06.06.13 Truth & Wisdom

A History of Female Diversity in Television

BY Jessica Tholmer

I have been thinking a lot about diverse women in the media this week. Why? Well, because I write for The Conversation, because I watch a lot of television (or have throughout my life), and because I am a biracial woman, which means I am pretty much always thinking about diversity.

After hearing Amanda’s conversation with Issa Rae— an incredibly smart, funny and normal woman— I found myself thinking back through the hundreds of television shows that I have watched throughout my life, desperately searching for diverse women, desperately hoping that I could disprove my own theory about the lack of diversity in my own viewing experiences. Rae has a web series called Awkward Black Girl, a hilarious take on daily awkward situations, something that is relatable for not just Black women, but for all women.

You see, as Black women, we are supposed to adapt our experiences to those of usually-white ladies, but the alternate is never forced upon us. There is never an incredibly popular “Black show” that white people are forced to relate to if they would like to understand it. Of course, not everything is about race, right? Awkward Black Girl touches on “every race” with things like dating, work stuff and friendships. Every race, every culture, every class deals with these things. The universal language is love, and I guarantee you there is not a woman alive that cannot attest to some stressful love life situation.

So why then, in 2013, are we still struggling with diversity, especially among women, in our television shows? Television is incredibly relatable, something that bonds us together, something that if you utilize any of the social networking tools out there (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr), you cannot go a few minutes without coming across something bonding us together across the nation, and sometimes world— everyone tweets about their favorite shows: Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, New Girl, that zombie show… you get the idea. Television is the glue that holds us strangers together, at least for those of us in the entertainment business, so DARN IT, where are the non-white, non-rich, non-“perfect bodied” women?!

That being said, I simply must shout out the ones who have set us apart. The ones who represent the women with bodies, with color, with curly hair, with loud opinions, with multi-ethnic ties, with any ethnicity, the ones with not-so-much money. Ladies, I see you, and I thank you for being there for us.

I love Lucy Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball

Image via Wikipedia

1950s: Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy
Yes, Lucille Ball is definitely a very white woman, but in the 1950s, there were not very many women like her. First of all, behind the scenes, the producers of I Love Lucy fought to cast a white male alongside Ball, yet she refused to make the show with anyone but her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. Ball, a feisty redhead with a million schemes up her sleeve, fought to represent an interracial marriage. IN THE FIFTIES. Even now on television we see such few interracial couples. Are there even any on current television?

I see you, Sofia Vergara! Modern Family gets a plus one.

1960s: Diahann Carroll, Julia
Though Julia was not as popular as I Love Lucy, the show had a handful of seasons and was broadcast on NBC. Julia has long been praised as the first television show revolving around a Black woman in a non-Black woman role. The show’s plot is about a single widow raising her son while working as a nurse in a doctor’s office. Though I personally believe Carroll is a game changer for representing a different kind of Black woman in television (especially at that time, when most Black women were stuck in maid-like roles), at the time, Julia was criticized for representing an unrealistic view into the lives of a Black family… though it must be said not all Black families live below the poverty line— not even in the ’60s. Not only is Carroll Black, but she is also six feet tall. Diverse and wonderful. Tall women (like myself) are definitely underrepresented.

1970s: Sesame Street
Have you ever given any thought to how diverse Sesame Street really is? Speaking only to the women in the original cast, Sesame Street had Annette Calud, Angel Jemmoth, Nitya Vidyasagar, Linda Bove, Sonia Manzano, Alaina Reed, Jada Rowland and I could probably list every other woman on the show, to be honest. The 1970s were certainly a hot decade for pushing equality, and Sesame Street, even now, is potentially the most diverse show on television. Though it is vital for our children to grow up with television shows representing a realistic and significant range of human beings, it is a shame that our sitcoms and primetime dramas cannot do the same for the adults of the world, even today.

File:CS-cosby-cast.jpg

Image via Wikipedia

1980s: Phylicia Rashad, The Cosby Show; Roseanne Barr, Roseanne
By the time we reached the 1980s, television had started to expand its horizons. There were a handful of shows that represented non-white families— Family Matters, Diff’rent Strokes, Webster, and of course, The Cosby Show. The reason Phylicia Rashad’s representation of Clair Huxtable stands out so often is because she truly represented a Black woman rarely seen on television until that point. The Cosby Show falls under the same criticism as Julia, though on a larger scale due to its popularity. Clair Huxtable is a lawyer, her husband a doctor, her kids all individualized and strong. Clair is bilingual (Spanish speaking), eloquent, tough, funny and well composed.

