Doctoral candidate discusses representation of black women in television

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

While many viewers praise ABC’s television show “Scandal” for being the first prime-time drama to cast a black woman as a protagonist in nearly 40 years, doctoral candidate Nicole Martin said she believes the show would not be nearly as popular if it were not for the sexualization of the protagonist.

Martin, who is a graduate student in the Department of Theatre and Dance, led a discussion Monday as the first installment of her three-part series, “Screening Blackness: Television, Film and Race.” The event focused on the misrepresentation of black women in television.

“Scandal”’s plot revolves around Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, who heads a crisis management firm for high-profile clients, while also hiding an affair with the current president, who is white. The show, which navigates through issues such as race and gender, began its fourth season last month, and the season premiere was viewed by 12.2 million people, according to TV Nielsen Ratings.

According to Martin, the show’s popularity can be attributed to how Pope’s career is heavily influenced by her sexual relationship with her superior — as opposed to her leadership or intelligence. Martin said a black woman should be able to control the narrative of her own sexuality.

“People aim to construct and name black women’s sexuality,” Martin said. “Their position in society as a respectable black woman requires her to shield her sexuality.”

The Nielsen Ratings reported an average of 3.6 million “Scandal” viewers are black, but Martin also said she believes the show de-emphasizes Pope’s blackness to cater to non-black viewers.

“I would like to see a black leading lady who is not in a wig or straight hair. Her very construction is about de-emphasizing markers of race — her hair, her clothes, everything,” Martin said. “I would hope that it would eventually, down the line, have a popular well-received show without a black woman having to be driven by sexuality.”

Ethnic studies junior Keenan Palmer said he does not watch “Scandal” because he believes it is taking steps backward in terms of positive representation of black people.

“I was born in the early ’90s, and there were lots of black shows — ’The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ ‘The Cosby Show,’ etcetera,” Palmer said.  “Basically, we had a lot of shows where there was a black family, and they were OK — good, positive images.”

Choquette Marie Hamilton, associate director for development in the Department for African and African Diaspora Studies, said even with “Scandal”’s flaws, she views any sort of positive representation
as important.

“If you look at how news portrays people of color, it tends to focus on the negative stories and not necessarily the positive stories, so to have a relatively positive image of a black woman is definitely progress,” Hamilton said.

According to Hamilton, the eradication of economic equality is an important step in the elimination of negative stigmas born from improper representation. She said interactions between different demographics will be helpful for everyone.