The representation of black women on television has developed much the same way as their actual treatment in the United States—belittling, slow, and contradictory. African American women have been on television since the 1950s, but the progressiveness of that imagery has been negligible. Television, unlike other media forums like radio and cinema, began explicitly as a vehicle for advertisers to market their products. In this milieu, the portrayals of black women evolved in concert with their perceived marketability.American television, especially early television, has always...
The representation of black women on television has developed much the same way as their actual treatment in the United States—belittling, slow, and contradictory. African American women have been on television since the 1950s, but the progressiveness of that imagery has been negligible. Television, unlike other media forums like radio and cinema, began explicitly as a vehicle for advertisers to market their products. In this milieu, the portrayals of black women evolved in concert with their perceived marketability.American television, especially early television, has always been a capitalist vehicle that caters to the majority population. So, like their cinematic predecessors, black women emerged on television as domestic servants. The first nationally broadcast program to feature an African American woman was Beulah, which aired from 1950 to 1953. Ethel Waters led the ensemble cast, but owing to a major cast change, she was replaced first by Hattie McDaniel (briefly) and then by Louise Beavers. This family comedy featured Beulah as the maid to a white, Anglo-Saxon family. She listened to their problems, interrupted their plans, and directed their actions. Her suitor, Bill Jackson (Percy “Bud” Harris, Dooley Wilson, Ernest Whitman), and dim-witted friend Oriole (Butterfly McQueen, Ruby Dandridge) were her only outside connections beyond the family circle. The black maid–white household scenario has had reincarnations in every decade of television history including: Louise Beavers and Amanda Randolph in The Danny Thomas Show (1953–1964), Esther Rolle in Maude (1972–1974), Nell Carter in Gimme a Break (1981–1987), and Regina Taylor in I'll Fly Away (1991–1993). Nevertheless, Beulah appeared around the same time as another prominent comedy, the Amos 'n' Andy Show.The Amos 'n' Andy Show was created in 1928 by two white radio personalities, Charles J. Correll and Freeman F. Gosden. They wrote and served as the voices for the host of black characters that the radio program featured. The program aired successfully for over twenty years before CBS decided to make a television version in 1951. With black actors turning out en masse for the casting call, only a few were chosen to participate in this unique opportunity. Alvin Childress became Amos, with Spencer Williams Jr. as Andy. The women's casting proved even more interesting.Ernestine Wade played Sapphire Stevens, the wife of George “Kingfish” Stevens, and Amanda Randolph served as Mama. The products of the imaginations and voices of the two white creators, they gave distinctive notions of who black women were. Their characterizations shaped black women's television image for years after the show's ending. The character Sapphire, the name itself inspiring a caricature, complained constantly, belittled her spouse, and encouraged negative consequences for black women who wanted to be seen and heard. The mother, while older and milder, offered a similar set of qualities.Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah so ruffled the feathers of black America's middle and educated classes that the NAACP mounted a successful campaign to have them removed from the air. Beyond the shows' general so-called negative representations of African Americans, the NAACP argued, in the Amos 'n' Andy Show, black women were shown as cackling and screaming shrews—almost vulgar.The rancor created by these programs did not eliminate black women's appearances on television but certainly limited them. From the late 1950s, black women entertainers made guest appearances mostly in their capacity as singers. Ella Fitzgerald, Della Reese, Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sarah Vaughan were frequent guests on The Ed Sullivan Show (titled Toast of the Town until 1955). The first black-hosted variety show, The Nat King Cole Show, provided phenomenal exposure to black performers. However, the program was short-lived (1956–1957), owing to a lack of national companies willing to sponsor it. Corporations were not confident that the majority of Americans would tolerate a black man and his friends in their living rooms, especially in the South.Not until the emergence of the program Julia in 1968 did a black woman lead another national, prime-time program. Its creator, Hal Kanter, had been a film director, writer for The George Gobel Show, and, later, executive producer for All in the Family. Julia featured a widowed black nurse, the first program to show a professional black woman. The character Julia Baker was