Why are black women just the best friends and mammies on Prime Time Television?
The new television season has seen a surge of TV shows that are female centered programs. The Bionic woman on NBC lead by Michelle Ryan and on ABC Kate Walsh the former star of Grey’s Anatomy has her own show “Private Practice.” Ryan and Walsh are both young, attractive, white women. Asian American actress Lucy Liu will appear on the ABC show “Cashmere Mafia” and Liu is the lead. However, besides Liu why are the three other female leads on that program white females? Where are the other females of colour in leading roles on network television?
The ABC program “Ugly Betty” has been praised by critics since the show is about a young hispanic woman played by Latina actress America Ferrera. The ABC show “Ugly Betty” is based on a hispanic woman and caters to the concerns of the hispanic community. The question remains why are black women never TV stars and always in the shadows?
The golden age for black television was from the mid 1970s to the late 1990s. Marla Gibbs got her own spin off after “The Jeffersons” was canceled in the early 1980s. Gibbs had her own hit show 227 on NBC in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Another popular black sitcom that was female driven was “A Different World” on NBC. Jasmine Guy was amazing in the lead role Whitley Gilbert. In the mid 1990s Living Single had two black female stars Queen Latifah and Kim Fields on the FOX network. Queen Latifah and Kim Fields proved black women can be successful on a major television network and draw in audiences.
In the past black female characters on TV were complex, had love lives, dealt with tragedy, pain, happiness, yet now are basically forgotten. The ideology of Hollywood and society is that white females must be the center of true womanhood. By contrast, black women are still considered not only inferior but also non existent as well due to racism and sexism.
On the mainstream network television the programming for people of colour in the year 2007 is basically non existent there has been a total complete whiteout. Chris Rock’s TV show has received more acclaim then Girlfriends but then again his program is about the nuclear black heterosexual family. Once again, black women are marginalized due to race and gender in Hollywood. Although black heterosexual men complain about racism black women encounter more oppression due to racism and sexism.
Girlfriends the black female sitcom is back for the eighth season yet the show is segregated on the smaller CW network on the fringes. “Girlfriends” also isn’t winning any SAG, Emmys, or even People’s Choice awards.Do you even have to question the reasons why? The mainstream media act as though “Girlfriends” doesn’t exist. “Girlfriends” wouldn’t be on television if people didn’t tune in to watch the program the show clearly has an audience.
“Sex and the City” was on cable and “Girlfriends” is on the CW network. The CW network is a mainstream television channel in the United States. So why the obvious snub against Girlfriends? You can figure it out it is not exactly hard to decipher. “Sex And The City” was hyped to the maximum because the cast is white women and Girlfriends was scorned because the cast is black women. Girlfriends is marginalized due to a mixture of racism and sexism. Girlfriends is branded “urban programming” despite the fact the show dealt with polemical issues such as sexism, homophobia, lesbianism, internal and external racism, financial issues, bad friends, love, romance, in a witty funny way.
People will go on and on about how groundbreaking “Sex and The City” was but “Sex And The City” always avoided the issue of race and reality. “Sex And The City” is pure fantasy to be able to party all night, buying designer clothes, and living in upscale apartments in New York City is not realistic. “Sex And The City” is basically a whiteout.
However, I think the original “Sex and the City” was the Golden Girls on NBC in the 1980s. The Golden Girls was a superior television program because the show dealt with a wide range of social issues mixed with humor. “Sex and the City” is a decent show it is funny but that program always ignored people of colour. Whenever people of colour were on Sex And The City they were always in marginalized racist roles as either servants or sexual stereotypes. For instance, Blair Underwood was on the program for a hot minute and the Samantha character had an interracial sex scene with a black guy big deal. It is obvious interracial romance was taboo for the program.
Let’s be honest here “Girlfriends” is just as good as “Sex And The City” but “Girlfriends” had an all black cast. I just find it interesting that Girlfriends is treated like it is an inferior program. At least on Girlfriends the women had financial issues they certainly were middle class and not rich. I believe “Girlfriends” hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves. The writing on “Girlfriends” has gotten stronger and stronger over the years.
