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POP DISCOURSE: The State of Black Female Characters in Genre TV

In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in female leads of color, particularly black leads, on TV. From Scandal to How to Get Away With Murder to Empire in mainstream TV shows. Sci-Fi and fantasy shows have followed the lead with Sleepy Hollow, The Flash, Killjoys, and other shows by having Black female characters front and center. Gretnablue, Melanin Monroe, and BehindDarkGlasses sat down to discuss the state of Black female characters in “genre” TV.

Are we seeing a new trend in having black female leads in sci-fi & fantasy TV?

Gretnablue: Personally, I don’t think this is a new trend, but instead, we are seeing the trend become more popular in the mainstream media. We’ve seen the white man/black woman trope in Fantasy and Sci-FI before such as in Berserk with Guts and Casca as well as in Firefly with Mal and Zoe. However, these were series with very niche audiences and despite their high quality, they have never had real mainstream attention. It wasn’t until the popularity of shows like the Flash and Game of Thrones did these tropes become known to the public at large.


Melanin Monroe: I agree, I think a lot of studios and producers are paying attention to what’s trending in popular media, like which shows are drawing a lot of attention and a lot of ratings. It just so happens that currently there’s a swell of Black female leads on network television. Those shows are also drawing a lot of ratings and publicity for the network(s). However, I do think it’s a new thing for sci-fi and fantasy TV. While there have certainly been Black female characters in sci-fi and fantasy, they’re more often secondary or tertiary characters.

I don’t consider Zoe the lead on Firefly, she’s a supporting character in an ensemble cast, Mal is the main character on the that show. I think that might have been different if the show had gone beyond a single season, but still all of the characters are linked through their relationships with Mal.

Support roles have been a very common place for most Black female characters in speculative fiction, and still are if you look at how a lot of them are treated by writers and fans (which I wrote about in my Iris West post), even when they are the leads (see: Abbie Mills, Sleepy Hollow). Fandoms in particular haven’t been exactly welcoming to Black female characters, honestly. The first Black female lead in a sci-fi/fantasy show that I can remember is Guinevere from Merlin (2008), but she was not well received. Now, we’ve had a few examples of Black female leads that have worked outside of “genre” shows, and it’s slowly bleeding into sci-fi/fantasy works.

BehindDarkGlasses: I have to disagree with you Gretnablue, I think that while there is overlap between tropes and trends that they are two different things. Tropes can influence trends and trends can inform tropes, but one is not the other.


I believe that in the past there has been what I would call a “low level” trope of pairing Black female leads with white leads in Sci-Fi and Fantasy shows. I call it a low level trope for two reason. First, I couldn’t find a reference for this sort of actual trope on the go to repository of tropes. Second, while it might not have warranted a trope designation in the past, I think we will see one being designated in the near future given the similarities playing out in TV shows over the past few years. To put a finer point on it, the more often we see Black female leads then the more often we will see phenomena repeated such as the lack of romantic and sexual agency provided Black female leads compared to their white counterparts.

As you mention Melanin Monroe, I do think we are currently seeing a significant wave of Black female leads in genre TV with shows like Killjoys, Sleepy Hollow, Powers, Extant, and the upcoming Minority Report. Not to mention ensemble shows like The Flash, Archer, The Vampire Diaries, and The Walking Dead that have Black women as part of the main cast. That is 9 shows off the top of my head. I may be missing a few. I can’t remember a time in the last 30 years where in one year there were that many “genre” shows with Black female characters playing a significant role.


Bean counting aside, it is important to note that the existence of Black female lead characters doesn’t mean that those roles have well developed characterizations.

Melanin Monroe: Exactly, I do not consider tropes and trends to be the same thing. There have been a lot of instances in speculative fiction where Black women have played a significant role, yet still end up being underdeveloped side characters, only trotted out to fix problems. It even has a name, “The Magical Negro” trope. It’s only been recently common that Black women have had lead roles, roles in which they are the main character, especially in ensemble casts. And most of those have been outside of speculative fiction, so I don’t think the pairing of Black female/white male leads is a trope, at least not yet. It has the potential to become one, but I’d say it’s more of a trend for now.


(Speculative fiction TV is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, white is still the default for many casts of these shows. Image credit: GeekWorldRadio.)


Has the recent fondness for speculative fiction in the mainstream helped encourage studios to co-star WOC in speculative fiction TV series?

Melanin Monroe: No, I don’t think so. I have to say it has much more to do with the success of shows like Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and Empire all of which showed that series’ with WOC leads can work. To be fair the latter two came out after the speculative fiction series Sleepy Hollow, but I would attribute Sleepy Hollow’s diversity more to the success of Scandal than anything else. It wasn’t until then that studios started considering casting Black women as leads with such frequency. They saw that shows with Black female leads were drawing large audiences of all races, and that mainstream audiences weren’t averse to watching them.