played by Diahann Carroll, an actress who had already achieved a certain cultural cachet from her flourishing career as a singer.In Julia, a husbandless black woman with a child worked and lived overtly unconscious of black America's political struggles going on around her. While the fires of Harlem, Watts, and Detroit still simmered, Julia's narratives showed simplistic racialized predicaments, often voiced through the program's children. Their conflicts were always resolved within each twenty-two-minute episode. Because of its lack of racial consciousness and some of black America's annoyance with this, the show aired for only three years. During the same period, Della Reese became the first African American woman to host her own talk show, Della. That show ran briefly from 1969 to 1970 and then died from lack of advertising support.. Diahann Carroll and her costars in the television sitcom, which featured a widowed black nurse and was the first program to show a professional African American woman. PhotofestBy the 1970s the increased popularity of television had created an economic nightmare for the film industry. When Melvin Van Peebles's X-rated Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971) grossed twenty times its initial production costs in its first year, Hollywood saw an opportunity to revive its box office by exploiting an untapped market, African Americans. Thus an explosion of cinema followed, targeting African American audiences with action films featuring angry black heroes, including Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), and Dolemite (1974). African American women served in these mostly male narratives as girlfriends, wives, mothers, and general eye candy. Even those few films that featured black women as protagonists, like Coffy (1973), Cleopatra Jones (1973), Sheba Baby (1975), and Sparkle (1976), provided as much body flesh as story. Though profitable and significant for providing black actors and other industry personnel with work, the films had all but disappeared by 1978.This revival of cinematic African American representation spurred a similar resurgence in television with a spate of mostly situation comedies. That's My Mama (1974–1975) offered Theresa Merritt, Lynne Moody, and Joan Pringle. What's Happening!! (1976–1979) and What's Happening Now!! (1985–1988) featured Danielle Spencer, Mabel King, Shirley Hemphill, and Anne-Marie Johnson. Good Times (1974–1979) was led by the veteran actors Esther Rolle and Ja'net Du Bois and introduced BerNadette Stanis and Janet Jackson. That's My Mama and What's Happening!! gave black female characters a chance to be seen but offered little character development and lacked narrative consistency. In general, neither of the programs did much more than present black humor as simple, borderline slapstick that was a bit inane. The mothers in both sitcoms revived figures reminiscent of Gone with the Wind with their often ornery behavior, physical girth, and general passivity.Norman Lear built Good Times around Esther Rolle, who came directly from her role as the maid in Maude (another series created by the socially conscious Lear). While initially focusing on family cohesiveness and the humorous side of life in spite of poverty (the family lived in a Chicago public housing high-rise), the series turned into a vehicle for J.J. (Jimmie Walker), who used over-the-top antics and quick quips like “I'm Kid Dyn-o-mite!” to defy all parental authority. In fact, Walker became so much the focus of the show that both John Amos and Esther Rolle left before the series ended.A short-lived cop drama, Get Christie Love (1974–1975) with Teresa Graves, took off straight from the film trilogy of Cleopatra Jones. Ultimately, it presented only limited creativity and narrative agency for Detective Christie Love. The long-running comedy The Jeffersons was introduced in 1975, yet another Lear spin-off of All in the Family. While the bigoted George Jefferson (played by Sherman Hemsley) dominated the program, the women—Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Roxie Roker, Berlinda Tolbert, and Zara Cully—kept the comedy spicy, unconven- tional, and grounded. In the course of its ten-year run, the comedy explored such topics as interracial marriage and biracial children, class disparity (as in the theme song “Movin' on Up”), and racial intolerance from various perspectives. Except for The Jeffersons, the latter part of the 1970s saw black Americans go virtually out of commercial vogue, again.The Eighties and NinetiesThe 1980s swept in several changes for African Americans. Affirmative action initiatives of the 1970s had meant that black middle managers and executives held corporate positions. But President Ronald Reagan introduced policies that deregulated industries, disenfranchised already impoverished communities, and targeted for elimination programs that aided people of color. At the bottom of the gender and racial hierarchy, African American women encountered another set of real-life circumstances that became powerfully exemplified on television.The