At least on Girlfriends black women were the stars of the show. On mainstream television the two roles designated for black women they are either the asexual mammy or the black female best friend. On the ABC program Private Practice the talented and very attractive black actress Merrin Dungey was fired after the pilot and replaced with another black woman the theatre star Audra McDonald.
McDonald’s character of course is the stereotypical role for a black woman on mainstream TV she’s the white girl Kate Walsh’s “best friend.” Kimberly Elise has been removed from the CBS program “Close to home” she was the “best friend” of the white actress Jennifer Finnigan. Tangi Miller a few years back on the WB network show “Felicity” was also the “best friend” to the white star Keri Russell. Lisa Nicole Carson was also the “best friend” to white actress Calista Flockhart on “Ally McBeal.”
Yes folks, the best thing a black actress can hope for on mainstream network television is to be the “best friend” of the white actress. Although being the “best friend” to the white woman is a lot better then being the resident “black mammy”. The black female best friend is allowed to be sexy, attractive, intelligent, but she must never ever upstage the white female star. Because after all black women on network TV have to know their place they have to be “behind” the white woman and in the background.
The prime time television shows rarely focus on the love lives of the black female best friend. The purpose of the black female best friend is to fulfill the race quota of the network and be the servant to the white woman. The black female best friend character is a stereotype because she is just a plot device a catalyst to help and serve the white woman. Whenever the white actress can’t find a man, breaks up with a man, or is emotional about a man, the black female best friend is always there to comfort her. Yes, that’s all black women on television are for to serve white women.
The ideology of TV executives, scriptwriters, advertisers, and the viewing public is that in order to appease black TV viewers we should just accept this racist and sexist treatment. We should just be grateful that black women are on TV and go with the flow. Television script writers always place black women as just the black mammies or the best friends to the white women.
It is also shocking that Dungey was “replaced” from the ABC show “Private Practice” by an actress that is far less experienced, attractive, and less sexy then her Audra McDonald. Could it be that ABC fired the gorgeous and talented Dungey because the best friend of the white girl has to be less attractive? Let’s be honest and real here, Audra McDonald is a nice looking woman she looks like the girl next door she’s “safe”. I just don’t think McDonald has the fire and the sex appeal that Merrin Dungey has. McDonald does have a very “conservative look” she is pleasant to look and non threatening.
Merrin Dungey is a more talented television actress there is just something special about her you just cannot take your eyes off of her. Merrin is so beautiful. And lets face it the real reason Shonda Rhimes removed Merrin is because she’s too “pretty” perhaps Rhimes is self conscious? I mean have you seen Shonda Rhimes she’s not exactly attractive like Merrin Dungey either. Perhaps Rhimes is jealous and envious?
The status quo from ABC is that there wasn’t enough “chemistry” between Merrin and Kate Walsh. I’m not buying it. Kate Walsh is an attractive woman but Merrin is also very beautiful as well. The bottom line is Walsh is supposed to be the object of desire for television fans not the black woman. The black female is not supposed to challenge the white female as being the most beautiful woman on television. Of course hypocritical Shonda Rhimes and ABC would never admit the truth for firing Dungey now would they?
McDonald definitely fits that role of the less attractive female friend. McDonald is okay looking she’s alright but she’s not hot like Merrin Dungey that’s for sure. McDonald also is not as experienced on the small screen as Dungey. Dungey is a very talented actress best known for her character Allison Doren on the former ABC hit show “Alias” a few years back. She also proved she was a versatile actress and she moved to comedy on the “King Of Queens Show” and she also was on the drama the WB network program “Summerland.”
A few years back on the ABC hit program “Desperate Housewives” there was an uproar when ABC hired African American actress Alfre Woodard. Woodard’s although a very talented actress was much older then the five main leads on the program. Woodard’s character Betty Applewhite was once again another black asexual mammy. Woodard’s character had no plot and clearly no reason to be on the program other then to fulfill the race quota of ABC.
