Empire, Scandal and Representations of Black Americans on TV

There was a post making the rounds on Facebook recently that pointed to the shows “Empire” and “Scandal” as reinforcing negative images of black people. I’ve seen memes calling “Empire” propaganda and coonery. People accuse its creator, Lee Daniels, of trying to promote a homosexual agenda, and point to both shows as damaging to the fabric of black America. But how often do we see shows about black wealth and power on television?

The whole thing wreaks of hypocrisy and conspiracy hunting. Here’s a thought for black Americans who want every black family on television to be the Cosbys: What you’re seeing is equality. For years there have been shows like “Dirty Sexy Money,” “All My Children,” “Dallas,” and even “Gossip Girl” that tell scandalous stories of the rich, powerful and white. We’ve complained about the lack of diversity, and in the last two years, there has been an explosion of diversity on television.

And here we are with two very popular shows, equally loved by Americans of all races, where black people are in positions of power, but the flawed, nuanced characters lack the picture of perfection some people would prefer to see. One Facebook post that went viral talked about “Empire” being a show about family dysfunction, and called a recent revelation on “Scandal” just another example of a woman sleeping her way to the top. I wonder if the author of this post had bothered to discover the vision of “Empire” as a King Lear-meets-“Dynasty”-meets-hip-hop. And as for “Scandal” — the name says it all, so I’m not sure what people expect if not just that.

M.LButlerTimelinePhotos

The Facebook post by M.L. Butler that went viral regarding his opinion on representations of Black Americans on TV.

The problem with diversity is that you can’t have it both ways: Demand more representation but cry foul when the representation is one that makes you uncomfortable. Demand diversity but complain when the increase in diversity doesn’t always fit a certain, positive mold. This is entirely unrealistic. Even the show “Black-ish” hasn’t been able to escape criticism because people couldn’t get past the name, but it’s perhaps one of the most positive representations of black people on television. Not only are both parents on the show professionals — the mother a surgeon, the father an ad executive — but the show also uses comedy to examine the phenomenon of race and cultural assimilation.

Likewise “Fresh Off the Boat” also takes a funny approach to exploring cultural assimilation, but from the perspective of an Asian family. And while there are far fewer representations of Asians in American television than there are black representations, all I’ve heard and read is praise. Several of my Asian friends told me that if I wanted to understand their family dynamic, “Fresh off the Boat” is the show to watch. Yet it still plays off of popular stereotypes: so why was this show met with a sense of validation, while the shows written by and starring black people were met with skepticism?

If “Empire” were the only show featuring black people on television, I might be more inclined to agree with the idea that there was some sort of misrepresentation. But what I see is a breadth of black people on television, while other people of color are still practically invisible. What I see is black people crying foul when indeed there is a wide spectrum of what it means to be black on modern television that goes beyond “Scandal” and “Empire”. The Sholdaland line up on ABC is an obvious shining star of diversity and evidence that more diversity among showrunners and writers begets diversity among show casts. But diversity doesn’t stop with Shondaland. “The Mindy Project,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Survivor’s Remorse,” “The Walking Dead,” “Rosewood,” and “Quantico” are all indicative of the increase in multicultural representations on television.

Interestingly, most of the critiques I’ve seen use “The Cosby Show” as the barometer. But if every show about a black family were “The Cosby Show”, that would be boring and not a true representation of diversity in entertainment. Real diversity in entertainment means allowing space for flawed and nuanced characters. It requires letting go of victim mentality enough to see the big picture. There’s still room to move beyond the idea that diversity is black and white, but in the big picture we’ve made huge progress in recent years toward more diverse representations where television is concerned.

And yes, I get it: Historically, people of color usually fall into very specific media tropes, with men as villains or criminals and women as sassy or angry. But the current level of diversity on primetime television is a good thing, and both “Empire” and “Scandal” are a big part of that diversity. While it is important to think critically about how the media portrays people of color, it’s equally important not to insist that black people are the victims of a racist plot by seeking it out racism where it probably doesn’t exist.

Image Credits: Fox, M.L. Butler
Kimberlee Morrison

Kimberlee Morrison

Editor in Chief
Kimberlee Morrison is a writer and editor with more than a decade of experience writing about business, technology and social media. She a founding partner of the digital media upstart CultureMass Media, Inc., and Editor in Chief of CultureMass.com.

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  • YM

    No matter what negative things people have to say about shows like ‘Empire’ and ‘Scandal’, the ratings and advertising revenue they bring in cannot be denied. Additionally, these shows (and others) provide meaningful opportunities for talented minorities–who otherwise may not have been able to break into television.