beginning of this decade also ushered in cable television, once used solely for reception in remote areas. Cable television owners now began positioning it as a viable alternative to the networks' “for everybody” strategy by narrowcasting. The cable channels Black Entertainment Television (BET), introduced in 1980, and Music Television (MTV), introduced in 1981, had a profound effect on black women's presence on television. Music videos began to reign as an arbiter of culture, style, and normality for viewers and consumers ages twelve to twenty-four. Although rock videos with white artists initially reigned on MTV, BET regularly featured African American entertainers—mostly male at first. However, a sizable number of BET's viewers were female from the start. While these new entertainment vehicles permeated U.S. (and later world) culture, the music industry discovered a little-known music genre, rap. The culture of hip-hop, as it came to be called, grew to include graffiti artists, break dancers, and a distinct clothes style. Hip-hop revolutionized the music industry and brought to the forefront young blacks talking about issues that affected them.MTV, BET, and hip-hop altogether transformed the look and sound of television. However, the predominant portrayal of black women in the music video world was as silent, scantily clad figures (the “video ho” so predominant in the industry) for male singers to grope, throw water upon, and ogle. Ironically, this deluge of regressive depictions flew in the face of other discourse at that time, which insisted that black women were consistently strong, keepers of literary culture, occupiers of political power and prestige, and highly valued members of the educational elite.The evidence for this came from highly successful programs like The Cosby Show (1984–1992) and A Different World (1987–1993). Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show embodied the quintessential strong black woman. Looking beautiful and unflustered, she was a partner in a law firm, managed a household of five children, and found ample time for romancing her husband Cliff (Bill Cosby). Four of their children were female, all of whom were well adjusted, well-mannered, and goal-oriented. This upper-middle-class family tapped into the humanity of the U.S. citizenry and provided a progressive, although classist, vision for African Americans striving for the American dream—a dream defined by education, high income, and material acquisition. America loved this show (it was rated number one for five of its eight years), but it was not without its detractors.Many accused the program of ignoring the increased violence, drug use, rising AIDS epidemic, and poverty of many African American communities. Further, for black women, it offered unbalanced examples and ruminations of what actually happens in trying to juggle demanding careers and family. Nevertheless, this program in particular fostered a host of other black family sitcoms including Charlie & Co.> (1985–1986), 227 (1985–1990), Family Matters (1989–1998), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996), and later ones like Cosby (1996–2000), The Hughleys (1998–2002), My Wife & Kids (2001–), and The Bernie Mac Show (2001–). The second iteration of Cosby inhabited a blue-collar, older, family environment, but it was still dominated by its creator, Cosby. (left) in the comedy series 227 on NBC-TV, 1986. This sitcom about the residents of an apartment building in New York was adapted from a play by Christine Houston and ran for five seasons. Photofest; NBC PhotoBeyond the world of the sitcom, 1986 introduced the phenomenon named Oprah Winfrey. Having begun as a local news anchor who moved up the ranks to host a Chicago morning show, Winfrey was tapped to shoulder a nationally syndicated television talk show to compete with the then unrivaled Phil Donahue. In the many years since The Oprah Winfrey Show's debut, Winfrey has come to rule the television landscape. The overwhelming audience and advertising success of her program proved to television executives that a daytime talk show could be low-cost to produce and highly lucrative. Dozens of new talk shows were created as a result, including ones hosted by African American women like Bertice Berry, Rolonda Watts, Gayle King, Robin Givens, Queen Latifah, Ananda Lewis, and Iyanla Vanzant. In 1997, ABC and Barbara Walters introduced The View, a program aimed at and about women, which included the African American attorney Star Jones as one of its hosts. Even the shock jock Howard Stern brought his black on-air producer and sidekick Robin Quivers with him to television. Winfrey shaped the world of television talk, and whenever she called for a transformation, everyone followed.Many have argued that Winfrey serves in the historic fictional role of “Mammy” with her often large body girth, comforting of guests, and attentiveness to white women. In terms of capitalist accomplishment, however, Winfrey was number 215 on Forbes magazine's 2004 list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Her ability to