us right back where we started.
Despite the stereotype, the significance of a popular series like Scandal having a Black woman as its lead shouldn’t be ignored. It does, however, introduce a secondary issue to the lack of diversity in television and other media: the lack of authentic representation.
To understand why stereotypes are negative, we have to acknowledge where they come from. For example, the term “mammy” was used to describe female slaves who took care of their owner’s children, thus becoming a maternal figure. The “sapphire” is made out to be overly aggressive, mean and masculine; the opposite of what any woman is “meant” to be like.
The “jezebel” stereotype may be the most brutal of the three, simply for the way it reduces a Black woman and her body down to a sexual object. “Get Christie Love” was the last major network television series to feature a Black actress as its lead; the short-lived series became equally infamous for its depiction of the jezebel stereotype as its signature catch phrase, “You’re under arrest, Sugah.”
It’s important to note that while stereotypes and generalizations seem synonymous, they are not the same. Generalizations develop from making inferences, which are backed up by evidence and non-judgmental reasoning. But as the origins of the mammy, sapphire and jezebel stereotypes reveals, stereotypes are instead subjective judgments.
How Do We Portray Representation Correctly?
So, what does smart, intentional representation look like? How do we maintain authenticity when we’re structuring narratives centered around diverse characters?
A great example of this in action is Late Night with Seth Meyers on NBC. It’s isn’t unusual for comedy to border on cultural insensitivity, but with the show having a diverse writing staff there are some jokes that wouldn’t be appropriate for Meyers to tell.
Instead, he uses it as an opportunity to let the writers showcase their talent themselves in a segment aptly called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” Amber Ruffin (a Black woman) and Jenny Hagel (a gay woman), join Meyers at his desk where he sets the jokes up and they deliver the punchlines.
The segment works well for a number of reasons: Meyers is acknowledging a problematic aspect of comedy but uses his platform to give diverse talent a chance to shine. The jokes themselves will occasionally call out negative stereotypes and racial insensitivity that minorities and women deal with because, after all, ignorance is the real joke.
The death of George Floyd and the protests that followed have become an ongoing wake-up call and reckoning for many on the way Black people have been and are still treated in our country. While some felt like their eyes were opening for the first time, for others, it seemed like history repeating itself. The unexpected silver lining amid the tension was that now more people were open and receptive to having conversations about racial injustice and inequality.
Late-night talk show hosts are usually able to balance the day’s news and current events out with humor, but the gravity of the situation left nothing for even the most adroit to formulate jokes. Some hosts like James Corden and Jimmy Fallon opted to begin facilitating difficult conversations about race by talking with their Black staff and gaining perspective from Black celebrities.
While this was a step in the right direction, Meyers went one step further and removed himself from the narrative completely. Understanding that he lacked the perspective to speak on the issue of brutality and harassment that Black people experience from police, he let someone who did share her story.
Throughout a week of shows, Meyers gave Ruffin a segment where she would share one of many encounters she’s had with police since she was a teen. Many non-POC (person of color) viewers gleaned a fresh perspective through seeing someone they regularly looked to for a laugh recall a moment of vulnerability and fear that they would never experience because of the privilege their race affords.
Image from YouTube “Late Night with Seth Meyers”
Paying It Forward
In addition to her tenure as a comedy writer — and the first Black woman to do so for a late-night talk show — Ruffin is also an accomplished comedian in her own right. In August, NBC announced she would headline her own late-night show on their streaming platform, Peacock.
In a recent interview with Vulture, Ruffin discussed her deliberate efforts to include voices historically excluded from comedy writing rooms in her new show and how she went about assembling a diverse list of potential writers, many of whom are also Black. Just as Seth Meyers gave Ruffin a platform to showcase her talent, she’s now doing the same for a new generation of young, diverse voices. Let’s hope that it’s the beginning of a trend.