Horrified by the depiction of black women on TV, Allison Samuels shunned prime time for years. But two thoughtfully produced shows, Scandal and Styled by June, offer a long-overdue change of scenery.
For the last six years I’ve actively avoided prime-time television. I have no interest in supporting shows or networks that ignore women of color in their storylines, and I’m usually scared to death of what I might see if I do stumble across a black woman on the small screen. In my experience, the sight of a black woman on TV has meant one thing: trouble. My tried-and-true nightly consumption has been old episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So I’ve had little to offer but blank stares at dinner parties when those around me eagerly discuss popular TV shows like Lost or Mad Men. And I remain purposely oblivious to anyone describing the most recent fistfights or knockdown drag-outs on Real Housewives of Atlanta, Flava of Love, or Basketball Wives. Of course there have been a few exceptions to this rule over the years, including Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy or Mara Brock Akil’s cable shows Girlfriends and The Game. But for the most part, watching today’s TV depiction of black women or African-American life as a whole often felt like a painful invitation to witness the reinforcement of every imaginable stereotype for the sake of sensationalism and higher ratings.
Still, it seems it’s never too late for a change, even in prime-time television. In the last few weeks that change has arrived, for me at least, in the form of two new shows, VH1’s Styled by June and the new Shonda Rhimes drama on ABC, Scandal.
Both are thoughtfully produced and skillfully crafted. And they finally give the TV audience an opportunity to meet a more balanced and layered type of black woman—minus the bad attitudes, dysfunctional relationships with rappers and ballers, and the usually required girl-on-girl boxing match.
On the embarrassment-free reality show Styled by June, the cameras follow June Ambrose in her life and her job as a stylist to Jay-Z and other top celebrities. Ambrose shines as a worldly woman whose penchant for Hermès bags, silk turbans, and mile-high stilettos never overshadows her deft business skills, compassion, and dedication to helping her clients feel better on the inside and out with as little drama as possible.
“I thought very clearly about the message my show would be sending before we started filming,” says Ambrose. “I have a family, a mother who was and is graceful and proud. I have children and I have daughter. I knew this show had to be entertaining, but it also had to be about a person who has something to offer.”
Scandal is a tense hour-long drama set in the nation’s capital, starring Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a character based on the real-life Judy Smith, a black lawyer and former White House consultant and aide. Washington is riveting as a woman with smarts, guts, and a weakness for her former boss, the leader of the free world. The attraction appears to be mutual, providing a rare storyline: a black woman who is the most desirable woman in the room.
On last week’s episode, the striking image of a regal Washington making a jaw-dropping entrance to a White House state dinner in a form-fitting designer gown was a sight to behold. That one scene ushered in a new, glorious, and long overdue change of scenery on television’s usually narrow landscape of diversity.
My TV conundrum over the last six years has been a painful one. But after many nights of Cabot Cove murder mysteries and vampires running amok, it finally feels safe again to turn on prime-time television and watch with both eyes open. Maybe now when the topic of television shows comes up at the next dinner party I attend, I can finally join the conversation.