Many people on various internet boards questioned why couldn’t ABC hire a sexy and talented black actress such as Robin Givens, or Vivica A Fox or Gabrielle Union? Why hire Alfre Woodard? Woodard was too old to be on Desperate Housewives to be a main character. The truth is if ABC hired Givens, Fox, or Union, on Desperate Housewives they would have to explore black female sexuality and that’s something network television refuses to do. Black female sexuality is off limits on mainstream TV.
Being the “best friend” to the white actress is indeed a higher level then being the new black mammies. The new black mammies aren’t maids, they aren’t making breakfast, cleaning floors, washing dishes, and pouring maple syrup on pancakes like Aunt Jemima. The new black mammies give “advice” though and are a shoulder to “cry” on for the white male and female costars on the hit TV programs. The TV formula has been set the collective thinking is why fix something that works?
The black female best friend character is a tough role to decipher she is a mixture of both the mammy and the magic negro syndrome. Unfortunately scriptwriters believe the black female best friend fulfills their “black quota”. Are black women and white women friends anyway in real life?
The most famous and rich mammy on television is Oprah. Oprah is the most successful mammy of all time because although she is rich she is subservient to whites. Mammy Oprah’s formula is never to rock the boat. Notice on Oprah you will never see an episode about the racial divide between white women and women of colour. Yes mammy Oprah’s television show is a gimmick that women are all “sisters”.
However, black feminist Audre Lorde wrote about this pernicious lie in her groundbreaking book “Sister Outsider”. Mammy Oprah avoids the issue of dealing with racism because she wants white women money. Mammy Oprah is still subservient to whites because she knows if she discusses the racial tension in feminism she will lose money.
After all, mammy Oprah has product placements and books to sell. Mammy Oprah also is “nurturing” she is a shoulder to cry on and give advice to the distressed upper class desperate housewives in the audience. Mammy Oprah may be wealthy but she is a stereotype of black female sexuality because she ignores the issue of the racial issues between women of colour and white women.
The underlining issues of resentment, racism, reality, and anger are left unexplored. Should we just accept this facade? However, on television just about all the female friends to the white actress are women of colour. Sandra Oh’s character Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy she’s the “best friend” of the white female star and Oh is an Asian Canadian woman.
Hollywood refuses to allow black women to headline television shows on the major networks. The question has to be asked again, why are white women always the stars and black women always in the background?The racism is less obvious to the discerning eye but it is indeed there. The black mammies however still are reserved for black women on network TV. The black mammies don’t have complex storylines they aren’t central to the plot of the shows, and they don’t have love lives.
Where are the complex black female characters on TV? Why do black actresses on TV always have to be in the background as the white girl’s best friend? Or even better yet invisible like Dr. Bailey? The most disconcerting part is that another argument to consider is that blacks need to be in the power broking decisions to get shows “green lighted.” Shonda Rhimes is the executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy. Rhimes has the “power” to make Dr. Bailey a complex young woman. Yet Rhimes a young black woman reduces the Dr. Bailey character to be a pernicious and racist stereotype of black womanhood. Rhimes is following the status quo and that is there is an intense fear of exploring black female sexuality.
Is Shonda Rhimes and ABC saying Dr. Bailey is too black or too fat for love? Would the audience be disgusted by seeing a real black woman kiss her black husband on TV? Is this too much for white America or ABC to handle? You got to wonder? Grey’s Anatomy the hit ABC program has been serenaded by critics as a show where “race” isn’t the story but the interconnection of human relationships.
