Why the Women of Primetime TV Stay Empowering Me

Taraji P. Henson

Why the Women of Primetime TV Stay Empowering Me

Seeing yourself on the screen is truly a powerful thing.

Published September 14, 2015

I’ve always been a TV girl, ever since I was a little girl.

There is something about being able to grow with a character and bond with them each season. And even though I did have Black female characters and other women of color to hold on to — Claire Huxtable, Whitley Gilbert and company, the cast of Girlfriends and the ladies from Living Single — which made me feel good about myself, Black female lead characters were few and far between.


And while I loved Ally McBeal’s Renée Raddick, Law & Order’s Sgt. Van Buren and ER’s Jeanie Boulet, these representations always felt as if our existence was never centered on our own lives, but mostly there to support the storylines and lives of our white counterparts.

If we had minor roles, it seemed that we were either the drug addicts, the video vixens or the prostitutes, which, to be honest, wasn’t the issue. I’ve never been here for model citizen imagery, because all of our stories are important. But we all know these roles I am referring to were written to be as one-dimensional as possible.

And so if I wanted to watch TV, I had to make a choice to basically submerge myself in stories mainly about white folk. And while I did so begrudgingly, I was still Team Rachel all the way, got “Carrie Fever” every Sunday and became obsessed with Det. Benson and Det. Stabler’s chemistry. Though I didn’t hate everything I was watching, I still felt pretty invisible in this world.

Until now...something amazing is happening.

Thanks to folks like Shonda Rhimes, Mara Brock Akil and other like-minded showrunners and network execs who believe in the power of diversity, women of color, especially Black women, are headlining and leading their own shows and killing the game. This Emmys season alone, there are a record-breaking 18 nominations for Black actresses and actors, including Regina King, Angela Bassett, Cicely Tyson and Uzo Aduba. And for the first time ever, two Black women, Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis, are nominated for Best Actress in a Drama Series. 

But quantity isn’t the only empowering aspect of this rise of visibility. It’s also the complexity and range of women on the screen that make such a huge difference.

From the feisty Cookie to the fatally-flawed Mary Jane to the vulnerable Olivia Pope to the messy Annalise to the bada** Michonne, we have a robust selection of women that are present in the White House, the record studio and even the zombie apocalypse. We can be sheriffs like Sleepy Hollow’s Abby Mills, doctors like Black-ish’s Rainbow, business owners like Mistresses’ April and even president in the now-defunct State of Affairs.

We can be as complicated, successful and as problematic as white characters.  

Even roles that, in the wrong hands, could be so one-dimensional are instead so full of life and promise — i.e. the entire Black cast in Orange Is the New Black. This show reflects the true diversity of what it means to be a Black woman — cisgender, transgender, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual — and what it means to be Latina as well.

And speaking of Latinas, the Golden Globe-winning Jane the Virgin takes the melodrama of a telenovela and delivers some of the best performances (and tears) each week.

As we embark on this new fall TV season, I know that this rise in visibility doesn’t lessen the real bias that we face every day. Regardless of how fly Olivia Pope’s coat is, we still make 64 cents to every dollar a white man makes and we are more likely to be killed in racially-charged tragedies. But we always have to be able to celebrate the victories that we do have. And I know that for many women like me, the victory is that we don’t feel as invisible as we used to.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Christopher Fragapane/Fox)

Written by Kellee Terrell


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