The 2010s Were A Golden Age for Black Women on TV
In April of last year, audiences were left awestruck after watching the penultimate scene of Scandal’s series finale. The Shondaland golden child project, rising to fame for its otherness in storytelling and triumphant casting in Kerry Washington, wrapped up its seven-season run by flashing forward into the futures of the show’s beloved characters. The flash-forwards are tied together by two young girls, in a time that we can infer as being the future, walking hand-in-hand through the National Portrait Gallery. They’re clearly heading toward an important figure immortalized in art.
In the final moments of the series, that figure is revealed. It’s Olivia Pope (Washington), who, in the portrait dons a crisp white shirt and belted turquoise ballgown skirt. Her facial expression mimics the “fixer” look we’ve come to revere over the past six years. Her face is also framed with perfectly moisturized 3c curls. Splashed in the background are the words that begin the preamble to the Constitution. The words “We the People” stand right next to Pope, almost equal in stature.
Indeed, we are the people.
The age of whitewashed television programming is far behind us.
We are sure to see an equally powerful and multilayered ending to How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal’s fellow Shonda Rhimes-run success. The show aired its midseason finale on November 21, with a surprise twist ending (no spoilers here) that left its loyal fans in an uproar on social media. The show, led by the incomparable Viola Davis as antihero Annalise Keating, is slated to end in Spring 2020.
These two shows, leaders in the powerhouse that is Shondaland Productions, represent the triumph that we have seen on television in this past decade. Under the wing of Shonda Rhimes, the 2010s has arguably been the decade of Black female representation in television. Her commitment and vision have changed the paradigm of a successful TV show. TV shows don’t need to be predominantly White to dominate in ratings. The age of whitewashed television programming is far behind us. Shonda showed ABC, and soon other networks and the industry as a whole, what consumers have been craving— authenticity, diversity, and subsequent newness in entertainment.
Looking at TV screens today, it’s incredible to reconcile that back in 2012, Kerry Washington became the first Black woman to lead a network drama in 40 years. Prior to this, it was Teresa Graves, who starred as an undercover cop in the 1974 classic Get Christie Love. What happened in the years between Graves and Washington? Well, there was a golden age of Black television in the ’90s, with back-to-back hits like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, and A Different World achieving significant longevity. They gave the world access to different kinds of Black women, from the bougie but lovable Hilary Banks to the fierce and outspoken Khadijah James.
But unfortunately, this golden age was bittersweet and short-lived. The success of the Black sitcom in the ’90s legitimized and helped grow Black production companies. Black Entertainment Television (BET), became the first Black-controlled TV company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991. With production companies now dedicated to producing and distributing programming led by Black people, massive networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC readopted a “no need to diversify” mentality. Prime time television settled right back into being whitewashed, from writer's rooms to trailers.
Then came Shonda Rhimes. An already successful film writer and producer, having worked on projects like Crossroads and The Princess Diaries, Rhimes went to ABC and wrote her first TV pilot for them in 2003. It was turned down. Two years later, she came to the network with Grey’s Anatomy—now ABC’s highest-rated dramas and one of the longest-running shows ever. The series was designed to be racially diverse and has stuck to its commitment to color-blind casting.
Grey’s Anatomy’s massive success solidified Rhimes’ relationship with ABC, and gave audiences a taste of what TV according to Shonda looks like. From its inaugural season, the prime time medical drama secured a cult following, and showed both the power and spectacular nature of Rhimes’ storytelling. Her dramatization of what is happening in the world today conveyed through complex characters and even more complex arcs and plots, walks a compelling line between the insane and the conceivable. The trauma her characters go through, or the events that occur in the world she’s created, may at first consumption seem outlandish. But once you peel back the layers, her socio-political commentary and advocacy reveal itself. You see that with a chilling reveal of, for example, Annalise Keating’s mother killing her daughter’s rapist (also her brother), Rhimes is speaking to the hypersexualization of Black women’s bodies and how we’re are at the bottom of the societal totem pole, not protected, and forced to do so ourselves.
Dear White People show creator Justin Simien, speaks to this Rhimes’ genius. “Shonda is so smart — it really can’t be overstated what her impact is,” he said. Simien enthusiastically credits his success in big part to Rhimes. “She created these little Trojan horses, where you’re like, ‘Am I watching a Black show?’ It’s like she pulled a magic trick, Trojan-horsing Black folks into the popular culture for years.”
In the years in which Scandal and How to Get Away Murder aired, we’ve seen a flood of shows that are spearheaded by Black women. Shows like Insecure, Atlanta, The Chi, Power, Dear White People, Empire, Star, to just name a few, are major forces in television culture that include Black women as lead writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, designers, etc. Each show, and the many others of its nature, has been praised by critics and resonated with audiences.
People like Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe are successfully following in the footsteps of Rhimes, commanding both television and film.
As the next generation of young Black girls grow and find their way through the world, they’ll see their faces on small screens, big screens, laptop screens, and phone screens.
DuVernay and Waithe are perfect examples of Rhimes’ legacy. Shonda Rhimes has created a world that’s enticing, imaginative, and most importantly, a reflection of both who she is and what we need to see. Her fierce commitment to telling stories through a Black woman’s eyes has been a guiding force, catalyzing a movement demanding for representation not just in TV, but in visual media as a whole. “I didn’t know from the beginning that I wanted Olivia Pope to be a Black woman, I knew from the beginning that Olivia Pope was a Black woman,” Rhimes told BuzzFeed News. “It wasn’t a discussion and it wasn’t a ‘I hope someone is going to let me.’ It’s what I imagined in my head, so that was what needed to be happening onscreen.”
This is what needed to be happening on screen. Why? Because Black women need, deserve, and now, in the media, demand visibility. Our stories matter, our voices need to be heard and represent the backbone of this country. Shonda Rhimes has paved the way for Black women in visual media to let their stories shine and live, building momentum that will surely continue into the next decade and the next. As the next generation of young Black girls grow and find their way through the world, they’ll see their faces on small screens, big screens, laptop screens, and phone screens. They’ll know they can be anything they want to be, and that their voice matters.