BehindDarkGlasses: I agree Melanin Monroe, there is a definite Scandal factor at play. As went mainstream TV so went “genre” shows. The success of shows like Scandal provided producers and creators of genre TV the green light to cast Black actresses (and women of color too) in key roles. As Gretnablue mentions, these successes in the mainstream helped to spread the phenomena across various genres.

Though, the spread has been slower in sci-fi and fantasy TV compared to mainstream TV. There were 73 pilots and shows with Black leads and/or supporting roles ordered for the 2015/2016 TV season. Not all of those shows will make it to air. An informal back of the envelope tally, shows about 8 shows that can be easily classified as sci-fi or fantasy. Of those, there is only one with a clear Black female lead; Meagan Good in Fox’s Minority Report adaptation. The remainder have the actors credited as part of an ensemble or in a supporting role.


Gretnablue: I partially agree with Monroe with this. Shows like Scandal are most likely what caused them to consider having more WOC in main roles. I think it would be better to say that the recent fondness with speculative has solidified it with many of the TV executives.


(Main cast of the upcoming season of American Horror Story: Hotel. Six white men, 3 white women, and one black woman. Image credit: Glamour)

Could we see things revert back to the presumed default of white (often male) protagonist? Why might that occur?

BehindDarkGlasses: It definitely could. It happened to entire networks. When Fox, the WB, and UPN were all new upstarts seeking to challenge the older, set in their ways networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC, the newer networks invested heavily in attracting Black viewers. Additionally, they also produced “genre” TV with mostly White casts. When those networks found success, they migrated towards hour long drama shows with mainly White casts and dropped the shows that helped them gain success in the beginning.


I do believe that the “gatekeepers” of “genre” fare tend toward conservatism whether they be the network executives greenlighting shows or fandom itself. That statement sounds more controversial than it probably is given the nature of change. Change is slow, faces set-backs, and is precarious at best.

Which is why I think it is great that there is an active component of fandom that raises their collective voices to call for diversity across genre media. Though, there needs to be some reflection about what diversity really means among our vocal faction. I’ve seen twice over the past few week where folks were breaking down diversity in the MCU. Both times, when female representation was discussed women were lumped together wholesale, without regard to which races or ethnicities of women were represented. While Black male representation was separated out. Distinction is important because we’ve yet to see a Black female or a Latin@ super-hero introduced in the MCU.


Gretnablue: It could happen if we are not careful. We’ve already seen that in other artforms that the creators could up and get rid of diversity if they don’t like. Take comics for example. Between 1997-2004, the comic scene became far more diverse, with many new POC superheroes and some replacing long term heroes like Green Lantern. Then in the mid-00s, DC (and specifically Geoff Johns) got it in their heads that the comics needed to return to their roots and be more like the Silver Age. That meant many of the newer POC got shafted or killed off with the old guard returning such as with the return of Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. Marvel followed suit and did the same thing (resulting in some of the worst stories like One More Day) and besides a few comics like Blue Beetle, the comics became far more whiter for a while.

However, if we call them out on this behaviour loud enough, they will likely get the message as long as the creators are willing to listen. Sleepy Hollow is a great recent example of this. Despite being praised for its cast in season 1, they shafted most of their cast for rather dull and annoying white characters in season 2. However, thanks to the social media backlash and viewership drop, the creators realised their mistake and fixed this for the last few episodes of season 2.


Melanin Monroe: It could happen, it’s certainly happened before. There were a lot shows in the 90s and 2000s that had diverse casts and focused on the stories of non-white people. But somewhere between then and now, for various reasons, there was a drop off. If mainstream audiences don’t want to watch “Black” shows, the studios will take that to mean they should make the casts less diverse.

I don’t think it’s very likely to happen though. With social media POC have a platform to take studios and producers to task directly (Black Twitter is no joke). For example, most recently when the new cast was revealed for the new season for American Horror Story and it turned out the new cast were all white men, there was a lot of criticism on social media. All of the conversations and memes that get spawned that lambaste these kinds of castings make studios and producers rethink diversity and casting issues. They want to avoid any and all backlash and negative publicity for shows they want people to watch.


I also think representation is coming more into focus, and since social media is a direct line to the people, we can clearly see people demanding it, we can see people no longer accepting the kinds of white washing and erasure that’s been fairly common and standard in the entertainment industry for decades.


(Sense8 was lauded and criticized for its attempt at diverse representation. Image credit: Whats The Update.)

What does this trend mean for other underrepresented racial/ethnic groups?

