Who are our role models today? With so much talk about feminist role models today particularly in popular culture, how inclusive has it really been for women of colour on our television screens? Has feminism fully accepted the burden of responsibility for representing the diversity of women and taking women of colour over that line?
It almost belies belief to think that 2015 marked history with a first at The Emmy Awards for a woman of colour to win the award for ‘Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series’. Last night, Viola Davis took that coveted award for the TV drama ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ executive produced by Shonda Rhimes.
Quoting Harriet Tubman the slavery abolitionist, Viola gave an emotional and empowering acceptance speech “In my mind, I see a line and over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can’t seem to get there no how, I can’t seem to get over that line.”
Over a 30 year career as an actress, Viola’s words expressed poignancy for women of colour, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else, is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Thanking the writers and creators who “have redefined what it means to be beautiful, sexy, to be a leading women, to be black,” Viola’s speech was also a testament to the varied characters that have contributed to the huge success of these TV shows.
TV executives can no longer ignore the growing demand for diversity in leading roles for women across television. Taraji in Empire, Viola in ‘How to Get Away With Murder, Kerry Washington in ‘Scandal’ and Gabrielle in ‘Being Mary Jane’ have not only overturned stereotypes of women of colour but also overturned the myth of universal girlhood. The fact is, casting Kerry Washington as the lead in ‘Scandal’ in 2012 came after a hiatus of 41 years since a black female had been cast in a leading role for an American TV show. Regina King had voiced her concerns in a piece for The Huffington Post about the Emmys in 2010 “Up to and including this year, there have been only 53 non-white actors nominated for Emmys out of nearly 1,000 possible nominations in the top four acting categories for drama and comedy.”
This ‘first’ alone, is an important step but one that needs to see more women of colour cross that line. Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Taraji P Henson, Gabrielle Union, Regina King have all taken each other and many other women across that line. This year not one but three actresses of colour won in their nominated categories and now more than ever before we need to see more women of colour as role models.
Regina King also won in the category of ‘Best Supporting Actress for a limited series, movie or dramatic special’ for her role in ‘American Crime’.
Uzo Aduba won in the category of ‘Best supporting Actress in a Drama Series’ for her role in the hit Netflix series ‘Orange Is The New Black’.
It is no longer about challenging a situation where women of colour are competing for limited roles but to demand that more leading roles are available for women across the board that also equally embrace our diversity and complexity as women. A roundtable between some of the Emmy nominated women is a revealing and open discussion about the roles for women in the industry.
The 30 most powerful women of British TV and Radio in 2014 highlighted an even bigger issue related to the lack of diversity on our own home turf. It signifies the growing need for the positioning of women of colour in British TV and film to be challenged today and into the future.
We need to ask whether the U.K is progressive enough on TV and where are the roles for British women of colour taking us over that line?