Speaking of diverse, the 1980s were a surprisingly stand-out time for women in television. Roseanne also premiered in the 1980s, and Roseanne Barr was unlike any female character television had seen previously. Roseanne is famously overweight, but the show’s jokes were not solely about her weight. She is also loud, lower-middle class, and she had real people problems. Roseanne’s kids on the show, Becky, Darlene and DJ, all dealt with normal kid things that were not necessarily solved by a slap on the wrist and an ice-cream cone. Personally, I believe Roseanne and Roseanne herself, are incredibly underrated.

1990s: ER
ER ran from 1994 until 2009, which is basically forever. Throughout the show’s run, there was plenty of diversity among the cast. Gloria Reuben, Ming-Na, Laura Innes, Parminer Nagra and though Maura Tierney played Abby Lockhart, she had an off-and-on again interracial relationship with Dr. Luka Kovac throughout her character’s run on the show.

Sometimes a show’s integration of racially diverse characters without their race being the focus of the character is the most important advancement. These were not Black, Indian, lesbian doctors— these were doctors, just like the white male characters. It is refreshing to focus on flesh-eating bacteria and behind-the-scenes drama, not necessarily acceptance and tolerance issues.

2000s: Naya Rivera, Amber Riley, Jenna Ushkowitz, Glee
Glee comes under a lot of criticism for being kind of, well, corny, but to be honest, the show is truly one of the most diverse coming out of the early 2000s. Glee is still on (thank god!) but it premiered in 2009, focusing on a bunch of outcast kids that struggle with the life issues that we all cope with throughout our high school careers. Besides being in the glee club- which is infinitely uncool, of course— the show has a range of characters: a boy in a wheelchair, a pregnant teenager, football playing virgins, Jewish poindexters with voices like angels, a Black diva, a Latina super snarky jerk, an Asian girl who cannot define herself, and even Mr. Schue has his issues for being a good looking white male. Glee has done a stellar job staying diverse. I haven’t even mentioned the interracial relationships: Santana (Rivera) is a Latina lesbian who dates a white, blonde woman (also in the glee club).

Mindy Kaling on the mindy project

Image via Wikipedia

2010s: Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project
Kaling became well-known for playing Kelly on The Office, where she was also doing us all a favor by being the only non-white female on that show, but when she branched off into her own show, she truly broke down barriers. A self-described “chubby” girl (though I think she is nothing but normal!), Kaling is also very noticeably not a white person. She is of Indian descent— in fact her birth name is Vera Mindy Chokalingam— and plays an OB/GYN on The Mindy Project. Kaling is also the creator of the show, which means she is representing women and racial equality in a whole other realm of entertainment: behind the scenes.

And though The Mindy Project has come under criticism, as all things in life do, at the end of the day, Mindy is not playing an Indian doctor, she is playing a woman to whom all women can relate. Here’s an example of her quick-witted dialogue:

Casey: Why are you going to Hell?
Mindy: I love gossip and I don’t really care about the environment.

Though do not let me end this appraisal of diverse women in the media without mentioning Rashida Jones, who has been on a few television shows in her career though she currently plays Ann Perkins on Parks and Recreation. Rashida Jones, for those who are unaware, is a biracial woman, and we never get biracial women on television. Not only that, but she is multi-talented: a writer, a comedian, an actress, and she is gorgeous. Jones is my idol. Thank you for being on television.

Without our voices, nothing will change. Here is my voice. What do you think about under-representation of diverse women in television? Who did I miss? Let’s talk.

Jess has been told she reminds people of Scarlett Johansson, Victoria Beckham, Carrie Bradshaw, Raven Symone, George Costanza (she's serious) and Cece from New Girl, so basically, she's every human ever. Using her multiple personalities, she proudly writes for HelloGiggles.com and breaks mugs and hearts as a manager for Starbucks in the Pacific Northwest, where coffee was like...invented. She believes in song lyrics, hair diffusers, red wine, eating food before liquor, respecting her elders, not washing her hair everyday, big brothers, little brothers, medium brothers, Beyoncé, breaking walls down, her childhood, full fringe, turning the heat on, mismatched socks, being serenaded, tweeting, shots of espresso, a thing called love, red lipstick, crying openly, Barack Obama, and even more, his wife. You can find her pretty much all over the internet, because what's real life anyway?

Comments

  • Jacqueline

    Thank you Jess!! Great list (LOVE issa, mindy, rashida, ALL OF EM)! I’d only add Kerry Washington, who has Carroll’s same universal appeal, but is able to take it even farther than her predecessors with Scandal.

    • Jess Tholmer

      Ooh I always forget about Scandal! I love me some Kerry, though! Thank YOU!

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