simultaneously command the respect of entertainers, politicians, and the general public has made all of her media forays (Harpo Productions, the Oprah Web site, O, The Oprah Magazine, Oprah Winfrey Presents, and Oxygen cable station) successes. In fact, in 2000 her magazine launch was the most successful of any ever done, selling 1.1 million copies on its first day.Owing to Winfrey, The Cosby Show, and BET, the 1990s saw black women on virtually all broadcast and cable stations in some capacity. Talk shows, music videos, advertisements, news, drama, sports, and even cartoons—black women played a role in all of them, though usually secondary or marginal. The most frequent representation of African American women has been in situation comedies. From The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; In Living Color; Martin; Living Single; and Moesha to Hangin' with Mr. Cooper; Sister, Sister; The Parkers; and Girlfriends, the 1990s yielded the largest number of black majority (in number of cast members) programs in television history. The UPN network perfected the art of capturing African American audiences by creating programs with predominantly black casts, although the Fox Network introduced the strategy.In shows that featured predominantly white casts, the solitary black female character has become so common that there are too many shows to mention that fit the pattern. However, some of the most notable—owing to their longevity, their popularity, critical acclaim, or the prominence of the character were Cicely Tyson in East Side/West Side (1963–1964); Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek (1966–1969); Kim Fields in The Facts of Life (1979–1988); Madge Sinclair in Trapper John, M.D.> (1979–1986); Diahann Carroll in Dynasty (1984–1987); Robin Givens in Head of the Class (1986–1991); Holly Robinson-Peete in 21 Jump Street (1987–1991); Whoopi Goldberg in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1992); Lynne Thigpen in Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (1991–1996), Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (1996–1998), and The District (2000–2003); S. Epatha Merkerson in Law and Order (1993–); Victoria Rowell in Diagnosis Murder (1993–2001) and the soap opera The Young and the Restless (1990–1998, 2001–) simultaneously; Della Reese in Touched by an Angel (1994–2003); Khandi Alexander in NewsRadio (1995–1999) and CSI: Miami (2002–); Simbi Khali in Third Rock from the Sun (1996–2001); and Lisa Gay Hamilton in The Practice (1997–2003). While their presence certainly increased the ways in which black women were viewed, these series left women ethnically alone to fight their marginalized positioning.Television Genres and Black WomenA chronological look at black women's participation in television does not show the full effect of genre constructions. Using genre as a framework helps to give a clearer picture of the complexity of commercialism, television, and black women's imagery and provides its own set of structures that dictate the kind and quality of representation offered.News. The unrest of the 1960s and damning federal reports regarding bias, such as the report of the Kerner Commission, forced national television networks to recognize the prudence of diversifying their newsrooms. But since that time, only a few black women have served as national news anchors and correspondents. Carole Simpson began anchoring on weekends for NBC in 1974. She worked there in various capacities until 1982, when she moved to ABC News, later becoming its national weekend anchor. MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour brought in Charlayne Hunter-Gault as a correspondent in 1978; she stayed with the show and the Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) for nineteen years, eventually becoming the show's national correspondent. Hunter-Gault covered a range of stories but especially focused on people of the African diaspora. In 1997, she moved to South Africa; later she became South African bureau chief of the Cable News Network (CNN). Michel McQueen Martin served on the ABC News staff starting in 1992. That same year, Cheryl Martin anchored BET's Lead Story and often the network's nightly news. In 2002, she was replaced by the younger Jacque Reid.Many more black women held positions as coanchors and reporters for local markets, such as Sue Simmons for WNBC-New York, Monica Kaufman for WSB-Atlanta, Allison Payne for WGN-Chicago, and Maureen Bunyan for WUSA-Washington, DC. Others worked behind the scenes as producers, editors, and researchers. Cable networks like ESPN, BET, E! Entertainment, Oxygen, and CNN gave black women access to reporting in many areas, including entertainment, sports, and world events.Contemporary television news brought certain stories about African American women into prime time, but often pejoratively. Stories like Vanessa Williams being dethroned as the first African American to become Miss America, Tawana Brawley's rape accusation, Anita Hill's testimony against the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Carol Moseley-Braun