This past weekend, scores of women participated in the #HowMediaWritesWoC Twitter trending topic. As I read through and shared tweets, I reflected some of the larger issues of “writing” in media and the representation of black women: reality TV vs. scripted, Hollywood labor unions, the rise of Shonda Rhimes, and a few of my own experiences.
In 2004, I was performing a solo show called “Aya de Leon Is Running for President,” and I was invited to audition for the reality TV show American Candidate, Finalists were flown to LA for a casting weekend.
It seems I torpedoed my chance to be selected when I asked questions about the contract. Not only did I have to prove that I was not in any writers or performers union (I was not), but the contract also stated explicitly that the producers of the show would own all rights to my work forever. As a writer, I had concerns about a media corporation owning the rights to the story of my own life. The assistant producer promised to talk to the lawyers and get back to me. I was under strict instructions to stay in my hotel room unless called. I waited for the next two days. No one contacted me until it was time to catch my flight home.
The rise of reality TV has created a tricky situation for many Hollywood writers, both aspiring and veteran. According to The American Prospect, “Initially, the idea was simply to come up with programming that didn't involve unionized writers because it actually didn't involve writers, thereby allowing the networks to better-immunize themselves against the threat of a strike.” Originally, the genre capitalized on the public’s thirst for fame, and willingness to embarrass themselves for little or no compensation. But now, so many so-called reality shows “actually do employ writers, just not unionized ones covered by the collective bargaining agreement.” As the scripted and manipulated format has become more popular, the combination of racism and sexism is particularly toxic when it comes to representations of Black women. Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back, asserts that “Women of color are ostracized as deceitful divas…or ‘difficult’…and ‘ghetto’ train wrecks….And through it all, slurs like ‘bitch,’ ‘beaver,’ and ‘whore’ are tossed around as if they’re any other nouns.”
Recently, I was filmed for a an episode of a friend’s reality show on Bravo. During what looked like a casual conversation, the producers would direct us to “say that again” with a better camera shot. 'Writing' for reality TV is about manipulating actual people into dramatizing the outcome the producers already know they want. With women of color, this follows a predictable series of damaging tropes.
On these shows–which are extremely popular with Black women– women of color are consistently objectified and stereotyped. In scripted feature TV, women of color were routinely sidelined or pigeonholed, though the rise of Shonda Rhymes has disrupted that greatly. According to “Precious Mettle: The Myth of the Strong Black Woman” by Tamara Winfrey Harris, “We are the women with the sharp tongues and hands firmly on hips. We are the ride-or-die women…We are the sassy chicks. We are the mothers who make a way out of no way…we are the no-nonsense police chiefs and judges…"
The solution to these stereotypes has to include powerful women of color writers who can create breakthroughs in representation. The most amazing part of Scandal is not that it’s phenomenal. Black writers in the US have been penning brilliant material since slavery. The difficult miracle of Scandal is that Rhimes was in a position to actually get the show made.
In contrast, a show like Lena Dunham’s Girls is about four relatively ordinary, albeit privileged, young women. Meanwhile, Olivia Pope has to be mistress of the president, daughter of an international terrorist and a meglomaniacal domestic black ops commander, plus have the superpower to fix any high-class problem to get her own show.
Scandal is the direct descendent of the 1971 show Julia, starring Dihann Carrol. We’ve gone from a widowed nurse sitcom to an explosive sexy/political/action drama. This is due, in part, to how Reality TV has increased our collective appetite for scandalousness. And yet writers like me—women of color novelists on the come-up with our own high-octane women of color stories—are encouraged by Rhimes’ trailblazing success.
The recent episode How to Get Away with Murder in which Viola Davis took off her wig, false eyelashes, and makeup was the TV breakthrough Black women have been waiting for. Davis, who is stunning in her full glamorous diva gear, was revealed as equally yet differently beautiful in her natural state. Rhimes and company gave us something wholly unprecedented: a beautiful, dark-skinned, 40-plus Black woman, unedited. This is the kind of reality TV I’m truly excited about. What remains to be seen: will the popularity of Shondaland open doors for new Black writers and Black narratives in the way that the Atlanta Housewives made room for a slew of copycats?
Aya de Leon teaches creative writing in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in publications such as Essence Magazine, xojane, Womans Day, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine. She is currently completing a sex worker heist novel, as well as blogging and tweeting about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.wordpress.com.