“When I can stand before a class of black students who refuse to believe that conscious decisions and choices are made as to what roles black actors will portray in a given TV show, I feel compelled to name that their desire to believe that the images they see emerge from a politically neutral fantasy world is … part of a colonizing process.”
— bell hooks
During grad school, I abstained from watching television for two years because I didn’t want anything to distract me from my studies. I missed out on water cooler discussions of Dexter’s latest killing and the highly anticipated series finale of Lost. I’m utterly unhip, but I’m used to being an outsider. After all, I was the only black girl on my block who couldn’t jump Double Dutch and didn’t know how to dance. Prior to my voluntary disengagement from the boob tube, I hadn’t picked up a remote control in months. Mainly because there were few shows that depicted black folks — particularly black women — in empowering roles.
A year and a few months post grad school, things changed. I settled into a comfortable routine of catching up on popular shows like “Luther” and “The Walking Dead.” I’m a fan of smart writing and complex characters, especially if they’re darkly comedic or police procedurals, although I still lament that meaty roles for sisters are few and far between.
It was with this mindset that I began watching AMC’s new series “The Killing.” The premise is intriguing: Detective Sarah Linden, a single mom, puts her wedding on hold and neglects her teen son as she desperately attempts to solve the murder of a young girl, Rosie Larsen. I rationalized the show’s lack of black characters, save the dreadlocked English teacher who is a suspect in Rosie’s death, by reminding myself that “The Killing” takes place in Seattle, where blacks make up 7.9 percent of the population. It could be argued that shows set in multiracial metropolises such as New York, Philly and Chicago are also guilty of erasing blacks or minimizing our presence, but that’s another post.
I grew engrossed in the show, watching four DVRed episodes in one night, until a scene found me longing for the days when the idiot box sat silent and lonely in my spare bedroom. While investigating the above-mentioned English teacher, Detective Linden and her partner Holder knocked on the door of the teacher’s downstairs neighbor. It was the first time a black woman character was introduced, about seven or eight episodes into the show, and I cringed at her depiction. When she opened the door, her face was a mask of annoyance, and she was vocal about her resentment of the black English teacher and his pregnant white wife.
Although the exchange was short, I gleaned several things from this scene. Even shows considered “smart” are not above portraying black women as Sapphires, as emasculating shrews quick to spit a sharp retort. The scene also played into the notion that black women are bitter and lonely, eternally envious of black men’s interracial relationships. Do bitter and angry black women exist? Absolutely. But one could argue that Detective Linden has grown bitter and angry over the dissolution of her relationship and her failure to apprehend Rosie’s killer. Yet, in spite of the detective’s hardened demeanor, her character is multifaceted and allowed to exhibit the full range of human emotions. The black woman goes from pissed to sassy to combative in three seconds. I grew embarrassed watching her. Her shaming became my shame.
For those who would argue that I’m overreacting, that “The Killing” is just a show and shouldn’t be taken so seriously, I’ll direct you to the above-mentioned quote by bell hooks. The trope of the Angry Black Woman was a conscious choice by the writers of the show, playing into the popular conception that sisters, by our very nature, are walking vessels of rage. The character could have been constructed differently — from an artist who answered the door in paint-splattered overalls to a student headed out to class with books under her arm. At least that’s how I would have written her. But cultural stereotypes are lucrative, and there is no comedic value in transgressive images of black women in episodic television.
It’s also interesting to note that the drama revolves around the disappearance and subsequent murder of a young white girl. Time, money, resources – everyone from the police chief to the mayor — are invested in searching for Rosie and bringing her killer to justice. Even billboards promoting the show served as giant “Have You Seen Me?” posters plastered all over the country, showcasing the teen’s alabaster beauty and haunted eyes. This affirms the real-world disparity in the treatment of missing white women and missing women of color. The show riffs on this bias when a Muslim character informs the detectives that a young girl from his mosque has vanished, but they’ve probably never heard of her. The juxtaposition of marginalized black women characters and the privileging of white female bodies demonstrate how the larger society devalues our lives and our worth, killing off our complexity and humanity.
Armed with this knowledge, it’s hard to view television shows as simply “politically neutral fantasy world[s].” Small wonder my friends don’t invite me over for a “Downton Abbey” or “Revenge” marathon. But the personal is political. In her book Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, bell hooks stresses the importance of critically examining popular culture because she knows the power it wields in everyday life, its global impact on discussions of race, gender and class. She writes of her young black students, “If they cannot face the way structures of domination are institutionalized, they cannot possibly organize to resist the racism and sexism that informs the white-dominated media’s construction of black representation.”
How can we resist such narrow depictions of black womanhood? Boycotting television shows is not the answer. Based on the viewing habits of African-Americans, even complete withdrawal from series with offensive storylines will only make a small dent in the ratings. We have to create the change we want to see. As I’ve written before, 2012 was proclaimed the year black filmmakers take to the net en masse to create web series that reflect their lives and experiences. We can start by supporting shows with vibrant characters of color, such as “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” or offerings from independent filmmakers such as Dee Rees and Ava DuVernay. If we don’t tell our stories, who will? This is my goal for the web series Escape from Beckyville. I want to create complex, dysfunctional, brave and bizarre portrayals of black womanhood. Representation matters. It’s important to see black women characters with agency on the big and small screens not simply to boost our self-esteem, but to dismantle white supremacist notions that we are inferior and unworthy of multidimensional depictions.
In spite of my disappointment, I’ll probably continue watching “The Killing.” I’m hooked now, and I have a wager with my mom on whodunit. But after I’m finished my weekly sleuthing to determine who murdered young Rosie, I’ll be at my laptop writing scripts, breathing life into black women characters — empowered and quirky — liberating them from the confines of a celluloid grave.