Grey’s Anatomy boasts a consistent 20 million plus viewers every week. Grey’s Anatomy is basically ABC’s version of a hospital show that less serious then ER on NBC but mixed with some comedy. However, the main attraction the public has to Grey’s Anatomy is the white heterosexual relationships between the various doctors and interns on the program. Since Isaiah Washington was fired from Grey’s Anatomy the most complex, interesting, and exciting romance storyline between Washington and Sandra Oh has been eliminated. Grey’s Anatomy is basically a white out. Although, the latina actress Sara Ramirez had an interracial storyline with the white actor TR Knight that romance was simply not believable. Ramirez is a striking woman very attractive yet TR Knight is simply unattractive, effeminate, and not masculine enough to pull off a convincing performance and be Ramirez love interest.
One character that stands out and the only black female on Grey’s Anatomy Dr. Miranda Bailey also known as “The Nazi” is asexual and is the resident big fat black mammy.
The interesting aspect of Grey’s Anatomy is that the executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy is a young black woman Shonda Rhimes. According to Rhimes the character of Dr. Bailey was originally supposed to be for a white actress. The status quo is that Chandra Wilson gave the best audition so the part went to her. However, Rhimes is not being honest. Rhimes created Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice to reach a white female demographic. Would white women watch either programs if white women weren’t in the lead?
Another point to consider is why would a black woman in a position of authority and power such as Shonda Rhimes not advance the race? Why would Rhimes just follow the status quo? Could it be Shonda Rhimes is shallow and just cares about getting rich? Sure seems like it. Why didn’t she allow a black actress to be the star of either Grey’s Anatomy or Private Practice? It is a fair question. Black women are never the female leads on TV shows. Although Rhimes has been praised she’s just following the status quo. Its disconcerting that money is more important to Rhimes then helping out other black women.
The bottom line is the Dr. Bailey character is indeed a modern reincarnation of the “black mammy” of Grey’s Anatomy. Dr. Bailey is seen barking orders at her interns, she also is the “nurturing” mammy that “listens” to the romantic problems of her white, hispanic, Asian, and black characters on Grey’s Anatomy. Yet why does Dr. Bailey not have a love life of her own? Is Shonda Rhimes and ABC trying to say Dr. Bailey doesn’t deserve romance because she’s a black woman? Why is Dr. Bailey so perfect anyway?
However, it is not surprising though that the Dr. Bailey character although married and does have a child is never shown as a sexual human being as her white, Asian, or black co workers on Grey’s Anatomy. In the second and third seasons of Grey’s Anatomy the writers have attempted to humanize Dr. Bailey by making her more vulnerable, questioning herself. Yet Dr. Bailey is still the asexual black mammy. People say Dr. Bailey has a loving husband. So why don’t we see Dr. Bailey in love with her so called loving husband more often? Why doesn’t Shonda Rhimes and ABC just be honest? The real reason Dr. Bailey doesn’t have a love life on Grey’s Anatomy is the fear ABC executives have with exploring black female sexuality.
Meanwhile, on the CBS show “Without A Trace” Marianne Jean Baptiste a very talented black British actress is also the resident black mammy on that program. “Without A Trace” also has a very large following consistently is in the top 20 of the TV ratings. Baptiste’s character Vivian Johnson never had a love life unlike her white co stars on the program. Vivian is the wise older black woman that is a mixture of the magic negro, black mammy, and the best friend. Of course, just like Dr. Bailey you will notice Vivian Johnson is happily married with a husband and child you hardly ever see. The happily married scenario is a convenient yet deleterious plot device to erase black female sexuality. I guess if television audiences saw Vivian Johnson kissing her husband the mainstream audience would cringe. The fear of black love is very powerful and the networks have a record of bigotry against blacks.
The biggest drama for the character Vivian was her “heart condition” that required surgery. Last season there was complaints on various internet message boards because the producers behind the CBS show “Without A Trace” hired the young Latina Roslyn Sanchez to add “sex appeal” to the program. Sanchez character of course had a previous relationship with one of the main male characters on the program. Why couldn’t an attractive black woman be hired? And will black women and other women of colour ever be able to be real TV stars? Or is the best thing a black or Asian actress can hope for on network TV is to be a step behind the white actress as her “best friend”? Or be the “nurturing” black mammy, the best friend or magic negro to console her?