as the first black woman senator and her subsequent fall from grace, Oprah Winfrey's battle with the Texas cattle industry, Miss Cleo's legal wrangles as a television psychic, and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's accusation of the government's advance knowledge of the events of September 11, 2001, all received national prime-time coverage. Reports about welfare and welfare fraud, girls having babies, and inept school administrations were often illustrated with the faces of black women.Reality-based programming brought a spate of representations of black women. This genre, though different from news, was in the lineage of news and talk shows. For example, programs hosted by black female judges like Glenda Hatchett of Judge Hatchett and Mablean Ephriam of Divorce Court featured a certain amount of “black mother wit.” In these series and others like them, many of the defendants and plaintiffs were African American women. Other reality-based programs like Real World, Road Rules, Big Brother, Temptation Island, Survivor, and The Apprentice usually had the requisite one black woman and one black man in their casts. But the two were often ostracized by the group or team and chided for (or suspected of) bonding together because of their shared racial heritage.Soap Operas. A radio staple from the early 1930s, soap operas emerged on television in 1949. In 1968, the first black woman appeared in this genre: Ellen Holly as Carla Gray in One Life to Live. Holly held that role for seventeen years and was the groundbreaker for other black women. Since then soap operas (deriving their name from the type of companies that initially sponsored them) have featured black female characters consistently yet frequently marginalized them: most of the stories have revolved around Caucasian families. This made black females' participation risky because African American cast members invariably fell outside of the family circle. The one soap with a fully integrated cast of African American and Caucasian actors, Generations (1989–1991), did not receive enough airtime to build a sizable following beyond African Americans. An expanded audience base was crucial to its survival. After its cancellation, BET re-aired it for several years.Drama. While network television representations of African Americans grew steadily in several genres, African Americans' participation in television dramas did not keep pace, as black casts were presented sparingly. Dramatic series that produced genuinely multiracial casts and fully developed characters included: Room 222, which was set in a high school (1969–1974); Gabriel's Fire (1990–1992), a crime show featuring the adventures of a private investigator; I'll Fly Away (1991–1993), about a lawyer and his family; Boston Public (2000–2004), also set in a high school; and briefly City of Angels (2000), a medical drama. Dramas about the police and fire fight-ers like Hill Street Blues (1981–1987), Law and Order (1990–), and Third Watch (1999–) offered diverse casts. Frank's Place, one of the most interesting hybrid drama and comedy programs, gave an innovative perspective on southern black Cajun country and the situations produced by cultural collisions. However, the show changed time slots often and was never allowed to establish an audience in the brief period (1987–1988) it was on the air. The Agency (2001–2003) at first featured Gloria Reuben, but eventually her character was eliminated. In all of the shows noted above, black women appeared tangentially, if at all.Several miniseries and television movies have featured black women. They include: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), Roots (1977), Roots: The Next Generation (1979), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979), The Marva Collins Story (1981), The Women of Brewster Place (1989), Polly (1989), Queen (1993), I'll Make Me a World (1999), Cinderella (1997), and The Wedding (1998). While these specials highlighted the travails and triumphs of African Americans in general, they focused on the specific struggles of black women to make a difference in the world and have dignity in their lives.. Cicely Tyson in a scene from the television series, 1977. Programming such as this highlighted the travails and triumphs of African Americans, and the specific struggles of black women. Photofest; Warner Brothers Television Distribution, IncCable expansion opened more possibilities for African American women both in front of and behind the camera. Owing to the need for increased programming, cable chan-nels scrambled to find ways to distinguish their networks and fill hours of airtime. The stories of black women helped take up some of the slack. Lifetime Television created Any Day Now (1998–2002), which chronicled the lives of two women—one black, one white—in post–civil rights Birmingham. The black women (Lorraine Toussaint, Donzaleigh Abernathy, Shari Dyon Perry, Maya Elise Goodwin) offered convincing insights into the struggles of race, gender, and class.In 1999, BET began its foray into dramatic movies, using its own Arabesque