TV, Interracial Dating, and Elena Tyler.

Originally posted at PostBourgie on June 16, 2009.

Sister Toldja goes in on the current wave of interracial casting in mainstream films:

I’m not sure how I feel about Hollywood’s new found (or perhaps revitalized***) comfort with paring Black women with White men, especially considering how infrequently we see quirky, cute, thoughtful films about Black women and Black men. I don’t necessarily see interracial couples on screen as some great sign of progression. As someone very smartly commented on Jez, we needed worry about normalizing interracial couples until we have normalized Black ones. Why? Because that’s the partnership that MOST Black people will find themselves in. In fact, with the exception of Japanese-American women, MOST Americans will marry a person of their own race.

Dropping one Black/mixed woman in a film doesn’t really do much for me in terms of seeing progress in Hollywood. I don’t feel that every film depicting a mixed couple has to involve a long, hackneyed discussion of the interracial dating “issue”, but it just seems rather unrealistic that these ladies wouldn’t have at least one Black parent, a sibling, a friend…someone else who looked like them who figured prominently in their lives. Or are these the film embodiment of the race-abandoning folks who choose to live in spaces with limited to no interaction with other Black people?

I think it’s safe to say that we at PB are for dating whomever makes you happy, race aside. With that said, I think Toldja raises some interesting questions about the preponderance of black characters who have no black friends or family, in predominately white films and television shows. I distinctly remember an episode of Boy Meets World where Angela, Sean’s gorgeous black girlfriend is sitting on a couch with the rest of the kids, who are having some mundane discussion, when she suddenly says “I really need to get some black friends.” Cue big laugh. The implication is not that we only see Angela when she’s hanging out with Cory and the gang, but that she doesn’t have friends who aren’t white. That, to me, is rather absurd. The show was set in Philly, for heaven’s sake.

While I don’t think people of color who don’t have friends of color are ‘race-abandoners,’ I do think that the number of black women on TV and film who lack their own histories is a function of two things: 1) often, characters of color are filling a quota, so just having them on the show is enough for the producers (forget about giving them a backstory) and 2) often, black/latino (and occasionally Asian) actors are filling roles that weren’t written with a person of color in mind.

I can easily name 15 black female/white male couples from television and film, just off the top of my head, while I struggle to think of just three black male/white female couples (Popular, DeGrassi, and Angel). In real life, statistically, black men are more than twice as likely to marry white women as white men are to marry black women. I suspect this disconnect is caused by one of two things. The majority of writers and showrunners are white males, and they either have hangups about black male/white female relationships, or, more likely, they’re writing stories from their own perspective. This ultimately means that the main characters are most often going to be white, and diversity has to be satisfied with sidekicks and girlfriends — neither of which are known for having three-dimensional roles.

Even when a character of color has a story of her own, it often turns out lamentably. I’ve been going through Felicity on DVD, and the character of Elena Tyler, played by the lovely Tangi Miller, is incredibly frustrating at times. Miller manages to to take a role that could easily be the bitchy, angry black best friend, and imbues it with sweetness, vulnerability, and sensitivity. And while Elena ends up with a black man — Donald Faison, who, incidentally, is half of a black/Latino interracial relationship on Scrubs, but has children with a white woman in real life — she dallies in a relationship with a white professor, and cheats on her intended with a white classmate. (Question for the room: can you imagine the precious Felicity stepping out on Ben or Noel with a black guy? Yeah, me neither.) Moreover, Elena’s storylines were often short-shrifted, including her death.

Sister Toldja says casting more movies with quirky black couples (at least one exists) would be more progressive than pairing Zoe Saldana or Thandie Newton (or Halle Berry or Rosario Dawson or Maya Rudolph or Rashida Jones) with white men, and I think she might be right. But who’s going to make those films?

I’ll probably go see Away We Go and I’ll probably like it, just like I like Felicity, and Boy Meets World, and Fringe, and every other show that has an appealing storyline and underdeveloped characters of color. But now that I’m looking back on 15 years of television watching — which started in the 90s when shows were actually more diverse than they are now — and I’m recounting how many times I’ve given a pass to and fallen for a show that marginalizes people of color, I’m incredibly disappointed. Tyler Perry productions don’t appeal to me at all, but Tyler Perry does employ black actors. I didn’t love The Game, but it was a comfort to know it was on. I don’t believe in black shows and black magazines and black movies just for the sake of having them, but I do find the consistent failure of the shows I love to represent women and people of color with any depth…taxing.

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