Gretnablue: This can be either positive or a negative, it very much depends on how the studios react. The big problem that could come from this is that the studios can become lazy/cowardly and make the white man/black woman the default and simply not bothering to diverse even more than that. Many Asian roles are still my whitewashed in TV & Film and I don’t think it will help the LGBTQ+ as male same-sex romance is still considered a no no by too many executives and bisexuality is either ignored or is mocked, even in progressive shows like Orange is the Black.


On the other hand, if the studios aren’t cowards, this could be the beginning of far more diversity in our media and the nasty tropes of the past can finally be put to rest. It’s going to take a while for us to get there if it happens and there will be likely be resistant from some creators and mistakes by others. But eventually, we could see a more diverse TV landscape.

Melanin Monroe: I think so far it’s been largely positive for other racial/ethnic groups. Not nearly enough in terms of representation, particularly in speculative fiction, but shows like Elementary, Fresh Off the Boat and Jane the Virgin are at least hinting at steps toward the right direction. I hope eventually it will lead to most, if not all mainstream shows being just as diverse as Sleepy Hollow (well, in its first season anyway), or How to Get Away With Murder without having to rely on tokenism (like say, The Vampire Diaries, for instance). There should still be a place for stories that focus on POC and/or have POC main characters though. I agree with Gretnablue that studios have to take the risk. There are a lot of assumptions from studios about what audiences want, and in the past it used to fall in line with what producers were putting on air but I don’t think it does anymore.


BehindDarkGlasses: Care does need to be taken that we don’t end up with a new default at the exclusion of introducing other types of diversity into the sci-fi and fantasy TV landscape. With that being said, the best way to work toward avoiding that sort of thing from happening is to increase diversity behind the camera. Specifically in writing, directing, and producing of TV shows.

We are starting to see female leads of Asian heritage on TV shows like Dark Matter and Quantico. The last two years we will have also had an Asian male as a romantic lead on three shows: Selfie, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. So there is perhaps a ripple benefit occurring from the Scandal effect. It should be noted that in the shows that have aired, Dark Matter, Selfie, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, that the characters of Asian heritage are all paired with White love interests and/or sexual partners.


Having pairings of underrepresented minority and White love interest is kind of a double edged sword. Which could warrant its own post to fully explore. One issue is that seeing only these sort of romantic pairings comes at the exclusion of other interracial as well as same race pairings.


(Storm, Apocalypse, and Psylocke from the upcoming X-men: Age of Apocalypse film. Image credit: Entertainment Weekly.)

How might this trend expand to other forms of media, particularly film, if at all?

Melanin Monroe: I’m not quite sure we’ve reached the point where this phenomenon has expanded to film, there’s often a lot more money involved and therefore a lot more wariness in terms of what studios are willing to risk. I also think that audiences are much more selective with films than they are with television, since there’s more or less an added cost in a way (though people are paying for cable/internet to watch television anyway). There’s also more flexibility with television, (which I guess extends to movies as well now) people can now “binge” whole seasons of television according to their own schedule and at their own pace, or wait to see it on Netflix, there’s no rush, which I think would hinder projects looking to employ this trend. Studios want instant payoff, especially with projects that they’ve taken a risk on. In time this could change but I don’t think many studios are willing to take the leap, because no one is willing to be the first to do so without a model for success in this particular medium, that is why all of the major studios that have superhero properties aren’t rushing to make a project with a Black female superhero or any WOC superhero for that matter, regardless of the trends on TV.


BehindDarkGlasses: I wish, but I’ll probably have to keep holding my breath. I did some posts a few years back when I was on Blogspot. They were a series of listicles of sorts for Women of Color Final Girls in horror movies. The tally as of 2013 was 2 Latinas, 4 women of Asian heritage, and 7 Black women as horror film Final Girls. My definition of Final Girl was not specific to just slasher movies and the characters needed to simply be a lead and live to the end of the film. I doubt the numbers have gone up much in the past two years.



Gretnablue: Again, I agree with Monroe that I don’t think the live action films are willing to cast more diverse films. One just has to look at adaptations of Japanese material for that such as the Edge of Tomorrow or the upcoming Ghost in the Shell.

Other markets on the other hand seem to have taken the hint. Animation seems to have become far more diverse thanks to series like the Legend of Korra and starting in the 2011 area, the comic scene became more diverse again with Ultimate Spider-Man & Ms Marvel, with the sales seeming to show that it is working out for them.


What say you, fellow readers? Are we on the cusp of a Black female lead bubble or a new sustained trend? Will that bubble bust and TV revert back to the old standard of white leads? If we’re witness to a new sustained trend then how might that create new tropes or smash old ones?

This is has been a Pop Discourse discussion. More about what Pop Discourse discussions are can be found HERE. Brainstorming about potential Pop Discourse topics are HERE. Upcoming Pop Discourse discussions in the works are over HERE.


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