Books library as its base. Also in the late 1990s, the premium cable channels HBO and Showtime began offering dramas and other programs that focused on or included African American life, including Oz (1997–2003), Linc's (1998–2000), Soul Food (2000–2004), and The Wire (2002–). Specifically, Soul Food (adapted from a 1997 film of the same title) explored the lives of the Joseph sisters, who were portrayed by Vanessa Williams, Nicole Ari Parker, and Malinda Williams.These same cable networks produced documentaries and films like The Josephine Baker Story (1991), Miss Evers' Boys (1997), 4 Little Girls (1997), Pimps Up, Ho's Down (1999), The Corner (2000), Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), Dancing in September (2000), Boycott (2001), Disappearing Acts (2000), and The Feast of All Saints (2001).Commercials, Children's Shows, and Animation. Black male athletes and entertainers received acceptance as product spokespersons on television long before black women. But the 1990s found sports figures like the basketball players Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie, tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, and boxer Laila Ali (daughter of Muhammad Ali) beginning to sell consumer products in television advertisements just like their male counterparts. Actors such as Vanessa L. Williams also earned national sponsorship jobs. Other, anonymous actors filled television screens to sell cleaning products, fast food, soda pop, and many other products. Further, the music and dance of black artists became the predominant background accompaniment for many advertisements.In cartoons, African American women found few opportunities. Lillian Randolph was the voice of Mammy Two-Shoes in Tom and Jerry (1940–1952), but there were no on-screen black female cartoon characters until the 1990s. Lynne Thigpen played the Chief for seven years in the early 1990s on the children's educational program Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? on PBS. In 1999, BET created a computer-generated young black female host named Cita, to introduce midday music videos and provide commentary on black youth culture. Cita became a popular cultural critic, presenting the ethos of a lower socioeconomic class. While Cita “kept it real” for younger audiences, the figure provoked dissention among black cultural critics. The Disney Channel introduced The Proud Family in 2001, narrated by the eldest daughter (voice of Kyla Pratt) and That's So Raven (2002–), a Disney live-action program for preteens starring Raven-Symone (from The Cosby Show).Evaluating Black Women and TelevisionBlack women's representation on television can be assessed in several ways. The Emmy Awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) demonstrate what people in the entertainment industry think about programs, actors, producers, writers, and other television industry personnel. Ratings serve as another assessment tool. Counting the numbers of black faces appearing, along with the quality of roles, also provides a way of assessing representation.While black women (and men) have routinely been nominated for Emmys, few have actually won. African American women winners of performance Emmys include: Gail Fisher, Supporting Actress for Mannix (1970); Cicely Tyson, Lead Actress for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and Supporting Actress for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994); Olivia Cole, Supporting Actress for Roots (1977); Esther Rolle, Supporting Actress for Summer of My German Soldier (1979); Isabel Sanford, Lead Actress for The Jeffersons (1981); Nell Carter, Performer for Ain't Misbehavin' (1982); Leontyne Price, Performance in Live from Lincoln Center (1983); Alfre Woodard, Supporting Actress for Hill Street Blues (1984), Guest Performer in L.A. Law (1987), Lead Actress for Miss Evers' Boys (1997), and Guest Actress in The Practice (2003); Whitney Houston, Performance on The 28th Annual Grammy Awards (1986); Jackee Harry, Supporting Actress for 227 (1987); Beah Richards, Guest Performer in Frank's Place (1988) and Guest Actress in The Practice (2000); Madge Sinclair, Supporting Actress for Gabriel's Fire (1991); Lynn Whitfield, Lead Actress for The Josephine Baker Story (1991); Mary Alice, Supporting Actress for I'll Fly Away (1993); and Halle Berry, Lead Actress in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (2000).In daytime, the first black woman to win an Emmy was Debbi Morgan, whose portrayal of Dr. Angie Hubbard on All My Children earned her the Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy in 1989. Darlene Hayes and Janet Harrell won a total of five Emmys during the 1980s for producing Donahue. Dianne Atkinson Hudson won Emmys in 1989 and 1991 for producing The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey herself won more than fifteen Emmys for that program. Suzanne de Passe won Emmys for producing two variety specials, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (1983) and Motown Returns to Apollo (1985). The longtime industry executive Winifred Hervey