Editor’s Note: The following piece was written in 2010. Two of the television shows dissected herein have since been canceled and no longer air, but may be viewed on Netflix, Hulu and in syndication on certain networks.
In this day and age, the demonization of Black folk—Black women in particular—is on the rise. If this is not prevalent anywhere else, it is certainly a nightly fixture in the homes of countless impressionable Americans, compliments of prime-time television. My recent viewing experience for television shows that I once considered deluxe staples in keeping me glued to my idiot box has been impacted significantly by troubling storylines that depict sisters as not only manipulative, but as women who are less than desirable of being a counterpart in a functional, mutually affectionate relationship; women whose bodies simply serve as a receptacle for a disease or being impregnated. This downturn in programming is disturbing to say the least, because it sends the wrong message to its arena of faithful spectators.
The litany of shows participating in these unremarkable transgressions includes Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, as well as 90210. The former two were created by Shonda Rhimes, an African-American woman, as well as the head writer and executive producer of each—which makes the creative directorship this season all the more disconcerting and suspect. In May of 2007, Rhimes was also named one of Time magazine’s Time 100 People Who Shape Our World. Pause. Now, as much as I advocate sisters supporting sisters, I cannot support the lack of complexity I’ve seen thus far during the fall season. The “entertainment” that Rhimes is responsible for is drowning in stereotypes that have become trademarks akin to the scarlet letter for Black women. And well, if Shonda is influential in shaping our world, I’m not greatly impressed because little in the makeup of the restricted confines she places on her Black female characters is relatable for me.
For those unfamiliar with Grey’s 2-hour finale last season, everyone’s favorite prime-time physicians met a crazed gunman who was disgruntled over what he believed to be the untimely death of his wife. He resolved to displace his rage on the Seattle Grace Mercy West hospital staff by shooting anyone he crossed paths with who happened to be a doctor. Enter Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson). She has more balls than George Bush, and is an extraordinary surgeon who was smart enough to defeat this mass murderer by informing him that she was a nurse in order to spare her own life. The thing with Dr. Bailey is, she cannot sustain a successful relationship with a man—and unsurprisingly, she’s the only major Black female character on the show. In previous seasons, her husband could not deal with the repercussions of being married to a prominent surgeon with a flourishing career, therefore divorces her. This season, in the aftermath of the SGMW massacre, while the white or non-Black characters can be seen supporting, consoling, clinging to—and in true Grey’s style—continuing to bed one another while undergoing psychiatric evaluations to gain the opportunity to scrub in again, Dr. Bailey shuns her would-be suitor, Dr. Ben Warren (Jason George). He was playing golf the day of the traumatic occurrence and failed to be present at the hospital—though through no fault of his own—and because of this, she rejects the notion of continuing the relationship they began last season. She rebuffs his affections with “You’re a good man, you’re handsome and kind and smart…you’re perfect, but I’m busy holding myself together with tape and glue, and a piece of me wishes that you hadn’t played golf because you’d be all taped and glued, too, and maybe you’d be where I am. You’re too much for me right now because I’m busy with the tape and the glue.” Whaaat? Why was it written that Dr. Bailey has to hold herself together alone? This lends credence to what I refer to as the Strong Black Woman Theory—that Black women are asexual beings who can hold it all together by themselves 110% of the time—and continues to be the reason that so many negative labels persevere.
It’s also important to note that Bailey is one of the few characters who can be seen not attending a single therapeutic session. Is it a coincidence that she is “unlucky” in love, refuses to attend therapy and Black? Because these are all stigmas attached to the Black female/Black experience in general, and it’s quite disappointing to see these superfluous repetitions continue to rear their ugly head on my Sony flat screen.
These less than flattering prototypes are further portrayed in Rhimes’ spinoff of Grey’s, Private Practice. Similar story. Dr. Naomi Bennett (Audra McDonald), also Black, has been part of an ongoing struggle with her ex-husband Sam Bennett (Taye Diggs) to correct the ills of their relationship, yet they just can’t get it right. However, this season Sam and Naomi’s best friend, Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh), decide to get right with each other and enter into a relationship. Addison is white. I guess it was presupposed that she can correct everything that was wrong in Sam’s previous relationships, which all happened to include minorities. Meanwhile, Naomi’s love interest dies. Yes, dies. And the other man who expressed an interest in her has yet to make an appearance this season. Meanwhile, Sam and Naomi’s daughter, Maya Bennett (Geffri Maya Hightower) got knocked up in the preceding season and gave birth to a baby girl.
Fast forward to 90210. Meet Dixon Wilson (Tristan Wilds), a Black teenager who was abandoned by his mother as a child and adopted by a white family. He now attends the illustrious West Beverly High. Last season, he met a girl named Sasha (Mekia Cox), also Black, who tried to “trap” him by claiming that she was pregnant with his baby and in the current season, has confronted Dixon with the news that she is HIV-positive and he could be infected. I was awe-struck because though Dixon is the least promiscuous teen on the show, the producers decided to plague his character with this washed up storyline. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if another individual were resigned to meeting this fate? There is a white character on 90210 who comes out this season, but I guarantee that if he had been burdened by the probability of having HIV, the LGBTQ community would already be staging protests. And rightfully so.
It’s a disheartening reality to face when one is consistently bombarded with representations lauded as the status quo by Black women on celluloid, women who have obviously been typecast to promote these disparaging and ill-fated images. It’s no longer a mystery as to why people readily believe that Black women can’t keep a man or a relationship that lasts beyond dropping it like it’s hot, good sex and growing a gut full of human. This is doing a grave disservice for people, since sadly for some, TV is the only example they have of what life could be like; it simply doesn’t set a good precedent for developing minds, minds that have been overtaken by the media’s omnipresent negative spin on nearly everything. The roles of Black women are constantly shifting, so it perplexes me that the plotlines we’re often greeted with aren’t as multifaceted. Clearly, art doesn’t imitate life. It imitates stereotypes.