In recent years, mainstream media has undergone a renaissance in representation thanks to award-winning performances by actresses Taraji P. Henson as Cookie on FOX’s Empire, Viola Davis as Analise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, Tracy Ellis Ross as Rainbow on Blackish, Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on Scandal, and Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul on BET’s Being Mary Jane.
While there are certainly more television roles for women of color today than there were in years past, the depth of character development demonstrated by the likes of Shonda Rhymes and Ava DuVernay still can’t overshadow the reality that Black women are often underrepresented or worse, characterized as gold diggers, hyper-sexualized, and under-educated.
A 2013 study by Essence Magazine revealed, “negative imagery of black women appears twice as often as positive depictions.” Likewise, the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report: Flipping the Script revealed that the images seen on television are typically a reflection of who’s behind the scene calling the shots. It’s well documented that more diverse casts yield a higher economic return at the box office and for broadcast and cable programming. The economic case for diversity is often ignored, however, and too few people of color appear on television. By the same token, although there have been some gains in the number of people of color on camera, those gains have been, by and large, offset by losses behind the scenes in the production rooms and executive suites of large media companies.
America’s demographics are rapidly shifting, and we stand on the cusp of becoming a “majority minority” nation. Accordingly, representations of women and people of color in the media should reflect the new faces of the nation. Further, these representations need to be seen both on camera and in the executive offices making decisions about programming. That’s what makes the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between 12 multicultural leadership organizations and Charter Communications so important – it sets the stage for greater diversity and inclusion where it matters most.
If Charter’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable and acquisition of Bright House Networks is approved, several actions will be triggered by the new company regarding corporate governance; employment/workforce recruitment and retention; procurement; programming; and philanthropy/community investment. For instance, under the terms of the MOU, New Charter agrees to expand its carriage of programming focused on communities of color. This commitment, coupled with an agreement to engage minority-owned and operated law firms, advertising agencies, and asset managers, in addition to hiring more people of color as employees, can tremendously impact the final product that hits our TV screens.
This is a unique moment in our history as a nation, and it’s important that our media and entertainment outlets reflect the people who make up this country. Black women have long waited for the chance for the fullness of our beings and richness of our culture to be displayed in the very media outlets of which we are prime consumers. The provisions of the New Charter MOU provide that opportunity, and it’s a chance we can’t afford to let slip by.
SC Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter