TV Shows, Pop Culture

TV shows would do much better if they listened to Black fandoms

Mainstream television still doesn’t directly cater to people of color. We’ll have to make it work with the media that’s currently offered to us.

The easiest way to figure out if you should dive into a new television show is to vigorously scroll the Twitter or Tumblr hashtag. Digital space has made it more convenient for us to consume copious amount of pop culture. One of the lures of watching serialized media is the nail biting anticipation, anxiety, yet hopefulness, that comes with the weekly wait for the story to unfold. It can also be one of the most daunting and nerve-racking experiences as a Black viewer.

[bctt tweet=”Check social media before you watch a new show” username=”wearethetempest”]

The television landscape has only gotten marginally more diverse in recent years. Despite the fact that we’re in ‘The Golden Age of Television,’ on average, most shows don’t reflect the cultural dynamic present in our society. It’s especially noticeable when it comes to the genres of fantasy, sci-fi and superhero fiction. One would assume that these genres would be the ultimate platform to challenge the status quo, show diversity and portray a more nuanced characterization of people of color.

There are several popular genre shows, think Sleepy Hollow, The 100, The Flash, The Walking Dead. Amidst the drama, what attracted viewers initially to the story? The answer was often diversity. Regardless of whether  the pilot showed glimmers of bad writing, trite stereotypes and the promise to travel the well-trodden path of tv-tropes, the idea that minority characters could have their own story arc was always better than nothing.

[bctt tweet=”Diversity draws viewers” username=”wearethetempest”]

Social media has made consumption easier for enthusiasts who want to dive deeper into the world of the creators. Whether it’s a way to create fanfiction, fan art, portmanteaus of their favorite characters, or to dive deeper into the intended meaning of the text, it has enabled like- minded people to connect. For Black fans, social media also offers space to have in-depth discussions about the treatment of the minority characters, and, if needed, to create a plan of attack if the minority character is sidelined or unfairly treated on the show.

The influence of online fandom has significantly grown over the last five years. Networks have seen the light when it comes to utilizing social media to attract and bind more viewers to their shows. The overnight ratings have less importance if the social media engagement and the word-of-mouth promotion is high. Thus, whether it’s the actors, writers’ room or the snarky unpaid intern, they all have to work hard to drum up the much-needed hype for the show.

[bctt tweet=”The influence of fandom has grown a lot” username=”wearethetempest”]

Online fandoms have become much more powerful than in the pre-internet era. This is especially noticeable for Black fans. Where you previously only had the option to write a long letter to the network to air your grievances (or show your love), or opt the even less successful option to ask questions during a fan convention, now, there’s opportunity for immediate contact with the creators of the source material. This enables fans to go directly to the source. Thus, whether it’s the bait and switch trope or the unfair treatment of characters, fans will speak out and it seemingly becomes harder for the network to ignore their voice.

This year, there have been various incidents where Black fans have made their voice known. The shining example is Fox’s fantasy show Sleepy Hollow. The show had a tried formula: the overarching mythos of Sleepy Hollow, an ‘army of evil,’ Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) as the reluctant character who works hard and suppresses her own demons and her partner, the snarky, knowledgeable yet flawed white British hero (Tom Mison) who fully believes in the mythology. The multi-racial supporting cast sealed the deal and lured fans to join the duo on their (un)believable journey.

In the second season Beharie’s role was diminished and the mediocre writing couldn’t hold the show together. The unrest in the fandom sparked #AbbieMillsDeservesBetter, where fans could vent their frustrations and ask the show writers for an explanation why Beharie has been pushed to the background in a show in which she’s a lead character. Initially, it seemed that the network heard the critique from the online fandom — well, and from critics. Alas, to no avail. Season 3 was just bad all around and Beharie’s character was killed off in the season finale.

While Sleepy Hollow fans couldn’t prevent the terrible arc of Lt. Abbie Mills, the energy, voting campaigns, and intelligent criticism certainly was an inspiration for other fandoms to further make their voice heard. Whether it was the dystopian CW show The 100, which squandered its promise in the first season when it became obvious that the characters of color wouldn’t get the same development as their white co-stars, and  unceremoniously shot a black character in the head in season 3 who sacrificed himself for his white love interest. Not only was his character arc troubled, but there were allegedly troubles behind the scenes, which led fans to create the hashtag #lincolndeservedbetter. Let’s not forget the dramatization of the comic The Flash, where the producers made Barry Allen’s love interest an African American woman, but struggled with her characterization and in tying her into the main storyline. Hence, the fans rallied together to show their love for their Iris via  #IrisWestDeservesBetter.

Why so important to speak out? After all, there are no guarantees that the hashtags, Tumblr posts, and voting campaigns would have any effect on the character’s arc or motto of the show.

Quite frankly, it’s not enough to absorb media without any criticism whatsoever. Sure, most of us watch TV to switch off from our hectic daily lives, or for the mere joyous feeling that crops up when you watch quality storytelling. It’s more than natural to look for an element of identity recognition in your favorite TV show. It’s a reality that you search for experiences and shows where you really identify with a character or you see a situation played out that is true and valid to your reality. However, it can be taxing when you see that people who look like you are unfairly treated, even in fictional worlds.

[bctt tweet=”It’s not enough to just absorb media and not criticize it” username=”wearethetempest”]

Images matter, and it will take a while before we can dismantle all the pernicious stereotypes and the dichotomy of representation. Sometimes, it’s just not enough to consume the prescribed media. Fans who analyze their favorite show are engaged and aware consumers.

[bctt tweet=”Images matter” username=”wearethetempest”]

Mainstream television still doesn’t directly cater to people of color. We’ll have to make it work with the media that’s currently offered to us. There’s no clear cut solution when it comes to diversity on television. All I know is that social media allows our voices to be heard and The Powers That Be will pay attention.

  • Laila Alawa

    Laila is The Tempest’s founder and CEO. Laila has given a TED Talk, appeared on BBC World News and NPR, and contributes on women’s issues and entrepreneurship to Forbes and The Guardian. She was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Media and’s inaugural The Cafe 100, and recognized by the White House. Before founding The Tempest, Laila worked at the White House and Congress, and was previously at Princeton University.

  • Giselle Defares is a writer covering law, technology, culture and identity. She wants to write an essay collection about identity and pop culture but worries that she will reach the point of semantic satiation when it’s finished.