won a 1986 Emmy for producing The Golden Girls.Besides the Emmy Awards, the NAACP regularly recognized African American television talent as part of its annual Image Awards program begun in the late 1960s. In addition, many other award programs find ways to recognize television participants, and black women are recognized, but inconsistently.Although problematic, another way to measure representation is through an actual count of African American faces appearing in a show. According to NATAS, in the 1999–2000 prime-time season 13 percent of all on-screen characters were African American. None of the new programs in that season, however, featured African American characters, or any people of color, for that matter. Only 38 percent of all prime-time characters were women, although women were 51 percent of the U.S. population. Further, African Americans' preferences did not coincide with the mainstream. In fact in the 2000 Nielsen report, “among the top fifteen shows in African-American households, only one appears in the top fifteen programs among ‘All Other’ households.”While television was home to several programs with a majority of black cast members by 2002, only a very few had black women as head writers and executive producers—which are the positions of decision-making and control in television. Over the years, those that did included: Lonesome Dove; Small Sacrifices; The Jacksons: An American Dream; Buffalo Girls; Sister, Sister; and Smart Guy, which were all executive-produced by Suzanne de Passe; Living Single, For Your Love, and Half and Half, which were all created or executive-produced by Yvette Lee Bowser; In the House and The Steve Harvey Show, which were both originated and executive-produced by Winifred Hervey; Moesha and The Parkers, which were both by Sara Finney, Vida Spears, and Ralph Farquhar; Girlfriends from Mara Brock Akil; Soul Food, which was executive-produced and written by Felicia Henderson; and Strong Medicine and the short-lived fall 2003 sitcom, Whoopi, which were both executive-produced by Whoopi Goldberg (who also occasionally appeared in the former and starred in the latter). Black women spectators became part of the production process in these shows when asked to write letters or calls to keep certain shows, such as Living Single, on the air.Whoopi Goldberg discusses the entertainment industry and the role of African Americans within it.Another way of assessing representation is program quality based on character development and lead role status. While several series over the decades had black female leads, these protagonists were often relegated to servitude for white families. Characters that held nontraditional jobs, operated under a different sociopolitical system, or allowed for black women's vulnerability proved to be the most memorable. Characters like Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll) on Dynasty, Hilary Banks (Karyn Parsons) of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) of A Different World showed black women as rich and spoiled. Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Alexandra Moreau (Robbi Chong) of Poltergeist, The Legacy, and Tess (Della Reese) of Touched by an Angel worked in the realm of the spiritual. Yet not since Detective Christie Love (Teresa Graves) in Get Christie Love! have black women been given much opportunity to physically defend themselves and others on the small screen.In the twenty-first century, technology and legislative changes broadened the scope and reach of television. Cable, satellite television, and the Internet gave audiences more channels and presumably more choices, but much of the same programming simply repeated itself across multiple channels. For black women's representation, this meant more faces in commercials, reality-based programming, sitcoms, music videos, and lifestyle programming. Virtually every type of television had its requisite black woman figure. However, the areas of television drama, science fiction, national television news, nighttime entertainment, and children's cartoons remained inept at incorporating black women characters. Also, twenty-first-century rhetoric fostered an ongoing manufacturing of competition between African Americans and Latinos, seemingly using television representation as a way to replace one group with the other.Television became the battlefield for assessing the progress of African Americans. For black women, it offered extremes, the highs and lows, while communities possessed a collective investment in these representations. Possibly questionable portrayals of black women made way for more progressive ones. But ultimately, quantity (and quality) influenced audiences' perceptions of what these images meant. Black women's television images influenced their ability to progress economically and politically. So it is of continued importance that audiences not only enjoy but also critically assess and advocate for the advancement of black women's positions in the industry.
Reference Entry. 5491 words. Illustrated.
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