The Demise of the Black Television Actress


Maxine Shaw “Attorney At Law”, although my academic leaning would later be geared towards the PreMed track, you could not have told adolescent “me” that I could not be as fly, as funny, and as smart as Erika Alexander’s character on the television series Living Single. Sure, I appreciated the other characters on the show, the loony but lovable Sinclair, the seductive Regaine, and the witty and reliable Khadijah; but I saw myself in the assertive and intelligent Maxine. The magic of Living Single revolved around the fact that the show depicted the different types of Black women in our families and social circles, and not just in their personalities, but also their body types and complexions. I would watch every Thursday night, along with the other shows that made up my “Must See TV” line up: Martin and New York Undercover. Here was a collection of diverse Black women all being shown in a positive manner.

Even before Living Single first premiered, at a younger age, I would watch Claire Huxtable on the Cosby Show, and would marvel at how much she looked like my own mother, and was even more amazed by the fact that she carried herself like my mother too. She was educated, intelligent, calm collective, funny, nurturing, but strict! Like my mother, I found Claire Huxtable to be so classy and non-stereotypical. My mother was not the type to roll her eyes, raise her voice, snap her fingers, whip her neck, or use profanity. Like Claire she didn’t have to employ any of those “Angry Black Woman” tactics to be a respected disciplinarian and matriarch.

Then, what about the Spin Off, A Different World, where we were introduced to characters like Julissa, Whitley, Freddy, Denise, Lena James, and Kimberly Reese? Yes, Kim played by Charlene Brown, she was a PreMed major like I wanted to be, and she was the epitome of the statement Black Is Beautiful; with her dark chocolate skin, big eyes, full lips, and shapely hips. I can still remember the episode where those strikingly African features brought her to tears when she had to adorn clothing that reminded her of a “mammy”, only to later peel off those layers and proudly reveal the African beauty that she was.

I reminisce and can’t help but notice that something has happened. Turn on your television and you will have difficulty in finding a Black actress, particularly in a prominent role. You literally have to LOOK for us, and unfortunately when you find us, it will not be in traditional roles or in a positive light. Instead, Black “actresses” and pseudo-celebrities are being casted on surreal “reality” shows shucking for the camera. Gone are the talented and classically trained actresses, they have been replaced by Black women who would rather indulge in stereotypical and derogatory behavior for the world to see. The danger here is that life often imitates fiction (and yes it is fiction, because these shows are highly scripted), and the degenerative behavior will be emulated by viewers; particularly those who are younger and impressionable. Even more problematic is that these images are broadcast around the world, and gives a false view of the American Black woman. It helps to uphold long-standing stereotypes and misconceptions, and even affects the manner in which Black women are treated when they travel abroad.

We can only hope that the pendulum will swing the other way. Perhaps through letter writing campaigns, demands for more inclusive and positive programming, or simply turning the television off. Once again, we can only hope. Maybe the transformation will come about when we begin to pen our own stories and actually support these shows when they air. If not, we will continue to witness the inevitable demise of the Black television actress.

Cherise Charleswell
Eclectic Life Books
September 2012

Cherise Charlseswell is a published author, writer, poet, model, health researcher, contributing writer of Lady Influence; host, producer, & creator of Wombanist Views radio program, creator and lead designer of Eclectic Life, Associate Director of the Los Angeles Black Book Expo, and the California State Representative of the National Black Graduate Student Association. She is currently working on the book projects “The Link Between Food, Culture, & Health in the African Diaspora” and “Walking In The Feminine: A Stepping Into Our Shoes Anthology”.

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8 thoughts on “The Demise of the Black Television Actress

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! Maxine Shaw was my favorite character on Living Single. I loved her unique personality and passion for law. The show A Different World made a huge impact on my life. When I was a child, I watched that “Mammy Dearest” episode with Kim performing the Nikki Giovanni poem Ego Trippin. I loved every bit of it. These were actresses and characters that were profoundly intelligent and influential at the same time.

    • Amazing article! I agree 110%! I grew up being told that I wasn’t Black or Black enough by my Black peers. I suffered a tremendous crisis of identity, and the women in “Living Single” helped to make me see myself differently. I have no identification with the current slate of Blaxploitation actresses. We are so much more than a sex object. We are mothers, wives, professionals, strong, beautiful, colorful, and wonderful to behold. I find it distasteful that hardly any of that os available to our young people view.

  2. [repost from FB]
    Maxine was also one of my favorite characters and was one of the fictional people who shaped my own personality. She showed that you could be cool while wearing a professional suit and without having to be “street”.

    Karla

  3. Even more recent than this was the show Girlfriends who depicted Lawyers, business owners, mothers, and go-getters. I can’t name a show after that. Times have definitely changed.

  4. It seems I am not the only one to notice not only the demise but the illimination of not only the Black Woman but Black People from the mainstream… First the light skinned straight hairred Blacks,,, then the Brown Paper Bag Rule was in effect… Now we are witnessing the white washing of the Race by only casting high yellow,,, or Hispanic woman and men with light complexion… No dark skin people are see on Spanish or Bollywood shows… This trend is beginning to surface in America… more to come…

    • Some of the fault lies with the viewers in the community. Shows are based on ratings and for many shows you have to work to find them. Todays TV is more reality show based. They make more money than Sitcoms with real actor salaries to pay, have little overhead an always garner high ratings. Even the sitcoms are struggling. Until viewers start turning off the reality (race, food, amateur singer contests) sitcoms will never return to the mid 80’s early 90’s levels as long as they are money makers. When Cosby show (criticized by many for not being relistic because it had two parents working, while ‘Good times’ was embraced). A ‘Different World’ wasn’t embraced by non-college students and both ‘Living single and ‘In Livin Color’ had critics in the community.

      • It’s the same across Europe. We need to stand together and stop this. I do believe that with the demise of TV and more online programming being created, it then falls to us to put these characters back in front of the camera. We own our images, and one country cannot deny us that. Patience, they cannot stop the greatness and beauty of black women. CC

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