The faces of network television never looked so promising.
When I was growing up, I had to look to cartoons like Hey Arnold, As Told by Ginger, and the occasional South Park episode when my parents were not home, to find characters to whom I related. There were no characters on TV played by a flesh and blood actor to whom I, or anyone who was not white, straight, and able-bodied, could relate. Then, something happened. Something wonderful happened. TV became more diverse.
This season there are five women of color leading shows on network television: Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal, Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri on Fox’s The Mindy Project, Viola Davis as Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, Nicole Beharie playing Abbie Mills on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, and Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanueva on the CW’s Jane the Virgin.
The most promising thing about this type of diversity and representation, instead of others—for example, movies written and directed by Tyler Perry—is that it resisted the temptation of relying on and portraying stereotypes. Rodriguez plays a character who spends her life trying to avoid the stereotypes of the Latina maid and the mistakes of her mother, as the young, teen mom. The show, however, does it without judgment because Jane has a stable and loving family comprised of her mother and grandfather, despite the stereotypical absentee father. It is a great feat, considering that the show operates within the extremely stereotypical and exaggerated framework of a telenovela converted for English audiences.
The only Asian-American to lead a network television show is Kaling, who, like Rodriguez, smashes the stereotypes of her race. Yes, she is incredibly smart: She is a doctor who went to Columbia University. She is also incredibly shallow and irresponsible, however. She loves reality TV and is late so many times that her boyfriend leaves her at a comedy club to teach her a lesson.
Similarly, all three of the characters played by African American women (Washington, Davis, and Beharie, respectively) defy the overused image of the uneducated, irresponsible, and wild black woman—the woman who has 12 children by 12 different men. Instead, all of these women are at the top in their respective fields. They are the first ones who people call when they are in trouble and the people from whom everyone wants to learn. They are also a mess in their personal lives, however, with two having affairs with married people, and the third having a history of mental illness. They defy convention by being more than one thing—they defy stereotypes by being complex.
ABC’s new show, Blackish, is in a similar vein and the closest thing that TV viewers have as an heir to the Cosby Show. The show describes an African American family that is comfortably upper-middle class as well as the struggles that come with not fitting into the inner city, hip-hop-listening stereotype of a black person.
The Netflix series Orange is the New Black is a hallmark for transgendered people, as Laverne Cox stars as the first openly transgendered person and plays the character Sophia. On the show, she never explains how it feels to be transgender, why she is the way she is, or even why she wanted to change her body. And it never feels like she has to. Frankly, that is the least interesting thing about her. What is the most interesting, however, is the fact that she is a felon with a mysterious past. For a transgender character, not having to explain is almost unheard of.
This season TV has become more diverse with people of different colors and genders appearing on our screens. It is seeing them and the various types of complexities in characters represented that is making TV so much more progressive. They are allowed to be more than just their differences. They are allowed to be people, and that is a revolution.
Featured Image Courtesy of Netflix