The three most popular shows on prime-time network television are returning from mid-winter break this month: ABC’s Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and Fox’s Empire. They all feature Black females as the respective leads: Kerry Washington (Scandal), Viola Davis (HTGAWM) and Taraji P. Henson (Empire). But there’s another, albeit subtle, but definitive, commonality: none of the characters have a romantic relationship with a Black man.
It may (not) be hard to believe—especially given that all three shows were created by either Shonda Rhimes or Lee Daniels—but it seems like network TV doesn’t want to see Black men and women together, or at least not in a healthy relationship.
In Scandal, political “fixer” Olivia Pope (Washington) is torn between two White characters, President Fitzgerald Grant and navy captain Jake Ballard. In HTGAWM, defense attorney Annalise Keating (Davis) is married to White college professor Sam Keating. When it comes to Empire, there’s a slight deviation. Although ex-con/budding music mogul Cookie Lyon (Henson) has yet to consort with a White lover, in this current season, she had a brief affair with a Hispanic ex-cop.
The notion of Black incompatibility in these three examples is subliminally magnified because all these relationships are juxtaposed with each character having volatile relationships with Black men. On Scandal, outside of her employees or passing flings, Olivia’s most substantial relationship with a Black man is with her father, Eli—the murderous head of spy outfit B613. Their relationship is full of deceit, manipulation and bitterness.
On HTGAWM, Annalise’s marriage is an empty shell, causing her to seek comfort in her Black detective boyfriend, Nate Lahey. But she uses him for her own illicit tactics for winning court cases, causing him to resent and distrust her profusely. On Empire, the series hinges itself on the explosive exchanges between Cookie and ex-husband, hip-hop impresario Lucious Lyon.
At the end of season one, Cookie even denounced a promising love affair with her (Black) bodyguard, opting not to run away with him to greener pastures, but to battle with Lucious over the family business. Their poisonous cat-and-mouse game is paramount to the show’s success, but still. It presents an age-old belief that the loving, empowering Black couple is all but mythical.
And it’s not just these three shows, and it’s not just during prime time. On Starz’s Power, drug kingpin Ghost St. Patrick leaves his loyal, cocoa-skinned wife Tasha for his fair-skinned Latina high school crush, Angela. On TNT’s Hawthorne (2009-2011), Nurse Christina (Jada Pinkett-Smith) was married to Tom (Michael Vartan), a White surgeon. (She later cheated on Tom with a Hispanic detective, played by singer Marc Anthony.)
Romantic interplay between Black men and women has been in constant flux forever. Debates over gender roles, power struggle and family leadership have fed the ideal of the discordance of Black men and women to the community as a whole. It’s been echoed in pop culture and political commentary for decades too. Comedians from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock have joked about how Black men and women can never quite get along. (Rock said in 2004’s Never Scared: “Even if you find the perfect person, it ain’t going to be the perfect time. You’re married, they’re single; you’re Jewish, they’re Palestinian; you’re a Black woman, he’s a Black man.”)
These differences have become visible to White on-lookers, who’ve reported, embellished and exacerbated the matter at large. Former Republican Presidential candidate Michele Bachman once stated that a Black child “born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than an African-American baby born after the election of USA’s first African-American president.”
This TV sample study is just a symptom of a huge social diagnosis. It’s painfully apparent that there are institutions and energies attempting to render the Black American couple extinct. Methods of this madness, however, have gone far beyond killing its young, but also by diluting the race. Although interracial couples on TV and in life were borderline taboo when Helen and Tom Willis debuted on The Jefffersons back in 1975, today it seems to be a tactic of killing Black-on-Black love.
To be fair, there are unquestionably legitimate reasons why Black men and women continue to clash—i.e., dating/marrying below financial status, sexual double standards—that must be dealt with constructively and internally. But thinly-veiled messages in entertainment certainly don’t help matters any. Even the best counterpoint to this argument, the ABC sitcom Black-ish, features a Black man (Anthony Anderson) married to a biracial woman (Tracee Ellis Ross), trying to keep their children from mentally assimilating to White culture.
This issue may not be so obvious to African-American viewers due to the tremendous sense of pride they feel seeing these talented Black actresses playing confident, complex, dynamic characters before a national audience, turning them into pop culture icons and retrieving unprecedented accolades. Henson won a 2016 Golden Globe; Davis won an Emmy and, this past Saturday, a Screen Actors Guild Award; and Washington has won all three throughout her tenure on Scandal.
While it’s very much still progressive to see three leading women who unapologetically wear their Blackness onscreen, pairing them each with a Black man of similar or complementary virtues is apparently a no-no. Did TV meet its quota with archetypal couples like Cliff and Claire Huxtable (The Cosby Show), James and Florida Evans (Good Times), George and Louise Jefferson (The Jeffersons), and Philip and Vivian Banks (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air)?
It appears that the only place Black couples can be seen regularly on prime time is via reality TV. Shows like Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta and VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop almost exclusively showcase Black men in relationships with Black women. The only problem is, nearly all of these relationships are based in gross disrespect, betrayal, dismissiveness, and even violence. And since these are real-life couples, it further promotes Black love and Black rage as different sides of the same coin.
It’s bad enough that Black American culture in general is considered monolithic. The perpetuation of this stereotypical assumption that a normal Black relationship includes abuse, infidelity and dysfunction can (and will) have extremely malignant consequences. Let’s hope President and Mrs. Obama shoot a TV pilot when his term is over.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.